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, after all, 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.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs are settings of poems by the 17th century metaphysical poet, George Herbert. They were composed over five years, starting in 1906, finally completed for performance at the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester, on 14th September 1911.
Britten composed A Ceremony of Carols while crossing the North Atlantic in 1942 – in convoy HX183. He and his partner Peter Pears had been in North America since April 1939; but when America declared war after Pearl Harbor they felt they must leave for home, setting sail from New York in March 1942, in the Swedish merchant ship Axel Johnson, for the perilous return journey.
At that time the North Atlantic was being patrolled by German U-boats (3,500 allied merchant vessels were lost crossing the Atlantic). Because of this threat, merchant vessels sailed in convoy, escorted by warships.
So the Axel Johnson sailed first to Halifax, Nova Scotia to join its convoy. While waiting in Halifax, Britten found an anthology of medieval verse in a bookshop: The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems. He set 5 of the poems, plus 2 extra, for boys’ voices and harp during the Atlantic Crossing (two of the settings have surprisingly war-like overtones). These he later expanded to give us A Ceremony of Carols, which he completed in 1943.
The Atlantic crossing was calm and uneventful.