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SOME SECOND THOUGHTS ABOUT "ELIJAH"
By Henry Mayer
Many pieces performed by our Louisville Orchestra are labeled "masterworks," but few of them can be considered a composer's chief work. That did happen recently, however, when the orchestra performed Felix Mendelssohn's "Elijah." But who was Mendelssohn? And does his work have anything to say to us?
Ideally, to appreciate "Elijah," one needs some familiarity with its Biblical text and what can be called the vocation of prophecy; one also requires some recognition as to how an oratorio is a unique form of musical art; and, finally, we need to know something about Mendelssohn (1809-1847).
Mendelssohn was both a talented performer and a creative artist. He was a child prodigy who matured as a genius. He was cultured, literate and had a unique gift for friendship. Though probably the wealthiest major composer through his family, he was a tireless worker. He was a many-sided person subject to such diverse influences as the Jewish faith and ethos of generations of ancestors, the influence of the Enlightenment stemming from his grandfather, the humanism of his father and his own loyal practice of the Christian faith in which he was baptized in late childhood, along with other family members.
In some ways, all these influences are at work in "Elijah." Though his Jewish ancestry certainly enabled him to impart a unique and genuine sense of what Old Testament prophecy was about, Mendelssohn did not compose simply with that in mind. At one point he expressed the view that his time needed a prophet like Elijah, and a contemporary no less than Queen Victoria's husband, Albert, saw something autobiographical in this work. As an oratorio, it is dramatic but also basically a religious work.
What can that say to our time? A prophet is not a crystal-ball gazer. For those who believe, there is an ongoing need to read the signs of the times, and that requires belief in God and trust in His ways. That is the message of "Elijah," for the prophet had to experience doubt and uncertainty, something more than quiet desperation, and yet remain faithful.
The music is expressed by soloists, chorus and orchestra. John Osterdorf's representation of Elijah was a major triumph. A close observation of his expressions revealed clearly the prophet's ordeal as it ran the gamut of human feelings and as these tested his fidelity. Elijah is a demanding role but it would be hard to fault Osterdorf's rendition of it.
Annette Hardin performed in a number of roles, but, in this observer's opinion, the high point of her performance was how she expressed the passionate wrath and desire for revenge on Elijah by Queen Jezebel. Edith Davis excelled in the widow's anxious cry, "What do I have to do with you, O man of God?" Milburn Price brought the chorus to a marvelous point because, without excellent choral participation, "Elijah" would fall flat. The unified expression of the work owes a unique debt to Maestro Smith, but one might have wished that his pre-performance briefing would have had more meaningful comments about both "Elijah" and Mendelssohn.
(Special gratitude to the librarians at University of Louisville School of Music and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.)