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At the time of its first performances in 1846, Elijah was hailed as one of the great oratorios, alongside Handel’s Messiah. It tells the story of the prophet with imposing grandeur, inspirational orchestration and beautiful arias, recitatives and choruses. This mighty piece requires mighty orchestral and choir forces and Gabrieli singers are reinforced with talented young singers from the Gabrieli Young Singers’ Scheme and the Wrocław Philharmonic Choir. This recording sees over 440 musicians taking part, including 92 string players and over 300 singers.
This new recording was made following an acclaimed performance at the 2011 BBC Proms.
In 1799, Joseph Moore, a local solicitor, became festival director, and it was during his inspired leadership that Mendelssohn was persuaded to come to Birmingham. He was no stranger to England, having first visited London in 1829. Moore invited him to the 1837 and 1840 Birmingham festivals as pianist, organist and composer. The remarkable celebrity status he soon achieved (and the downturn in receipts for the 1843 festival, from which he was absent) made him the obvious choice as resident conductor for the 1846 festival and he was commissioned to write a new oratorio for the occasion. In the event, Mendelssohn wasn’t well enough to conduct the whole festival but he agreed to compose and conduct Elijah.
Mendelssohn had begun to plan a major choral work based on an Old Testament subject as early as 1837. He had extensive discussions with his close friend, Karl Klingemann, but although they remained on good terms, Klingemann eventually declined to write a libretto. In due course, the Birmingham commission stimulated Mendelssohn to return to the project and Julius Schubring was persuaded to undertake the task of writing a libretto, in German.
Mendelssohn’s correspondence with Joseph Moore indicates how difficult he was finding the commission, even suggesting, only four months before the festival, that another of his completed works, Athalie, should be performed instead. One can only conjecture at the relief of the festival commitee when they received Mendelssohn’s letter of 8 May 1846:
I intend to send the whole of the first part of my oratorio in the course of the next fortnight. It is by far the greater part of the two; the choruses from the second part will be in England towards the beginning of July, and the rest of the whole by the middle of that month. All this, Deo volente.”
Much though remained to be done. The German libretto required translation which, at Mendelssohn’s request, was commissioned from William Bartholomew in London, following past successful collaborations. The chorus-parts needed to be engraved and printed before the chorus could be trained in time for the performance on 26 August. In fact, Mendelssohn was still making changes and revising both score and parts (using a system of colour-coding) as late as the London rehearsals the week before the premiere. The correspondence between Mendelssohn and Bartholomew during the translation process is revealing. Conducted entirely in English, it shows Mendelssohn’s impressive grasp of the language and the meticulous interest he showed in the translation, not only in matters of word accentuation but also in respect of the need to translate the libretto’s Lutheran phraseology into that of the Anglican King James Bible. The partnership between Mendelssohn and Bartholomew was very much one of true equals; Mendelssohn frequently suggested textual amendments and in turn accepted many of Bartholomew’s musical revisions where it better served the English language. Indeed, the overture itself, lacking in the original plan, was written at Bartholomew’s instigation.
It was usual for the Birmingham Festival to attract some of the finest singers from both the UK and continental Europe. Typically a dozen or so singers were engaged for each festival, and the solo roles shared amongst them. Mendelssohn was particularly concerned about the part of Elijah and wrote to Joseph Moore on 8 May 1846: 'The most essential condition for my Oratorio is a most excellent barytone-singer—a man like Pischek, or Staudigl, or Oberhofer.' The festival committee secured the services of Joseph Staudigl, who proved a towering success. The soprano part was originally intended for the famed ‘Swedish nightingale’ Jenny Lind, although in the event she was unable to appear and only sang the role after Mendelssohn’s death. In the first performance the part was sung by Maria Caradori-Allan; Mendelssohn’s evident irritation, expressed in a letter to a friend, tells us much about his vocal ideals: '… the worst was the soprano part … all so pretty, so pleasing, so elegant, at the same time, so flat, so heartless, so unintelligent, so soulless, that the music acquired the sort of amiable expression about which I could go mad even today when I think of it.' The other parts were better served; the contralto was sung by Maria Hawes, whose rendition of ‘O rest in the Lord’ so touched Mendelssohn that he abandoned plans to cut the number. Likewise, Mendelssohn lavished great praise on the young tenor Charles Lockey, saying in a letter to his brother that he 'sang the last air so beautifully, that I was obliged to collect all my energies so as not to be affected, and to continue beating time steadily'.
By 1846, Mendelssohn had become the ‘darling’ of the Birmingham Festival and his appearance was greatly anticipated. According to the London Times reporter, the morning of the performance was a bright, clear day, with throngs of concert-goers arriving at Birmingham Town Hall in their various forms of horse-drawn transport, following the one-way system and observing the strict procedures for set-down prescribed by the Triennial Festival Committee. From early morning, New Street, from the Hen and Chickens Hotel at the Bull Ring end to the Town Hall, was thronged with onlookers. The audience also arrived early and the chorus and orchestra were in their places well before Mendelssohn took his place on the rostrum at 11.30am. The performance of Elijah was to last over two and a half hours—eight movements were encored during the performance—and there followed a short interval and a selection of other items lasting a further half hour. A total of 400 performers and an audience of 2000 were in their places for more than three and a half hours, in an auditorium with only one small privy!
