Elijah, Lobgesang, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Born: 3 February 1809, in Hamburg
Died: 4 November 1847, in Leipzig
Mendelssohn’s full name—Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy—is closely linked to his religious life and background. His great-grandfather, Menachem Mendel Dessau, was a poor Jewish scribe, but Menachem’s son Moses (1729–1786) became known throughout Europe as an Enlightenment philosopher famous for, among other things, a dialogue on the immortality of the soul, and he is generally thought to be the model for the protagonist of Lessing’s drama Nathan the Wise. Moses chose to write not as Moses ben Mendel (Hebrew for Moses, son of Mendel), but rather with the Germanic form of “son of Mendel,” Mendelssohn, in keeping with the move towards assimilation now underway for German Jewry. Felix and his siblings were baptized in 1816, a conversion that would greatly facilitate his career, at which point “Jakob Ludwig” was added to Felix. In 1822 Mendelssohn’s parents were themselves baptized, and the name Bartholdy was affixed to that of Mendelssohn (but not with a hyphen) to distinguish the Christian branch of the family from the Jewish one. Mendelssohn’s mother’s brother, Jakob Salomon, had been the first to use Bartholdy, the name of property owned by his family.
Mendelssohn’s father was a wealthy banker who moved his family to Berlin in 1811 when Hamburg was occupied by Napoleon’s soldiers. Privately educated in a highly cultured atmosphere (he was befriended by the septuagenarian Goethe at the age of 12), Mendelssohn had immense musical talent (he was also a skillful artist) that was recognized early on and encouraged, even though the life of a professional musician was not at that time considered truly suitable for one of his social class. Of his three siblings, he was especially close to his musically gifted sister Fanny, four years his elder, with whom he had a complex relationship owing in part to her own compositional activities (recent research strongly suggests that her copious output has been unjustly neglected).
In 1820 Mendelssohn joined the chorus of the Berlin Sing-Akademie (one of the best vocal groups in Europe) as an alto; the director was Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758–1832), who was also his composition teacher. His musical maturity was marked by the composition of his first masterpiece, the String Octet, in 1825 at the age of sixteen; this was followed the next year by the Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream (Ein Sommernachtstraum). No other musician—not even Mozart—produced works of the first rank at such an early age.
In March 1829, at the age of 20, Mendelssohn led the Sing-Akademie in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Although the Sing-Akademie had been founded in 1791 to promote sacred choral music, especially that of Bach, no complete performance of the Passion had taken place since Bach’s lifetime. Erroneously believed to mark the centennial of the work’s composition (we now know the Passion to date from 1727), the performance was an important milestone in the growing Bach revival.
After this triumph Mendelssohn embarked on a quasi-Grand Tour of Europe that was to take up most of the period 1829–1832, visiting England, Scotland, Wales, Austria, Italy, and France. His career as an international musical celebrity (common in today’s classical musical world, but relatively new during Mendelssohn’s lifetime) was launched in part by these travels, which inspired a number of his best-known compositions (Scottish Symphony, Italian Symphony, Hebrides Overture). He was particularly taken with England (1829 marked the first of ten visits), and England in turn embraced Mendelssohn and his music with enormous enthusiasm for the greater part of the nineteenth century. His influence on English musical life during this time is hard to overestimate.
By 1833 Mendelssohn was ready for a full-time musical position. Passed over in favor of a nonentity for the directorship of the Berlin Sing-Akademie, he accepted the position of Music Director for the city of Düsseldorf, where among other activities he conducted performances of Handel and Haydn oratorios and revived music by Palestrina and other early composers. Dissatisfaction with Düsseldorf led him to move to Leipzig in 1835, where he was conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra as well as municipal music director. The orchestra had been in existence since 1775 (the building that gave it its current name was constructed in 1781) but under Mendelssohn’s direction it achieved new heights. He expanded the repertoire, initiated a series of historical concerts, premiered various important works (including the freshly-discovered C Major Symphony of Schubert), and was one of the first to use that new-fangled item, the baton. He also worked to increase the financial security of the musicians.
