12 Elijah

In this chapter you will

  • learn about how composers or their ancestors may have felt compelled to convert to Christianity from Judaism within the context of European society
  • explore how Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy explored his Jewish and Christian identity through his musical exploration of the story of Elijah
  • consider how the start of the work interprets the prophetic role and captures Elijah’s appearance in the narrative
  • have a chance to read the composer’s correspondence with the librettist about his work on it

The precise texts that are placed under the category of Prophetic literature differ between the Jewish and Christian canons. In Judaism, the Former Prophets includes Joshua through 2 Kings, and the Latter Prophets does not add Daniel among them the way the Christian Old Testament does. Christians nonetheless recognize many of what they categorize as the Historical Books as being about prophets. There is thus still substantial overlap.

The best work for exploring this intersection, the similarities and differences between Jewish and Christian Scripture and perspectives on the prophets, is Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s Elijah. Mendelssohn himself was baptized Protestant, while his family was Jewish. Many Jews converted as an act of self-preservation in the hostile Christian environment of nineteenth-century Germany. Mendelssohn would have had a sense of tension in his identity.

Listen to Mendelssohn’s Elijah here or in one of the many other recordings available online and elsewhere.[1]

The way the piece begins with the voice of the prophet is unusual and striking, especially given that the role is assigned to a bass. The deep voice of a bass is powerful but more often holds down the root of harmony in the background rather than serving as the leading role. This choice fits the personality of the prophet as conveyed in the biblical texts. The composer’s choices grab the listener’s attention and serve to highlight the centrality of speech to the identity and role of prophets. While the work is ostensibly about the person, as a prophet, the delivery of the message understood to come from God is central. The text is largely drawn from the Bible, and beginning with Elijah’s sudden pronouncement of divine judgment mirrors in a striking way the sudden appearance of Elijah within the biblical narrative.

Also consider the significance of the other parts of the Bible besides 1–2 Kings, and even Prophetic literature in general, that the libretto incorporates, especially the use of a small snippet of the Gospel of Matthew. A major theme of the work is the highlighting and reinforcing of parallels between the lives of Elijah and Jesus.[2]

We have a number of Mendelssohn’s letters, so you can read his side of the exchange about Elijah while working on it with the pastor who created the libretto. Does reading these letters give you greater insight into his compositional choices as a composer?

Letters to Pastor Julius Schubring, Dessau.

Leipzig, November 2nd, 1838.

Dear Schubring,

Many, many thanks for your letter, which I received the day before yesterday, and for the parcel, which came to-day. You have again rendered me an essential service, and I feel most grateful to you; how can you ask whether I wish you to proceed in the same way? When all is so well put together, I have almost nothing to do, but to write music for the words. I ought to have previously told you, that the sheets you took away with you are by no means to be regarded as containing a mature design, but as a mere combination of the materials I had before me for the purpose of eventually forming a plan. So the passage of the widow, and also of the raven, being left out, is decidedly most advisable, and also the whole commencement being abridged, in order that the main points may be dwelt on to one’s heart’s content. I would urgently entreat you to proceed with your work, so far as your time and leisure will permit, and soon to send me the continuation of the first part, from where you left off, and which must now be of considerable length. Rest assured that, as I already told you, you will earn my most sincere gratitude.

You say that at first, you could not make anything of the subject, but that a sudden light dawned on you. I figured to myself Elijah as a grand, mighty prophet, such, as we might again require in our own day energetic and zealous, but also stern, wrathful, and gloomy; a striking contrast to the Court myrmidons and popular rabble,—in fact, in opposition to the whole world, and yet borne on angels’ wings. Is this the inference you drew from the subject, and this the sense in which you conceived an affection for it? I am anxious to do justice to the dramatic element, and, as you say, no epic narrative must be introduced. I am glad to learn that you are searching out the real sense of the Scriptural words, which cannot fail to touch every heart; but if I might make one observation, it is that I would fain see the Dramatic Element more prominent, as well as more exuberant and defined,—appeal and rejoinder, question and answer, sudden interruptions, etc. etc. Not that it disturbs me, for example, Elijah first speaking of the assembling of the people, and then forthwith addressing them. All such liberties are the natural privileges of such a representation in an oratorio; but I should like the representation itself to be as spirited as possible; for instance, it annoys me that Elijah does not reply to Ahab’s words, No. 16 till No. 18; various other speeches and a chorus intervening. I should like to have had an instant and eager rejoinder, etc. etc.

But we shall no doubt presently agree on such points, and I would only entreat you, when you resume your work, to think of this wish of mine. Above all, accept my thanks for your kindness, and write to me soon on the same subject.—Ever your

Felix M. B.

