Elijah (oratorio)

Elijah is an oratorio written by Felix Mendelssohn in 1846 for the Birmingham Festival. It depicts various events in the life of the Biblical prophet Elijah, taken from the books 1 Kings and 2 Kings in the Old Testament.

The music and its style

This piece was composed in homage to Mendelssohn's Baroque predecessors Bach and Handel, whose music he loved. In 1829, Mendelssohn organized the first performance of Bach's Saint Matthew Passion since the composer's death, and was instrumental in bringing Bach's works to widespread popularity. In contrast, Handel's oratorios never went out of fashion. Elijah is modeled on the oratorios by these two Baroque masters; however, the style clearly reflects Mendelssohn's own natural tendencies as an early Romantic composer.

The work is scored for four vocal soloists (bass/baritone, tenor, alto, soprano), a full symphony orchestra (including trombones, ophicleide, and an organ), and a large chorus singing usually in four, but occasionally eight or three (women only) parts. The part of Elijah is sung by the bass/baritone and is a major role.

Mendelssohn originally composed the work to a German text, but upon being commissioned by the Birmingham Festival to write an oratorio, he had the libretto translated into English, and the oratorio was premiered in the English version.

The Biblical narrative

For the Biblical background to the oratorio, see the article Elijah. Mendelssohn uses these Biblical episodes, which in the original are narrated in rather laconic form, to produce intensely – almost luridly – dramatic scenes. These were doubtless well fitted to the taste of Mendelssohn's time, and a Victorian sentimentality also seems detectable in places. Among the episodes are the resurrection of a dead youth, the bringing of rain to parched Israel through Elijah's prayers, and the bodily assumption of Elijah on a fiery chariot into heaven. Perhaps the most dramatic episode is the "contest of the gods", in which Jehovah consumes an offered sacrifice in a column of fire, after a failed sequence of frantic prayers by the Hebrew people to their favored god Baal. Mendelssohn did not shrink from portraying the episode in its full Old Testament harshness, as the prophets of Baal are afterward taken away and slaughtered.

It is not known how Mendelssohn's own view of the Biblical text is related to his personal history as a converted Jew (he became a Lutheran at age seven); though certainly many scholars have speculated on this issue. The final section of the oratorio draws parallels between the lives of Elijah and Jesus.


Elijah was popular at its premiere and has been frequently performed, particularly in English-speaking countries, ever since. It is a particular favorite of amateur choral societies. Its melodrama, easy appeal, and stirring choruses have provided the basis for countless successful performances.

A number of critics, however, including Bernard Shaw and Richard Wagner, have treated the work harshly, emphasizing its conventional outlook and undaring musical style. (Wagner's opinion must be interpreted in light of that composer's extreme anti-Semitism; see Richard Wagner for details.)

Charles Rosen praises the work in general – "Mendelssohn's craft easily surmounted most of the demands of the oratorio, and [his oratorios, which also include St. Paul] are the most impressive examples of that form in the nineteenth century." However, Rosen additionally has characterized Mendelssohn as "the inventor of religious kitsch in music". In Rosen's view, Mendelssohn's religious music "is designed to make us feel that the concert hall has been transformed into a church. The music expresses not religion but piety ... This is kitsch insofar as it substitutes for religion itself the emotional shell of religion."

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