In 1841 Mendelssohn began a professional association with Berlin and the court of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia that was to last until 1845; he continued work in Leipzig for some of this period, returning there for good in 1845. With Schumann he was a leading force in the establishment of the Leipzig Conservatory in 1843; here he taught composition, singing, and instruments. At the height of his career, in May 1847, he received a blow from which he never fully recovered, the death of his sister Fanny. Within half a year he too was dead, at the age of 38.
Elijah was written at a time when the oratorio was thriving in Germany. The influence of choral masterpieces of Handel and Bach was partly responsible for this, and of course Mendelssohn himself had helped the public to awareness of the latter Baroque master. Indeed, some of Elijah is modeled directly on Bach. The popularity of choral societies was also an impetus for this kind of writing.
Mendelssohn completed two oratorios during his short lifetime: St. Paul (Paulus in the original German version), on the New Testament figure (the topic of conversion was of course particularly relevant to the composer), and Elijah (Elias in German), about the Old Testament prophet and Christ-like figure (see especially Sposato on that aspect of the work). The success of St. Paul, which premiered in 1836, led Mendelssohn to start looking for another oratorio subject even before he completed the final revisions on his first oratorio. Yet it was another decade before Elijah came to fruition.
The libretto, largely based on 1 Kings, was first entrusted to Mendelssohn’s friend and former collaborator Karl Klingemann. The composer specifically requested that the text include “thick, full, powerful choruses.” By coincidence, at just this time Mendelssohn received an unsolicited libretto on the subject of Elijah from the Reverend James Barry, a complete stranger. Mendelssohn did not use this, but Klingemann did not come through with text himself, so the composer turned to his St. Paul librettist, Julius Schubring. Schubring and Mendelssohn differed, though, on the emphasis of the text. Mendelssohn specifically wanted something dramatic, while Schubring was inclined to stress the religious aspects of the subject. Schubring withdrew before he finished, and the work lay fallow for many years.
In the summer of 1845 Mendelssohn received a commission for a work to be performed at the triennial Birmingham Music Festival in August of the following year. Elijah was now back in the picture. This time Mendelssohn himself completed the libretto, with input from Schubring, coming up with a text that, interestingly, lacks the narrator frequently used in oratorios and passions. Mendelssohn composed as he went along rather than waiting for the entire libretto to be finished; the soprano role was written with the voice of his close friend Jenny Lind in mind. The original German text, to which the music was set, was translated into English by William Bartholomew. Mendelssohn then polished Bartholomew’s translation.
The work premiered on the morning of August 26, 1846, after having been completed a mere eleven days previously. An orchestra of 125 was joined by a chorus of 271, consisting of 79 sopranos, 60 male altos (!), 60 tenors, and 72 basses. Mendelssohn conducted, and with Elijah he received what was probably the greatest reception of his entire life. Eight separate sections were encored, including “He watching over Israel” (see Edwards, 83, for a list of the pieces that were repeated). Within a year the work had been sung as far away as St. Petersburg and New York City. Birmingham performed the oratorio at every succeeding festival until World War I. Choruses and audiences still love and admire the work today.
A top-flight ensemble like the Tanglewood Festival Chorus can ready the piece for performance in a matter of weeks, but this is in part owing to the fact that a seasoned orchestral choral singer has usually encountered the piece long before, typically as an undergraduate. That is perhaps the best way to learn the work, with the choruses slowly taking shape over a semester’s time, gradually filtering into one’s musical consciousness until they are committed to memory. With the choral parts all set, what a magical moment it is then with the first orchestral rehearsal! For Elijah has one of the most amazing openings in the literature. Hushed d minor triads in the orchestra lead to the solemn proclamation by Elijah: “As God the Lord of Israel liveth, before whom I stand: There shall not be dew nor rain these years, there shall not be dew nor rain, but according to my word.” Only after this truly awful (and awe-inspiring) pronouncement does the overture proper begin (having the overture second was the brilliant inspiration of Bartholomew). The overture, which represents the years of famine, builds and builds until it explodes directly into the opening chorus “Help, Lord.” And from then on it's one spectacular number after another.
