Monday 27 April 2020

In search of Elijah: an exploration of the premiere of Mendelssohn's oratorio in Birmingham and its first performers

Birmingham Triennial Music Festival at the Town Hall in 1834
Birmingham Triennial Music Festival at the Town Hall in 1834
When I first heard Felix Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah, in Manchester at the Halle in the 1970s, it was in a performance which gave the work a very traditional oratorio shape, four soloists, choir and orchestra, the work's awkward moments such as the trio  'Lift thine eyes' and the octet being sung by semi-chorus. What other way was there to perform it?

It was only quite some years later that I discovered Wolfgang Sawallisch's recording with the Gewandhaus orchester Leipzig (on Philips), in German, which used eight soloists and had both quartets, the octet and the trio sung by solo voices. This intrigued me, and I began to wonder about Mendelssohn's original intentions. I gradually came to realised that Mendelssohn's work was predicated on rather more than four soloists, and that its 'awkward moments' (the two quartets, the octet and the trio) were originally sung by solo voices with nary a semi-chorus in sight.

It has to be said, that not everyone shared my concerns and I vividly remember an edition of 'Building a Library' on BBC Radio 3's Record Review where the reviewer in question seemed completely oblivious as to whether the 'awkward moments' were sung one voice to a part or many. And then there was the matter of the solo roles, were soloists meant to double up so that the mezzo-soprano played Jezebel and the Angel, and the tenor played Obadiah and Ahab, or did Mendelssohn intend the Swallisch allocation of one soloist per role? Then there is the question of The Boy, was this the soprano soloist or should a boy treble be imported.

Thankfully, nowadays we have plenty of recordings which explore Mendelssohn's master work from the point of view of the forces used, but my intrigue has continued and I thought it would be illuminating to explore a little of the background to the first performance.

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy by Wilhelm Hensel 1847
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy by Wilhelm Hensel 1847
Mendelssohn's Elijah was premiered in Birmingham Town Hall on Wednesday 26 August 1846, with the composer conducting forces assembled by the Birmingham Triennial Festival.
There were close to 400 performers with an orchestra of 125 (mainly London players from the Philharmonic Society and the Opera) but with some local performers and a choir of 271 singers (with 63 from London). All 60 altos were men, Mendelssohn in a letter would refer to the 'bearded altos'. In connection with the first London performance (of the revised oratorio in 1847) one alto from Temple Church commented that the alto part of the oratorio sat a little high for male altos.

The London performers came to Birmingham on a specially chartered steam train, and the programme lists each performer's home town with an element of civic pride. The London musicians rehearsed in London before travelling to Birmingham, and Paul McCreesh has suggested that this hints at a solo/ripieno dividion of orchestral forces between the arias and the choruses. The orchestra included two ophicleides (as opposed to the later tuba) as well as a real curiosity, a huge contrabass ophicleide. Birmingham Town Hall's organ had been specifically designed to support large choirs and it had the first full 32 foot speaking stop on an English organ. Installed in 1834 by William Hill, Mendelssohn played the organ in 1837 and 1840 and advised on revisions to the instrument, pushing it towards a more Europeanised sound.

The choristers were, in the main, adults, though there were four boy trebles and one boy alto (the original programme book has the Victorian habit of referring to people by title and surname, so Miss Ashton, and hence boy trebles show up because they are referred to as Master). Interestingly, the choir was ranged in front of the orchestra, sopranos on the left with tenors behind them and altos on the right with basses behind them.

There were ten soloists! The principal soloists were soprano Madame Caradori-Allan, mezzo-soprano Miss Maria B. Hawes, tenor Mr. Charles Lockey, and bass Herr Staudigl plus the Misses Williams who sang the duet "Lift thine eyes" (now a trio) and supplementary soloists Miss Bassano, Mr. J.W. Hobbs, Mr. Henry Phillips, and Mr. Machin, thus providing for the ability to sing the octet with solo voices. Quite who sang exactly what I have not yet been able to ascertain. What we can learn from this line up, however, is that the four main soloists sang the main eight named roles with the arias, whilst the supplementary soloists joined in for the 'awkward' moments.

Elijah was performed in the morning, and included a Third Part which consisted of an aria from Mozart's Davide Penitente, a recitative and aria from Cimaroso's Il sacrificio d'Abramo and Handel's Coronation Anthem The King shall rejoice. Frankly, a rather odd mix.

But having learned this, what sort of performance was it and what led up to it?

Birmingham Triennial Music Festival at the Town Hall, 1845
Birmingham Triennial Music Festival at the Town Hall, 1845
Mendelssohn's first oratorio St Paul had been premiered at the Lower Rhine Music Festival in Dusseldorf in 1836, but Mendelssohn was also involved in presenting Baroque oratorio at these music festivals. His own orchestration of Handel's Israel in Egypt (with additional recitatives and a new overture) was created in 1833 partly because the hall in Düsseldorf where the performance was to take place had no organ so added accompaniment was needed to support the choir. And of course there is Mendelssohn's famous rediscovery of Bach's St Matthew Passion (which he performed in his own version in 1829).

After St Paul, Mendelssohn started to cast round for another subject and hatched a plan with his London-based friend Carl Klingemann, though Klingemann seems to have been reluctant and it came to nothing. In the end it was Mendelssohn's friend Rev. Julius Schubring (who had been involved in the creation of St Paul), who Mendelssohn started discussing the idea with. Though it seems to have rather dropped out of view for quite a time.  It was only the invitation from the Birmingham Triennial Festival in 1845 which re-kindled the idea of Elijah.

