Friday, 22 June 2007

Elijah and his fiery chariot

The choir of which I am currently chairman, East Malling Singers, will perform Mendelssohn's splendid oratorio Elijah at the Church of St James the Great, East Malling, Kent, on Saturday June 30. We will be joined by four vocal soloists, many guest choral singers and a full concert orchestra, conducted by our music director, Benjamin Rous. Rehearsal will start at 11.15am and the concert will start at 7.30pm. It promises to be an exciting, if exhausting day.

I mention this event here because the biblical text of one part of Elijah - No. 38 - was part of the inspiration for the name of this weblog:

"Then did Elijah the prophet break forth like a fire; his words appeared like burning torches. Mighty kings by him were overthrown. He stood on the mount of Sinai, and heard the judgments of the future; and in Horeb, its vengeance. And when the Lord would take him away to heaven, lo! there came a fiery chariot, with fiery horses; and he went by a whirlwind to heaven."

Another factor in choosing the name Fiery Chariot was my fascination by powerful jet aircraft and rockets, the most astonishing of which, in terms of sheer size, weight, power and speed, was the Saturn V launch vehicle, a gigantic 3-stage rocket, employed in the United States' 1960s/1970s Apollo Project for landing men on the moon and bringing them back safely. At launch the Saturn V was 110 metres high, 10 metres diameter, 3,000 tonnes weight, over 4,000 tonnes thrust; and ultimately it had a 40,000 km/hr maximum speed in space. Mind boggling? Well, in English money that's as high as St Paul's Cathedral, as wide as a 3-line motorway carriageway, as heavy as 2,000 large cars, 60 times more powerful and noisy than Concorde at take off; and at maximum speed an equivalent journey time for London to Paris of about 35 seconds! OK, it's still mind boggling. It's also the ultimate fiery chariot. Photos and videos simply cannot convey its audacity but, for the record:

After my little digression, back to Mendelssohn's Elijah. First, the composer:

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn was born in Leipzig in 1809, the grandson of a famous Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, and the son of a banker. The family took the name 'Bartholdy' when they converted from Judaism to Christianity, but Felix insisted on keeping both names. He belonged to the class of educated people in easy circumstances: his musical genius was quickly recognised and encouraged - before he was 15 he had written as many symphonies and an opera, all of which were discarded! In his early twenties, Mendelssohn travelled the world becoming a great favourite in England. He had a penchant for making and keeping friends, among them Queen Victoria, and in rehearsals he was described as being modest and charming, with unfailing tact and politeness. As Director of Music at Düsseldorf and in Leipzig, with its famous Gewandhaus concerts, Mendelssohn was influenced in his composing by Handel and Bach, and their musical styles are evident in Elijah.

Mendelssohn can be said to be a classical Romantic composer in that he used the classical forms, but belonged, with Liszt, Berlioz and Chopin, to the composers of the new music coming from Europe with its exciting virtuosity and exotic harmonies. His appeal to the English was the result of a number of circumstances. England's new concert halls, fulfilling the Victorian philosophy of moral and social improvement for the middle and working classes, were built to house large choral concerts usually accompanied by the organ, and could satisfy the Victorian's love of contrasts in volume and sound. But music and morals were closely tied in Victorian England. Here the oratorio came into its own - a drama, usually based on a Biblical or other sacred subject, but without the limitations of an operatic staging. It could, therefore, have an epic or contemplative breadth not possible in an opera and could be staged in the new concert halls around the country.

So, when Mendelssohn stood on the rostrum of Birmingham Town Hall on 26 August 1846 to conduct the first performance of Elijah, success was assured. The Times wrote: "Never was there a more complete triumph". From the daring harmonies of Thanks be to God to the anger of the mob in Woe to him, the audience enjoyed the 500 voices and the mighty organ, happy in the knowledge that they were improving their minds and their morals!

Mendelssohn's death followed shortly afterwards. He returned to England the following year with a revised Elijah and gave four performances. But he had been shocked and depressed by the death of his older sister Fanny and in October 1847 was himself dead at the age of 38.

(EMS programme notes courtesy of Christine Hide of Daventry Choral Society)

Some more video excerpts:

Introduction: 'As God the Lord of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word'
No. 1: 'Help, Lord! wilt Thou quite destroy us?'

Oh, by the way, this performance is sung in Korean, but don't let that put you off. They're very good. And anyway, there are subtitles. (These are in Korean also, but don't let that put you off either).