My wonderful undergraduate chorus at Penn State sang all concerts from memory, and our chapel choir frequently sang “Cast thy burden upon the Lord” by heart standing outside Recital Hall after our non-denominational Sunday morning service (or was it before the service? If anyone who was there is reading this, please contact me and nudge my memory!) Concentus sings two excerpts from this glorious oratorio. The first is the beautiful unaccompanied trio for SSA treble voices, “Lift thine eyes.” Curiously, this was a duet for soprano and contralto soloists at the first Birmingham performance; only during Mendelssohn’s fairly extensive revisions did it assume its final form. He was always insistent, though, that it be followed attacca with “He watching over Israel,” which Concentus performs in an SSA arrangement by Carl Deis (a rather frustrating arrangement for altos, as we see many of our best lines handed off to the second sopranos). “Lift thine eyes,” incidentally, was encored in a performance of the oratorio before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in April 1847—and encores were simply not done before the Queen!
Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2 in Bb Major, Op. 52, “Lobgesang,” received its premiere in Leipzig in June 1840, with the revised version making its appearance in November of the same year. It was a hit from the start. At a performance in Birmingham in September 1840 the audience spontaneously rose to its feet (shades of Hallelujah Chorus!) at “Nun danket alle Gott” (“Let all men praise the Lord” in our English translation). Following a command performance for Saxon King Frederick Augustus II the following December, the King made his way to the podium to thank Mendelssohn and the performers, something simply not done in court protocol. Frederick Augustus eventually made Mendelssohn his “Saxon Kapellmeister” in response to the composer’s gift of the piano/vocal score. An 1842 performance in Lausanne followed the favorite nineteenth-century practice of massed performers by employing 706 musicians (mostly chorus, of course). It was one of Mendelssohn’s most popular pieces during his lifetime.
Contemporary enthusiasm has given way to a more measured response, but it is still deliciously Mendelssohnian and a good sing. Writers tend to get all twisted up over just what it is: is it a symphony? Is it a cantata? Is it a hybrid, the Prius of nineteenth-century symphonic works? (more vocal mileage per singer, with built-in coasting ability?).
It is certainly not the second symphony that Mendelssohn wrote. As far as full-fledged symphonies go, it was actually his fourth, preceded by No. 1, then No. 5 (“Reformation), then No. 4 (“Italian”), and followed by No. 3 (“Scottish”). And this doesn’t count the dozen-odd string symphonies (quite pleasant works) that he wrote as a teenager, or stray lost and incomplete symphonic ventures.
Works with programmatic themes or concepts were of course extremely popular in the nineteenth century, and Lobgesang is bit more than just a generic “song of praise” based on biblical texts, mostly from the Psalms. The occasion for its premiere was a three-day Gutenberg festival in Leipzig, honoring not just the iconic printer but also print’s use in spreading knowledge and its role in the Protestant Reformation. Lobgesang does its own celebration of the triumph of light over darkness, and throws in a favorite Lutheran chorale as well (No. 8).
The parallels to Beethoven’s Ninth are obvious, and numerous writers have enjoyed comparing the two, to Mendelssohn’s detriment. (Really, though, why? This is a pointless exercise). Yes, both works “begin” with symphonic writing and “end” with participation of the chorus, but the proportions are wildly different. Mendelssohn first indicated that he would be writing either a substantial psalm setting or a small oratorio for the festival, but he labelled his final work—at first—a symphony. His subtitle “Symphonie-Kantate” came only later.
