Music has mysterious power to move us, the more so when paired with texts that speak of and to God’s truth. I’ve been having encounters with such a piece: Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah. I’m writing this two days after Chorus Niagara sang it in concert. That became for me a deeply devotional act. If you don’t already, I urge you to get to know Elijah – and experience it live, if possible.
Mendelssohn was born in Germany in 1809. He was ethnically Jewish, but his parents converted to Christianity and he and his siblings were baptized in a Reformed church in Berlin. Felix was somewhat reticent to talk publicly about his faith, but it’s clear that he claimed his parents’ faith as his own.
I first heard Elijah as a child. We had the musical score and as I grew more competent as a piano player (and singer), I made my way through it. That taught me both the music and texts, and embedded into my mind and heart Bible passages that I otherwise might have overlooked.
Mendelssohn’s friend Karl Klingemann wrote Elijah’s libretto. We get a fascinating glimpse from a Mendelssohn-Klingemann letter exchange into how the composer envisioned the oratorio and the prophet Elijah himself. He wanted Elijah to come off as “a real person.” And he said, “I figured to myself Elijah as a thorough prophet, such as we might again require in our own day – energetic and zealous, but also stern, wrathful, and gloomy; a striking contrast to the court rabble and popular rabble – in fact, in opposition to the whole world, and yet borne on angel’s wings. . . . I am glad to learn you are searching out the always heart-affecting sense of the Scriptural words. . .”
Two faithful servants
The oratorio begins with the stark announcement that God is sending a drought because of Israel’s idolatry. During the drought we hear exchanges between Elijah and Ahab. And we hear (and picture) Elijah raise from the dead the Widow of Zarephath’s son. The rains finally return at the end of Part 1: Elijah sends his young servant out to look for rain clouds. Finally, the rains come, in a dramatic chorus with pulsing, roiling orchestral accompaniment: “The waters gather, they rush along.” The choir, representing Israel, concludes exuberantly, “Thanks be to God who laveth a thirsty land!”
In Part 2 we get in on Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal. There are three “Baal choruses” (here the choir represents the pagan prophets), each more frenzied than the last, the third ending with the repeated phrase, “Hear and answer!” – each time the answer being silence. By contrast, Elijah’s prayer to God for fire from heaven is calm, quiet: “Let it be known that you are God.” The fire suddenly descends, the prophets of Baal are rounded up and slain, and Elijah (the bass soloist) sings a stunning aria that concludes the scene: “Is not His Word like a fire, like a hammer that breaketh a rock in pieces?” One can hear the metaphorical hammer blows.
Soon we see despondent Elijah go off alone, wishing to die. In a deeply moving aria he sings, “It is enough, now Lord please take away my life.” Elijah has a sinking melody that interweaves with a dark solo cello repeating it. Finally, we hear Elijah ascend “with fiery, fiery chariots” on a whirlwind to heaven. But the oratorio can’t end there. There are allusions to the One who will supersede Elijah, on whom will rest “the Spirit of wisdom, of understanding, of counsel and might, and of the fear of the LORD.” The oratorio's message culminates in a final choral fugue from Psalm 8: “Lord, our Creator, how excellent thy name is in all the nations! Amen.”
Mendelssohn was a child prodigy who lived a mere 38 years. He died just six months after conducting the first (immensely successful) performance of Elijah in Britain. But in God’s timeline, his work was complete. He clearly had “preached” the gospel through his music, a good and faithful servant to his Saviour.
For 170 years Elijah has been exciting music lovers, convicting sinners and comforting Christians. As Mendelssohn himself knew and experienced, “the Word of God is like a hammer that breaks the rock” – and that Word never returns to him empty (Isa. 55:11).
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