Composer Felix Mendelssohn was also a skilled graphic artist who painted landscapes in watercolor and oils. In 1829, while touring with his sketchbook through Scotland’s Hebrides archipelago, he visited the isle of Staffa and became awestruck by the organ-like purl of waves over rocks at a place called Fingal’s Cave, which he would later describe as a “vast cathedral of the seas” bristling with basalt pillars. The resultant Hebrides Overture is a striking example of Mendelssohn’s ability to transport listeners to faraway locales, as is his oratorio Elijah, a tale of sanctity, scarcity, and struggle set in the deserts east of the Mediterranean during the ninth century B.C. Elijah will be performed by the UMS Choral Union and the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra with Connecticut’s Elm City Girls’ Choir on February 14 at Hill Auditorium.
Influenced by Handel’s Israel in Egypt and the Passions of J.S. Bach, Elijah is Mendelssohn’s mosaic of wisdom and lore from the Old and New Testaments, combining episodes from Kings I and II with verses from numerous other books including Psalms and Ecclesiastes. A devout Christian, Felix was the creative embodiment of grandfather Moses Mendelssohn’s hard-won ideal of European Jewish emancipation and assimilation. Elijah himself is a complex figure. A beloved prophet of the Jewish people, he is honored in the Koran, was made a saint by the Eastern Orthodox Church, and is generally regarded by Christians as a precursor to Christ. Elijah’s resurrection of a deceased child is the first such reference in the Bible.
At its gentlest, Mendelssohn’s Elijah is profoundly beatific, with angelic choral harmonies and exquisite solo voices tenderly expressing the heights and depths of spiritual devotion. These moments contrast dramatically with instrumental evocations of the awesome powers of nature. After the land is disrupted by gales, torrents, earthquakes, and wildfires, Yahweh is revealed to his prophet as subtle and soft-spoken. Yet this oratorio also contains a controversial depiction of violence fomented by religious intolerance.
Modern biblical scholarship suggests that apart from his role as a holy man who counseled his people to trust their god and pray for rain during a prolonged and devastating drought, some of the legends associated with Elijah were deliberately constructed to legitimize the Jehu Dynasty’s bloody overthrow of the Omrides and “shore up its power during times of political and military weakness.” Perhaps that is why the otherwise compassionate Elijah is depicted as a raging monotheistic zealot who orders and oversees the massacre of no fewer than 450 prophets of a rival deity. Mendelssohn, considering all scripture to be sacred, diligently included this scene, which may strike some listeners as problematic. Finally, after a vortex elevates the prophet to heaven in a flaming chariot, the remainder of the work takes on an increasingly Christian aspect in alignment with Mendelssohn’s earlier and more rarely performed oratorio, St. Paul.