The work was written in German, of course, but the movements are given below in their English equivalents from the G. Schirmer piano/vocal score. The work opens with an extended orchestral movement whose three major sections provide parallels with the standard sonata cycle structure of the day typically used for symphonies. The slow introduction (Maestoso con moto) gives way to an Allegro (= the first “movement”). The Allegretto section serves the function of the minuet/trio movement, and the concluding Andante religioso is the slow “movement.” The orchestra foreshadows almost all of the important keys to appear in the vocal sections of the work: Bb, G major and minor, D. In the “cantata” they are employed in a symbolic manner, first descending (Bb through G minor and Eb to D) and then triumphantly ascending. Numerous themes that will later be given words thread through the orchestra as well. The multi-section “cantata” part of the composition equals the last “movement” of the symphony. The text “all that has life and breath,” which appears at both the end of the opening chorus and the end of the whole composition, is the last line of that favorite psalm of musicians, No. 150.
1. All Men, All Things
2. Praise Thou the Lord
Soprano Solo and Chorus
3. Sing Ye Praise
Tenor Solo (added in revision)
4. All Ye That Cried Unto the Lord
5. I Waited for the Lord
Soprano I and II Duet and Chorus
6. The Sorrows of Death
Tenor Solo (added in revision)
7. The Night is Departing
8. Let All Men Praise the Lord
Chorale “Nun danket alle Gott”
9. My Song Shall Be Alway Thy Mercy
Soprano/Tenor Duet (added in revision)
10. Ye Nations, Offer to the Lord
Mendelssohn knew and loved Shakespeare’s play from childhood, and the translator who made the work famous in Germany, August Wilhelm von Schlegel, was related to his family by marriage. The music comes in two separate parts: the Overture (Op. 21, from 1826), and the remaining incidental music (Op. 61, from 1842/43). The Overture, though inspired by Shakespeare’s play, was originally intended to stand alone and is a brilliant example of the then-new genre of programmatic concert overture. The later incidental music was one of Mendelssohn’s works for the King of Prussia, written for a performance of the play on October 14, 1843 that was directed by Ludwig Tieck, himself an important Shakespeare translator. Despite the large gap in time separating the two stages of composition, the overall spirit remains the same, and Mendelssohn even borrowed bits and pieces from the Overture, including the famous chords from its opening, to sprinkle throughout the new numbers. The music was a success from the start, and for more than a century was the standard adjunct to performances of the play in Germany (although the ophicleide stipulated by Mendelssohn was eventually replaced by a tuba). The Overture, Scherzo, and Notturno all have an independent existence on concert programs, and the Wedding March is one of the best-known classical works of all time. This last-named was apparently first used outside concert circles at the wedding of the English Princess Royal in 1858 (Queen Victoria and her family were huge Mendelssohn fans). As an aside, we should note that “Here comes the bride,” with which the Wedding March is frequently paired, comes from Wagner’s Lohengri, where the couple being married start quarreling as soon as they are alone (the bride has the temerity to ask the groom what his name is), they fail to consummate the union, he soon deserts her and she dies immediately thereafter. One can only hope that modern couples chosing this processional are unaware of its origins.
Layout of the Music within the Play (musical items given in bold)
ACT I (no music)
Scene 1 introduces the main human characters and the dilemma. Theseus, King of Athens, is to wed Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Lysander and Hermia are in love, but Hermia’s father Egeus wants her to marry Demetrius, who also loves Hermia but used to love Helena, who still loves him. Lysander and Hermia plan to meet in the woods outside Athens and elope; they tell Helena of their plan and she decides to tell Demetrius.
Scene 2 introduces workmen of Athens (including Bottom, a weaver) who are preparing a play to perform after the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. They plan to meet in the woods to rehearse.
2. [Dialogue and March of the Elves]
Music and text are interspersed through Scene 1, where we learn that Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies, are at odds over a young boy who is a member of Titania’s train whom Oberon wants in his entourage, and Scene 2, where Oberon instructs the fairy Puck (Robin Goodfellow) to fetch him the flower love-in-idlenesss, whose juice, sprinkled on the eyes of a sleeper, makes the sleeper fall in love with the first living creature seen upon awakening. Oberon has also overheard Demetrius and Helena, and instructs Puck to sprinkle some juice on the Athenian man’s eyes when he is sleeping).
