From the Musical Times 50, 100 and 150 Years Ago

Article excerpt

The Musical Times, February 1850

The immense popularity of Elijah has served to throw St. Paul, Mendelssohn's first oratorio, somewhat into the shade. Since 1846, when Elijah was produced at the Birmingham Festival, the latter has been very rarely executed either in London or the provinces. Nevertheless, those who are well acquainted with it are aware that the difference of merit between the two is by no means so great as to warrant the elevation of one to the disparagement of the other. If Elijah be the most complete and admirable composition of the present age, it must not be forgotten that St. Paul was the offspring of the same genius, when, though its power was quite matured, youth lent freshness to all its inspirations. Mendelssohn did not attempt his very difficult task until he felt himself fully equal to it. He had pondered on it for some years previously, treasuring up the ideas that came to him, until a thorough knowledge and command of all the resources of his art had taught him how to develop them most effectively At the beginning of 1836 the entire work was finished, and in the month of May the same year, it was first executed at the grand festival of the three Rhenish towns of Aix-la-Chapelle, Cologne, and Dusseldorf, held that year in the last-named place. Mendelssohn himself directed the performance. St. Paul was triumphantly successful; and, as it was his first oratorio, so it was the first of his two most important and lasting works. His intention was to write three sacred oratorios; but the third and last, Christus, he did not live to complete.

Little has been written of St. Paul in this country, although more has been said of Elijah than of most productions of the musical art. We may therefore be excused for entering into a short analysis of its plan, and of the manner in which it has been treated [... ] The book, like that of Elijah, has been compiled with great skill. The narrative portions are borrowed from the "Acts of the Apostles"; and the didactic passages chiefly from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and some of the Epistles. The whole is calculated with the nicest judgment in respect of the disposition of musical effect, while the lucid arrangement of the incidents, and the happy employment of contrasts - both in the manner in which the events succeed each other, and the opposite characteristics of the various personages introduced - lend to it all the interest of a drama. Mendelssohn arranged his books himself, for which his rare taste and scholarship well fitted him, and thus he secured the advantage, which Handel never possessed but in Israel in Egypt, of not being burdened with a useless quantity of words, long and tiresome scenes, and other superfluous matters. The book of Elijah presents one feature of superiority over that of St. Paul, in the prophet's miraculous ascent into Heaven. We see the last of Elijah, but Paul quits us before his career is accomplished, and we are left to imagine the rest. Thus Elijah has the stamp of completeness more entirely, but in other respects St. Paul is quite as absorbing, and quite as well adapted for musical treatment.

The Musical Times, February 1950

I have often wished that the BBC were a bit gayer, essaying a musical frivol now and again. …


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