Last semester I had the amazing opportunity to sing in the chorus of Mendelssohn’s masterpiece oratorio Elijah. In this magnificent choral-orchestral work, Mendelssohn captures the drama of the Old Testament story of the prophet Elijah. It struck me during the final rehearsals leading up to the performance just how awe-inspiring the composition is. There is intense drama from the very beginning, where Elijah prophesies a curse (drought and famine) upon the land. The scene involving baal worshippers pleading to their god to send rain builds with intensity as the crowd gets more and more anxious that their god is not responding. Elijah taunts them, and after their failed attempts, Elijah calls upon the Lord God of Israel. With an ingenious compositional trick, Mendelssohn alters the descending tritone (used earlier to signify the curse) to become a perfect fourth, and lo and behold the curse is lifted. A friend commented after the performance, saying just how amazing it is that hundreds of people gather on a typical monday night in a concert hall to hear to a group of musicians produce and experience such a un-typical holy, and other-worldly piece of art. It was truly a liminal experience.
As the story is taken directly from the history books of 1st and 2nd Kings in the Hebrew Bible, it is perfectly suited for use in church. Anyone who has sung in a church choir will recognize some of the movements which are often excerpted as church anthems. I hope the church can re-discover the magnificence of these large scale works of art holistically. Within the context of a 2h30m work with all its highs and lows, the pleas of the baal worshippers are all the more desperate, and the anthem “Thanks be to God” is all the more powerful. I also hope that the church will begin to support the production of these large scale classic works and even the composition of new ones.
Our concert was in April 2011 in symphony hall, with four fantastic soloists from BU’s school of music, and of course, our amazing teacher and conductor Ann Howard Jones. A wonderful experience! Thanks to all the friends that came out to share it with us.