3. Song with Chorus
This is for the beginning of Scene 3, where Titania and her train enter and the fairies sing the following song (for the 2 soloists and women’s chorus) as Titania falls asleep. The following text is Shakespeare’s original.
Music and text interspersed for the remainder of Act II, where Oberon puts the flower’s juice on Titania’s eyes (so much for the protective powers of the preceding song), Lysander and Helena enter the woods and, tired, lie down to sleep a modest distance from each other, Puck assumes Lysander is the Athenian man he is looking for and puts the flower’s juice on his eyes, and Helena enters and awakens Lysander, who immediately falls in love with her.
A musical bridge between the acts, where Hermia wanders the woods looking for Lysander and the tradesmen from Athens arrive for their rehearsal.
Text and music interspersed for this act, in which the rehearsal breaks up after Puck gives Bottom an ass’s head, Titania awakes and falls in love with Bottom, Oberon puts the flower’s juice on the sleeping Demetrius’s eyes (having learned of Puck’s mistake with Lysander), Demetrius falls in love with Helena, who thinks that Lysander, Demetrius, and Hermia are all pretending and in league against her, and the four young Athenians all fall asleep again.
A musical bridge between the acts.
Music and text interspersed for the act, in which Oberon, having acquired the young boy from Titania, releases her from the spell and arranges to release Lysander as well so that he will revert to loving Hermia. Theseus, Hippolyta, and Egeus encounter the young people in the woods and all leave for Athens.
9. Wedding March
A musical bridge between the acts, during which the weddings of Theseus & Hippolyta, Lysander & Hermia, and Demetrius & Helena occur.
10. [Dialogue] and Funeral March
Music and text interspersed for the first part of Scene 1, in which the actors present the play of Pyramus and Thisbe for the newlyweds (the Funeral March is for the death of Thisbe).
11. A Dance of Clowns
The end of Scene 1, in which Theseus calls for a dance and then bids all “Lovers, to bed.”
12. [Scene and Dialogue]
The couples leave to the strains of the wedding march, and then Puck enters to the fairy music from the overture, after which he opens Scene 2.
Oberon and Titania, reconciled, call for a song and dance to end the play. The women’s chorus echoes Oberon’s words (the soloist repeats Titania’s, and the chorus gets the last line of hers as well). The text given here is Shakespeare’s original.
Oberon then pronounces a blessing for the newly-married couples; the chorus echoes his final words:
Make no stay:
Meet me all by break of day.
and Puck bids all goodnight over the closing chords, the same that opened the overture.
The recent Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy: A Guide to Research (Routledge, 2001) by John Michael Cooper lists almost 1000 items, so Mendelssohn has scarcely been ignored by writers on music. But much of this writing is deeply flawed; one can find unquestioned adulation coupled with riffs on his seemingly charmed life (Felix is Latin for “happy”), deep anti-semitism (his music was banned by the Nazis), and much deriding him as a second-rate composer, a near-miss with genius, blamed for not following Beethoven’s model. Obviously none of these avenues is particularly fruitful to follow, and fortunately most recent work on the composer avoids these views. Up-to-date biographies include R. Larry Todd's Mendelssohn: A Life in Music (Oxford University Press, 2003), Clive Brown's A Portrait of Mendelssohn (Yale University Press, 2003), and Peter Mercer-Taylor’s The Life of Mendelssohn (Cambridge University Press, 2000).
