← Back to main site


21.4.2016 Feed


Judaism unites with Christianity in Elijah

Each season the FRSO performs one large-scale choral work. How did you arrive this time at Mendelssohn’s Elijah?

It was the Savonlinna Opera Festival’s Artistic Director Jorma Silvasti who suggested it. I’m very pleased we’ve had a chance to do it with precisely the Savonlinna Opera Festival Choir. Elijah is a long work requiring a vast battery of performers, and in this respect there is none better than an opera choir. The choir has a big role, and extreme dynamic effects are required of it. The orchestra, too, is roughly the same size as that of a mid-19th century opera. I only knew bits of Elijah beforehand.

I once heard it right through when I was a student, and though I’m not the sort who easily gets bored, I found it hard going. I tried to listen to it without knowing a thing about what was going on. Consequently, I was in danger of losing my way in the endless Biedermeier forest. Added to which, I seem to recall that it was a church concert, and churches are, unfortunately, not the best possible places for the performance of oratorio: the details, nuances and intimacy get lost. It’s like immersing Rembrandt in a bath.

Elijah is highly reminiscent of an opera: the listener needs to be familiar with the plot. The melodic invention is amazing, the music is fantastically beautiful and cleverly written. At the Helsinki Music Centre we have the advantage that the audience can sit comfortably in a modern hall, read the libretto at the same time and fortify themselves with extortionately-priced refreshments in the interval.

Elijah can also be performed in the language of its premiere, English, but I decided to do it in German because the music of Mendelssohn is sometimes so rounded at the corners that German does it good – a few consonants go a long way to giving it a bit of grit.


As you said, Elijah is often likened to an opera. In what respect is it an operatic work?

Richard Wagner scoffed at Mendelssohn for failing to produce a single decent opera. But to my mind, Elijah sometimes comes strangely close to Wagner’s own Lohengrin – you only need to add a couple of swans. Elijah and Lohengrin were products of the same era, and there are lots of similarities in their orchestral and choral textures. In many ways the part of Elijah is even reminiscent of the Herald in Lohengrin. Added to which, the Old Testament characters are a bit obscure to us, just as remote and difficult to relate to as the characters of Wagner.

True, Elijah does differ from an opera in that it doesn’t have a coherent plot. No opera could survive having a dramatic structure in which the events are totally isolated from one another. And there isn’t a single episode in Elijah that would be sufficient as the plot of an opera.

You can hear, in Elijah, that Mendelssohn respected his Jewish lineage. So it’s a little surprising that at the end, he quotes the Old Testament prophecy of the coming of the Messiah. One cannot help thinking that he wanted to stress that the prophet Elijah was, like John the Baptist, paving the way for Jesus. Though his family had converted to Christianity, Mendelssohn here wanted to reflect on the relationship with God important in Judaism and not the future redemption of mankind. So presumably he gave way to his librettist and the demands of the place where the work was to be premiered.


Mendelssohn raised Bach’s St. Matthew Passion from oblivion in the early 19th century. How is the influence of Bach reflected in Elijah?

There is actually something touching in the way Mendelssohn imitates the St. Matthew Passion. Some of the dramaturgical devices, such as the crowd’s death threats, were inspired by Bach, and the aria Elijah sings before he is taken to heaven in a chariot of fire is almost a copy of the bass aria Ich will Jesum selbst begraben in the St. Matthew Passion. As with Bach, the arias serve to raise the work to a higher philosophical level, whereas the recitatives and choral numbers carry the action forwards. The fact that there is no real narrator, no Evangelist, is a legacy of Handel’s oratorios.

Stravinsky said that good composers don’t borrow, they steal. In this case Mendelssohn stole a functional concept, but it is, of course, also a sincere and neat tribute to Bach and Handel.

Mendelssohn had read his Matthew Passion when he was 14 and was given the manuscript of it as a Christmas present from his grandmother. No mean gift – not many teenagers can sit at home reading the manuscript of the St. Matthew Passion! Sometimes things turn out well for the preservation of a work of art: for where might the St. Matthew Passion have ended up if the original document had been sold to the wrong person?


What are your thoughts on Wagner’s attitude to Mendelssohn?

Wagner did a tremendous amount of damage to Mendelssohn’s reputation. Instead of harping on about Wagner and National Socialism, it would be better to ask whether the fact that Mendelssohn is still not a very popular composer can be attributed to Wagner.

Wagner did say later, in the 1870s, that he had nothing against Jews, but in his opinion the Jews became Germans too soon: despite being hard-working, they were not “spiritually ready”.

Mendelssohn was a typical Jewish artist in the German environment of the early 19th century: he was desperate to assimilate with the German heritage and to feel he was another link in that long tradition.

In other words, Mendelssohn did not choose the same road as many other Jewish composers, headed by Meyerbeer and Offenbach, who did not wish to be part of German culture and moved to France. Mendelssohn was never in his lifetime held in any esteem in France, but all the more greatly in England: the certain Handel-like monumentality of his music appealed to the English of the Victorian era.

Mendelssohn did not correspond to Wagner’s concept of an artist to be taken seriously: he came from a good, educated family and he had no financial worries. He remained calmly above all political upheaval and revolutions. And unlike, say, Berlioz, Liszt or Wagner, he was by nature always extremely cautious and conservative. There was only a few years’ difference in age between Mendelssohn and Wagner, but unlike Wagner, Mendelssohn was a star even as a young man. At the age of thirty, Wagner sent him the score of his early symphony in C major but Mendelssohn never replied. One reason for Wagner’s anti-Semitism was that he felt the success of many composers of Jewish background was his loss. Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn were far more famous and they got well paid. No one knew Wagner, and nowhere did anyone write about his works.

Interview by Lotta Emanuelsson
Translated by Susan Sinisalo