Mendelssohn’s Elijah

Elijah was commissioned for Birmingham’s Triennial Music Festival

That an eminent German composer should receive a commission from a provincial English music festival may seem remarkable. But Mendelssohn was extremely popular both socially and as a musician; so he was in great demand across Europe, particularly in Britain where he definitely had the status of a celebrity, popular in royal circles. Birmingham at this time being industrially one of the most lively and prosperous centres in the country, had cultural ambitions. By the 1830s it had become a major centre for music, so it was only natural that the festival committee should be interested in inviting such a celebrity to perform in Birmingham’s brand new Town Hall.

Mendelssohn first performed in Birmingham in September 1837 playing his newly composed 2nd Piano Concerto and conducting a performance of St. Paul, which he had composed the previous year. He was such a success that he was invited to return as the Director of the next festival, in 1840. This he duly did, (no doubt arriving by the newly built railway) which led to the Festival commissioning an oratorio from him..

He received the commission in July 1845 for the festival in August 1846. Mendelssohn had started to plan the composition of an oratorio based on the life of Elijah in London in back August 1837. Now his idea was to be realised as a bilingual piece (like Haydn’s Creation), composed to a German text, but to receive its first performance in English.

While working on Elijah, Mendelssohn’s schedule was very busy: he was, afterall Director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, which was for six months in the year a full-time job. He also had to find time to compose his cantata Lauda Sion for the Liege Festival. In May, 14 weeks before the premiere, he sent the first part of Elijah to London for the text to be translated into English. Then he departed to perform in festivals in Aachen, Liege and Cologne. He returned in June (10 weeks to go) to Leipzig to his usual hectic social round. Nevertheless – having added an Overture as an afterthought – he completed Elijah, on August 11th.

A week later he was in London for intensive rehearsals. On the 23rd the orchestra, soloists, chorus and press travelled by a special train to Birmingham. The first performance of Elijah was on 26th August in the Town Hall. It was an instant success.

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Corpus Christi

The poem Lauda Sion was composed in the 13th century by Canoness Juliana of Liège.

She had visions which drew her attention to the fact that there was as yet no text celebrating the Eucharist: the body and blood of Christ. Her friend and colleague, Canon John of Lausanne, brought her visions to the attention of Pope Urban IV who gave his approbation. So she composed the poem Lauda Sion with his blessing and it formed the basis of the new Feast of Corpus Christi.

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Mendelssohn’s Lauda Sion

Felix Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn was commissioned to write his setting of this text by the authorities in Liège to mark the 600th anniversary of the Feast of Corpus Christi on June 11th 1846.

At the time of this commission, Mendelssohn was working on his oratorio Elijah for the 1846 Birmingham Festival, which was in August. He interrupted his work on that to compose Lauda Sion and to conduct the first performance in St. Martin’s Church, Liège. He must have worked at great speed, because in May and June 1846 he was also directing music festivals in Aachen and Cologne. Elijah was of course completed on time, but with such work-pressure it is not surprising that a year hence he would be recovering from a nervous break-down; indeed thereafter he had only a few months to live.