Recent collections of essays include The Cambridge Companion to Mendelssohn (Cambridge University Press, 2004, edited by Peter Mercer-Taylor), The Mendelssohn Companion (Greenwood Press, 2001, edited by Douglass Seaton), Mendelssohn Studies (Cambridge University Press, 1992, edited by R. Larry Todd), and Mendelssohn and His World (Princeton University Press, 1991, edited by R. Larry Todd). Mendelssohn Remembered by Roger Nichols (Faber and Faber, 1997) gathers comments on Mendelssohn by those who knew him (and since he was the leading German musician of his day, that was pretty much everyone who was important). Coverage of Elijah is found in very diverse sources, from The Price of Assimilation: Felix Mendelssohn and the Nineteenth-Century Anti-Semitic Tradition by Jeffrey S. Sposato (Oxford University Press, 2006) to The History of Mendelssohn's Oratorio 'Elijah' by F.G. Edwards (Novello, 1896). The copy of the latter in the University of Rochester library is inscribed “Presented to Miss Hartland in appreciation of her regular & punctual attendance at the New Philharmonic Society's practices, during the years 1908 & 1909.” It is charming that the director (who gave the book to Miss Hartland) thought a book on Elijah would be appreciated by the recipient. This book contains a wonderful full-size facsimile of a letter in fluent English from Mendelssohn to his translator William Bartholomew, interspersed with musical excerpts showing his preferences for translation and underlay.
As usual, there is no book treating his choral music overall.
(those who subscribe to the “Life is short; eat dessert first” philosophy might wish to start with the pieces marked by an asterisk)
- St. Paul
- Die erste Walpurgisnacht
- Lauda Sion
- Hear my prayer
- 3 Motets, Op. 69
- Psalms 115, 42, 95, 114, 98
- Te Deum
- Symphony #2 (Lobgesang); uses chorus!
- *Symphony #3 (Scottish)
- *Symphony #4 (Italian)
- Symphony #5 (Reformation)
note: these numbers reflect the order of publication, not composition; they were composed in the order 5, 4, 2, 3.
- *Hebrides Overture (also known as Fingal’s Cave Overture)
- Overture “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage” (Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt)
- Ruy Blas Overture
- *Violin Concerto in em
- Piano Concerto #1 in gm (sharing the program with MND in February)
- Capriccio brillant in bm for piano and orchestra
- Rondo brillant in Eb for piano and orchestra
- *Octet, Op. 20
- String Qt. #1 in Eb, Op. 12
- String Qt. #3 in D, Op. 44 #1
- String Qt. #4 in em, Op. 44 #2
- String Qt. #5 in Eb, Op. 44 #3
- String Qt. #6 in fm, Op. 80
- String Quintet #2 in Bb, Op. 87
- Piano Trio #1 in dm, Op. 49
- Piano Trio #2 in cm, Op. 66
- Piano Qt. #3 in bm, Op. 3
- Cello Sonata #2 in D, Op. 58
- Variations sérieuses, Op. 54
- Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words), 8 volumes
- (Opp. 19, 30, 38, 53, 62, 67, 85, 102)
- Fantasia in f# minor, Op. 28
- 6 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 35
- Rondo capriccioso in EM, Op. 14
Songs and Duets
- Auf Flügeln des Gesanges, Op. 34 #2
- Gruss, Op. 19a #5
- Ich wollt’, meine Liebe, ergösse sich, Op. 63 #1
- Jagdlied, Op. 84 #3
- Morgengruss, Op. 47 #2
- Nachtlied, Op. 71 #6
- O Jugend, Op. 57 #4
- Schilflied, Op. 71 #4
- Sonntagsmorgen, Op. 77 #1
- Wasserfahrt (Drei Volkslieder #3)
Stuff You Probably Already Know
- The melody for the Christmas carol “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” was adapted from Mendelssohn’s Festgesang, written in 1840 for the presumed 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s printing press (another misdated revival!) Two other adaptations from Mendelssohn show up in hymnbooks: “O Word of God Incarnate” often uses a harmonization derived from the “Cast thy Burden upon the Lord” chorus of Elijah, while “Now thank we all our God” sometimes employs a setting drawn from the composer’s Lobgesang Symphony.
Revised, December 2015