Both the performance and reception delighted Mendelssohn, but as so often was the case, he felt the need to make further changes. When writing to his London publisher, Mendelssohn described his constant need to change and adjust his compositions as ‘a dreadful disease’ from which he suffered chronically and severely. For the edition to be published the following year, he made a multitude of small amendments to instrumentation, harmony and part-writing; he also undertook more substantial reworkings, including revisions to the libretto, where he felt he could do better justice to the structure. Perhaps the most remarkable revision to the score is in the final section of the work, where the celebration of Elijah as a prophet of the Messiah is substantially elaborated. One notable casualty from Mendelssohn’s editing process was the delightful duet, ‘Lift thine eyes’, for solo soprano and contralto with string and woodwind accompaniment. Chorley, the music critic of the Athenaeum related the story that Mendelssohn, after the performance, said to him in his merriest manner, 'Come, and I will show you the prettiest walk in Birmingham'. Mendelssohn then led Chorley and other friends to the banks of the canal, at Gas Street Basin. There, on the tow-path between the bridges, they walked for more than an hour discussing the new oratorio. According to another member of the group—Mr Moore—it was there and then, amidst the scenery of the coal and cinder heaps, that a sudden thought struck Mendelssohn to change the duet into the now famous trio.
For all Mendelssohn’s desire to make further artistic improvements, it is hard to underestimate the success of the first performance of Elijah. It was clearly one of the great days in Mendelssohn’s life, as he expressed in a letter to Frau Livia Frege dated 31 August 1846:
The rich, full sounds of the orchestra and the huge organ, combined with the powerful voices of the chorus, who sang with sincere enthusiasm; the wonderful resonance in the huge grand hall, an admirable English tenor; Staudigl too, who took all possible pains and whose talents and powers you already well know, some very good second soprano and contralto solo singers; all executing the music with special zest and the upmost fire and spirit doing justice not only to the loudest passages, but also to the softest pianos in a manner which I never before heard from such masses; and, in addition, an impressionable kindly hushed and enthusiastic audience—now still as mice, now exultant—all this is indeed sufficient good fortune for a first performance. In fact, I never in my life heard a better, or I may say one as good; and I almost doubt whether I shall ever again hear one equal to it, because there were so many favourable combinations on this occasion.
Derek Acock © 2012
We have taken certain decisions based largely on the Birmingham performance, replicating both the size of the orchestra (a very large string ensemble with doubled woodwind, trumpets, drums and ophicleides, but single horns and trombones) and a chorus of around 300. (We have however eschewed the dubious luxury of 60 plus ‘bearded altos’, to use Mendelssohn’s own description!) The London musicians—about two thirds of the string band and single wind players—rehearsed in the capital with the soloists before travelling to rehearsals with the chorus and local musicians in Birmingham. This probably suggests a solo/ripieno division of orchestral forces between the arias and the choruses, which is employed here.
This great period of industrial innovation clearly had its effect on the 19th-century orchestra. The trumpeters play an adapted form of English slide trumpet, as developed by Thomas Harper, who played alongside his son in the first performance. It allows for occasional chromatic notes but is still fundamentally a natural trumpet, as indeed are Mendelssohn’s trumpet parts. Two ophicleides underpin the brass section, in place of the later tuba, and they are augmented by a real curiosity—a contrabass or ‘monstre’ ophicleide; this extraordinary instrument was purchased by the Birmingham Festival in the 1830s, and was played by a well-known French virtuoso, Monsieur Prospère. There is apparently only one similar instrument remaining in the world in playable condition, and for this recording it was kindly provided by Ron Johnson of Albany, NY, to whom we are especially grateful. We have also added serpents to the choral bass line, as seems to have been a tradition—sometimes derided—of the Sacred Harmonic Society until very late in the 19th century. Conversely, the drums included the large set of ‘Tower drums’, quite possibly the same instruments Handel had used some hundred years earlier. The enormous size of these drums suggests that they were probably tuned to a lower octave whenever possible, creating a quite spectacular effect. Clearly the Victorians were particularly attracted to big bass instruments; the Sacred Harmonic Society’s posters frequently advertise ‘500-700 performers including 16 double basses’. At Birmingham the magnificent organ was designed to support large choirs. Mendelssohn himself advised on revisions to the instrument, which had the first full 32-foot speaking stop on an English organ, mounted at the very front of the instrument for greatest acoustic—and visual—impression.
It is extraordinary how Elijah—by far the most popular oratorio of the 19th century—fell from grace in the 20th century. In recreating this huge Victorian event the aim is not to indulge in historical fantasy but to try and re-discover the power of this extraordinary work and why it inspired a whole generation.
This recording, the second in a series of recordings of major oratorios, continues the collaboration between Wratislavia Cantans, the National Forum of Music and Gabrieli Consort & Players. I am particularly indebted to Andrzej Kosendiak, General Director of Wratislavia Cantans, and the Mayor of the City of Wrocław, Rafał Dutkiewicz; without the ongoing support of these two enlightened men and the financial commitment that they have made to this series, it would not be possible to record this wonderful repertoire. I am most grateful to the BBC Proms for presenting a live performance of Elijah at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the 2011 season.
Additionally, I would like to thank those who have supported both the recording and the Gabrieli Young Singers Scheme, especially Richard Brown, Jan Louis Burggraaf, John Cryan, Sir Vernon and Lady Ellis, Alan Gemes, Ron Haylock, Patrick and Valerie McCreesh. Finally, I am grateful to a number of scholars who have assisted my research, most notably Derek Acock and Rachel Milestone.
Paul McCreesh © 2012