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, 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.


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.


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.

Royal recognition

By 1842 Mendelssohn was a major celebrity in Britain, and became a favourite of the royal family. In June and July, he visited the queen and Prince Albert at Buckingham Palace, where he improvised (on Rule, Britannia!), and accompanied the queen singing Lieder both by him and his sister. He arranged seven of his Songs without words as piano duets for them and The Scottish Symphony would later be rededicated to Queen Victoria.


Fanny Hensel


Fanny Hensel nee Mendelssohn

Fanny Mendelssohn was four years older than her brother Felix. As children they were very close, challenging and stimulating one-another intellectually and musically. They stayed in close contact for their entire lives.

The convention at the time was that Felix, though the younger, being male, would play the dominant rôle as a musician. They conformed to this, much to the detriment of Fanny. She could well have been Felix’s equal in ability, but she was discouraged from publishing her work, even by her brother (perhaps for complex reasons). As was ‘suitable for a lady’, her output was limited in the main to Lieder and piano pieces: salon music in effect. She has just 11 opus numbers to her credit, though her compositions number 500 (including one cantata, one oratorio, one overture and some chamber works). She started to publish just a year before her death, a venture in which her brother did not participate.

Fanny married the painter William Hensel – they had one child. She was a central figure in Berlin salon life (for which most of her music was written). Visiting Rome, she became friends with the young Gounod, who acknowledged her as an important influence on his developing style.

On 14th May 1847 she died suddenly of a stroke aged 41.



Felix Mendelssohn grew up in Berlin with his dearly beloved sister and soul-mate Fanny.

Felix Mendelssohn

They led a charmed life together: highly privileged, both phenomenally clever, moving in the highest circles of Berlin intellectual society. There was much flexing of young intellectual and creative wings, by both of them, to everyone’s astonishment.

The op.69 motets belong to the other end of Mendelssohn’s life, composed in the summer of 1847.

They are remarkably serene, considering the circumstances in which they were written, for they belong to a year of turbulence he had not encountered before.

He was at the height of his career;  Elijah had been premièred in Birmingham the previous August to huge acclaim.

In early 1847 he was back in Leipzig doing his regular job directing the Gewandhaus Orchestra. In mid-April he returned to England. He oversaw six performances of Elijah in London, Birmingham and Manchester, and directed a concert with the Philharmonic Orchestra. He also gave a private concert for Gladstone at the Prussian Embassy, and was received again at Buckingham Palace.

Mendelssohn returned to Frankfurt (his wife’s family home) in mid-May completely exhausted, only to be greeted by the dreadful news that his dear sister Fanny had died while he was absent. He was in a state of mental collapse and could not attend her funeral. Trying to recover from the shock and exhaustion, he went to Switzerland with his brother, staying for several months. Being, for the first time in his life, incapable of composing, he turned to painting watercolours.

It was some weeks before he was able to start composing again. Still in Switzerland, he eventually began with the Motets op.69. If in these, perhaps, he found solace, it was in the String Quartet op70 that his anguish found expression. These were the last works he would complete.

At the end of September he finally managed to find the resolve to visit Fanny’s grave in Berlin.

He was so deeply upset by the experience that he could not conduct his next Gewandhaus concert. The following month he suffered a series of strokes, and becoming progressively more incapacitated, he died on 4th November. He was buried three days later next to the grave of his sister Fanny.