These South Koreans like to take this work at a good pace, as can be seen and heard with No. 29, 'He watching over Israel slumbers not nor sleeps'. Well, at this speed he wouldn't:

Now for a piece of history. Ernest Lough sings 'Hear ye, Israel!', the aria which launches the Second Part of Elijah. As you will hear, this was a 'scratch' performance given when Lough was aged 16 (although he sounds more like he was half that age):

And a 'moving' performance by the accompanist's page turner:

Anyone wanting more of the same need only explore

Here's the story of Elijah:

As told in the Old Testament (1 and 2 Kings), Elijah is characterised as a stern, unyielding prophet of God called to lead the Israelite people back to worship of their one true God. He has a pivotal role in acting between the true, just God and the Israelites, called to serve God as His loyal interpreter to a fickle and wayward people. They are swayed first one way in response to God's miracles and then the other by Queen Jezebel as she incites them to crowd violence. The mainspring of the drama is the tension between the Israelites and Elijah: a series of powerfully dramatic choral movements convey the role of the population while Elijah's response to them is vividly portrayed in his three main arias - his opposition to them (Lord God of Abraham), his winning back of the people's trust (Is not His word like a fire) and his desertion by them (It is enough). Mendelssohn's music shows his effective use of the dramatic Handelian sweep of the oratorio, interpolated with Bachian-style meditations on the story.

Elijah takes centre stage from the beginning, calling down a drought upon the land as punishment for the people's deserting the true God and worshipping Baal. (Queen Jezebel had brought her heathen Baal gods with her to Israel and King Ahab had allowed their infiltration into the people's beliefs and worship.) The theme of drought and God's ultimate sending of rain takes up the first half of the oratorio, with two side plots in which God shows his mercy and his power. He shows his care by bringing back to life the widow's son and promising that her food supply will not run out. He provides dramatic evidence of his power to the Israelites in the contest on Mount Carmel between God and the prophets of Baal. The first half of the oratorio ends with the crowd acknowledging God's mercy and omnipotence.

The second part opens with God's words of reassurance to his people. Then Elijah confronts King Ahab. This gives Jezebel the chance to incite the people against Elijah and Elijah despairs of his mission. Angelic care and his witnessing the glory of the Lord at Mount Horeb restore his courage. The people describe the vigour with which Elijah returns to proclaim God's power and the miraculous consummation of his life as he is taken up into heaven in a 'fiery chariot'. Mendelssohn sees Elijah's life in its scriptural context as the forerunner of the Messiah, and in the final chorus he looks to the completion of Elijah's mission in the coming of the Christ.

(EMS programme notes courtesy of Christine Hide of Daventry Choral Society)

Here are some fiery chariot paintings (I couldn't find any featuring the Saturn V):

Ascension of Elijah by Juan de Valdés Leal

Elijah Taken up in a Chariot of Fire by Giovanni Battista

Russian Icon: The Prophet Elijah and the Fiery Chariot

Russian icon: The Fiery Ascension of Elijah the Prophet - Northern School

Russian icon of unknown name - Novgorodian 16th century

For further information on these last two paintings take a look at The Fiery Ascension of Elijah the Prophet

For a comprehensive collection of Elijah paintings you cannot do better than look at The Elijah Project

Finally, the Overture from Elijah fits remarkably well over this Flight to the Ford scene from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Both the audio and the video are completely un-cut. It was a miraculous coincidence the way the music fit the video.


marie.l said...

when I said "incroyable" my mom answered: incredible is that Elie is assembled to the sky in its carriage on fire without burning the buttocks. Hi hi

I wish, dear Robert whom my translation thanks to Babel Fish reflects what i desired statement. And thank you as for Mendelssohn as appreciate much, and all these vidéos.

Atticus said...

Thank you for commenting in English, Marie. I appreciate that. Je considère que ta mère est encroyable. Peut-être elle a un penchant pour les fesses des hommes?


marie.l said...

bel été à toi Robert !!! (j'ai vu la voiture bleue et rouge ;) )

marie.l said...

mes meilleurs voeux pour les fêtes de fin d'année cher Robert !

Celia said...

Brilliant blog, Robert. I've enjoyed listening and reading when I should have been cooking!

The Koreans are really impressive, aren't they?

Good luck with the concert and music festival. You are both obviously doing sterling work. Just wish I could be there but Cumbria is a long way from anywhere...