Leipzig, December 6th, 1838.

Dear Schubring,

Along with this you will receive the organ pieces and “Bonifacius” which I also enclose. Thank you much for the latter, and for the manuscripts you have from time to time sent me for “Elijah;” they are of the greatest possible use to me, and though I may here and there make some alterations, still the whole affair, by your aid, is now placed on a much firmer footing. With regard to the dramatic element, there still seems to be a diversity of opinion between us. In such a character as that of Elijah, like every one in the Old Testament, except perhaps Moses, it appears to me that the dramatic should predominate,—the personages should be introduced as acting and speaking with fervour; not however, for Heaven’s sake, to become mere musical pictures, but inhabitants of a positive, practical world, such as we see in every chapter of the Old Testament; and the contemplative and pathetic element which you desire, must be entirely conveyed to our apprehension by the words and the mood of the acting personages.

In your “Bonifacius,” for instance, this was a point to which I was by no means reconciled; in my opinion he ought to have been treated dramatically throughout, like a theatrical representation (in its best sense) only without visible action. The Scriptural allusions too should, according to my idea, be more sparingly introduced, and placed in his mouth alone. The contrast between this style of language (which pervades the whole) and that at the coronation, is not sufficiently equalized. Pepin, and all the pagans, and pagan priests, flit before me like shadows or misty forms, whereas, to satisfy me, they must be solid, robust men. Do not be displeased that I send you a bit of criticism along with my thanks, for such is my insufferable custom. Besides a cold and cough make me unusually rabid to day. I am now about to set to work on the “Elijah,” and to plough away at the soil as I best can; if I do not get on with it, you must come to my aid; and I hope as kindly as ever, and preserve the same regard for your

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.

Leipzig, December 16th, 1842.

My dear Schubring,

I now send you, according to your permission, the text of “Elijah,” so far as it goes. I do beg of you to give me your best assistance, and return it soon with plenty of notes on the margin (I mean Scriptural passages, etc.). I also enclose your former letters on the subject, as you wished, and have torn them out of the book in which they were. They must, however, be replaced, so do not forget to send them back to me. In the very first of these letters (at the bottom of the first page), you properly allude to the chief difficulty of the text, and the very point in which it is still the most deficient—in universally valid and impressive thoughts and words; for of course it is not my intention to compose what you call “a Biblical Walpurgis Night.” I have endeavoured to obviate this deficiency by the passages written in Roman letters, but there is still something wanting, even to complete these, and to obtain suitable comprehensive words for the subject. This, then, is the first point to which I wish to direct your attention, and where your assistance is very necessary. Secondly, in the “dramatic” arrangement. I cannot endure the half operatic style of most of the oratorio words, (where recourse is had to common figures, as, for example, an Israelite, a maiden, Hannah, Micaiah, and others, and where, instead of saying “this and that occurred,” they are made to say, “Alas! I see this and that occurring.”) I consider this very weak, and will not follow such a precedent. However, the everlasting “he spake” etc., is also not right. Both of these are avoided in the text; still this is, and ever will be, one of its weaker aspects.

Reflect, also, whether it is justifiable that no positively dramatic figure except that of Elijah appears. I think it is. He ought, however, at the close, at his ascension to heaven, to have something to say (or to sing). Can you find appropriate words for this purpose? The second part, moreover, especially towards the end, is still in a very unfinished condition. I have not as yet got a final chorus; what do you advise it to be? Pray study the whole carefully, and write on the margin a great many beautiful arias, reflections, pithy sentences, choruses, and all sorts of things, and let me have them as soon as possible.

I also send the ‘Méthode des Méthodes.’ While turning over its leaves, I could not help thinking that you will here and there find much that will be useful. If that be the case, I beg you will keep it as long as you and your young pianoforte player may require it. I don’t use it at all. If it does not please you, I can send you instead, a sight of Zimmermann’s ‘Pianoforte School,’ which is composed pretty much on the same principle, and has only different examples, etc.

Speaking is a very different thing from writing. The few minutes I lately passed with you and yours, were more enlivening and cheering than ever so many letters.—Ever your

Felix M. B.

Leipzig, May 23rd, 1846.

Dear Schubring,

Once more I must trouble you about “Elijah;” I hope it is for the last time, and I also hope that you will at some future day derive enjoyment from it; and how glad I should be were this to be the case! I have now quite finished the first part, and six or eight numbers of the second are already written down. In various places, however, of the second part I require a choice of really fine Scriptural passages, and I do beg of you to send them to me! I set off to-night for the Rhine, so there is no hurry about them; but in three weeks I return here, and then I purpose forthwith to take up the work and complete it. So I earnestly beseech of you to send me by that time a rich harvest of fine Bible texts. You cannot believe how much you have helped me in the first part; this I will tell you more fully when we meet. On this very account I entreat you to assist me in improving the second part also. I have now been able to dispense with all historical recitative in the form, and introduced individual persons. Instead of the Lord, always an angel or a chorus of angels, and the first part and the largest half of the second are finely rounded off. The second part begins with the words of the queen, “So let the gods do to me, and more also,” etc. (1 Kings xix. 2); and the next words about which I feel secure are those in the scene in the wilderness (same chapter, fourth and following verses); but between these I want, first, something more particularly characteristic of the persecution of the prophet; for example, I should like to have a couple of choruses against him, to describe the people in their fickleness and their rising in opposition to him; secondly, a representation of the third verse of the{398} same passage; for instance, a duett with the boy, who might use the words of Ruth, “Where thou goest, I will go,” etc. But what is Elijah to say before and after this? and what could the chorus say? Can you furnish me with, first, a duett, and then a chorus in this sense? Then, till verse 15, all is in order; but there a passage is wanted for Elijah, something to this effect:—“Lord, as Thou willest, be it with me:” (this is not in the Bible, I believe?) I also wish that after the manifestation of the Lord he should announce his entire submission, and after all this persecution declare himself to be entirely resigned, and eager to do his duty. I am in want too of some words for him to say at, or before, or even after his ascension, and also some for the chorus. The chorus sings the ascension historically with the words from 2 Kings ii. 11, but then there ought to be a couple of very solemn choruses. “God is gone up” will not do, for it was not the Lord, but Elijah who went up; however, something of that sort. I should like also to hear Elijah’s voice once more at the close.

(May Elisha sing soprano? or is this inadmissible, as in the same chapter he is described as a “bald head”? Joking apart, must he appear at the ascension as a prophet, or as a youth?)

Lastly, the passages which you have sent for the close of the whole (especially the trio between Peter, John, and James) are too historical and too far removed from the grouping of the (Old Testament) story; still{399} I could manage with the former, if, instead of the trio, I could make a chorus out of the words; it would be very quickly done, and this will probably be the case. I return you the pages that you may have every necessary information, but pray send them back to me. You will see that the bearing of the whole is quite decided; it is only the lyric passages (from which arias, duetts, etc., could be composed) which fail towards the end. So I beg you will get your large Concordance, open it, and bestow this time on me, and when I return three weeks hence at latest, let me find your answer. Continue your regard for your


Mendelssohn wrote other letters about his work after it was completed that you may be interested to read. These are included here because reading a composer’s correspondence about a work as they are working on it and seeking feedback and input provides a unique perspective on the process as well as the finished product. If you know German, you can read much more of the correspondence between Mendelssohn and Schubring, including the latter’s contributions to the conversation in addition to what Mendelssohn wrote.

For Further Reading

Bennett, Joseph. “‘Elijah’: A Comparison of the Original and Revised Scores.” Musical Times and Singing Class Circular 23, no. 476 (1882): 525–28.

Chernaik, Judith. “Mendelssohn Reconsidered.” Musical Times 154, no. 1922 (2013): 45–55.

Jacob, Heinrich Eduard. Felix Mendelssohn und seine Zeit. Stuttgart: Deutscher Bücherbund, 1959.

Schubring, Julius, and Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Briefwechsel zwischen Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy und Julius Schubring: Zugleich ein Beitrag zur Geschichte und Theorie des Oratoriums. Leipzig: Duncker Humblot, 1892.

Sposato, Jeffrey S. The Price of Assimilation: Felix Mendelssohn and the Nineteenth-Century Anti-Semitic Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Talbeck, Carol. “Felix Mendelssohn | Elijah.” San Francisco Choral Society. Accessed September 7, 2022. http://www.sfchoral.org/site/felix-mendelssohn-elijah/.

Todd, R. Larry. “On Mendelssohn’s Elijah.” With permission through the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, 2004 (1995). https://indychoir.org/on-mendelssohns-elijah-by-r-larry-todd/.


  1. This performance was shared by Boston University on their YouTube channel, being a performance of their College of Fine Arts. The Boston University Symphony Orchestra and Symphonic Chorus is here conducted by Ann Howard Jones. The soloists are soprano Liz Baldwin, mezzo-soprano Penelope Bitzas, tenor Martin Bakari, baritone James Demler, and soprano Kira Winter.
  2. Jeffrey S. Sposato, The Price of Assimilation: Felix Mendelssohn and the Nineteenth-Century Anti-Semitic Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 114, 133–44.
  3. Excerpted from Letters of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy from 1833 to 1847, London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, & Green, 1863, which is in the public domain.


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The Bible and Music by James F. McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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