Birmingham Music Festival dates back to 1768,  and its intentions were charitable; the festivals were designed to raise money for charitable causes, notably Birmingham General Hospital. (The 1846 festival would raise £7402 in total). The festivals were not initially triennial, and the creating of a regular festival was partly to increase music making in Birmingham. The building of Birmingham Town Hall, which opened in 1834, gave the festival its permanent home. At the early festivals, the performers were all professionals, boys and men from local cathedrals and choirs, but gradually the chorus became predominantly amateur, with women replacing boy sopranos and female altos joining in 1847 'as an experiment'.

Mendelssohn already had a relationship with the festival, in 1837 he conducted St Paul and in 1840 the Hymn of Praise. In 1845, the committee of the festival decided to ask Mendelssohn to conduct at the 1846 festival and whether he could provide an oratorio. Though Mendelssohn accepted, work on Elijah was somewhat unsatisfactory and in April 1846 the composer was considering whether to ask the festival to accept his incidental music to Racine's Athalie instead (written in 1845). Though the difficulty seems to be more Mendelssohn's confidence than anything else, and it should be noted that even after the oratorio's rapturous reception at the premiere he immediately started revising the piece.

Elijah was written to a German libretto, though Mendelssohn did speak English and his correspondence with the festival committee and others was conducted in English. Many of Mendelssohn's existing works, including St Paul had been Englished by William Bartholomew (1793-1867) and it was to Bartholomew that Mendelssohn turned for the English version of Elijah.  Mendelssohn sent Bartholomew the music in instalments, and they had a long and elaborate correspondence about the text, with Mendelssohn's letters to Bartholomew going into great detail about underlay and text. The aim was to be as Biblical as possible, but Mendelssohn took great care of stress and the way the text lay. The English version was not a straight translation of the German, the phraseology of the Lutheran Bible being replaced by that of the King James Version. The partnership between Bartholomew and Mendelssohn was one of equals, Bartholomew would suggest musical revisions whilst Mendelssohn would suggest textual ones. So though the English version is not really urtext, it is very much Mendelssohn's creation in the way the text was selected and the way it lays under the music.

Mendelssohn arrived in London in mid-August 1846 and started piano rehearsals with the soloists. The soprano part had been intended to be sung by Jenny Lind but she was unwilling to come to England and it went to Madame Caradori-Allan, who caused something of a stir when when she asked Mendelssohn to re-write the part, notably to transpose 'Hear ye Israel' down a tone. The tenor solos had originally been assigned to Mr J.W.Hobbs, but on hearing the young tenor Charles Lockey, Mendelssohn was so impressed that Hobbs stood down and allowed Lockey two of the solos. It should be added, that the festival usually engaged a group of soloists (14 in all at the 1846 festival) and these were allocated solos throughout the festival, so that undoubtedly Hobbs had other solos in which to shine.

The 1846 festival covered four days in total, 25 to 28 August 1848 with the following programmes:

  • 25 August 1846: Haydn: The Creation and four Rossini arias
  • 26 August 1846: Mendelssohn, Elijah ( first performance). In Part III Handel's Coronation Anthem and arias by Mozart and Cimaroso.
  • 27 August 1846: Handel: The Messiah
  • 28 August 1846: Part I Beethoven, Grand Mass in D. Part II Various organ works performed by Dr Gauntlett and arias.
  • 26 August 1846: Grand Miscellaneous Concert including in Part I Beethoven's Symphony in A, Moscheles Fantasia Piano Forte with himself as soloist and various songs/arias. In Part II Spohr's Faust Overture and various songs/arias.
  • 27 August 1846: Second Miscellaneous Concert. Part I various songs/arias and overtures by Verdi, Donizetti, Mozart and Rossini. In Part II The music to Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream and various songs/arias.
As the new work for the 1846 festival, Elijah was received with great enthusiasm. Eight numbers were encored: "If with all your hearts," "Baal, we cry to thee," "Regard Thy servant's prayer" (now "Cast thy burden"), "Thanks be to God," "He, watching over Israel," "O rest in the Lord," "For the mountains shall depart," and "O! every one that thirsteth." Staudigl was evidently superb in the title role and Lockey also impressed in the tenor solos, but Mendelssohn was not happy with the performances from the soprano, Caradori-Allan, and the alto, Maria Hawes.

The chorus master, James Stimpson also came in for a great deal of Mendelssohn's praise. Stimpson was the organist at the Town Hall and at St Philip's Church, Birmingham. Stimpson and the chorus worked under some difficulty, Mendelssohn's last minute revisions meant that it was not until June 1846 that the first instalments of the chorus parts appeared in Birmingham with some parts being printed for the chorus and others being in manuscript.

By December of that year, Mendelssohn was back making revisions to the work. In a letter to his English publisher, Mr. Buxton (Ewer & Co.), Mendelssohn calls this habit of constant alteration a "dreadful disease," from which he suffered chronically and severely. These changes were not simply minor alterations, so that the final chorus was substantially re-written to new words.

The first performance of the revised version, the form in which we now know the oratorio, took place on April 1847 given by the Sacred Harmonic Society, at Exeter Hall, London, conducted by the composer. Miss Hawes, and Herr Staudigl, repeated their roles whilst Charles Lockey was allocated all the tenor solos. The original soprano, however, was replaced by a Miss Dolby. Three further performances were given at Exeter Hall that month, the second of which was attended by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Mendelssohn died on 4 November that year, and in December 1848, Jenny Lind sang in a memorial performance of Elijah at Exeter Hall in London in aid of the Mendelssohn Scholarship Fund.

The Birmingham Triennial Music Festival lasted until 1912, and premieres included Sullivan's The Light of the World (1873), Max Bruch's Das Lied von der Glocke (1879), Gounod's Redemption (1882), Dvorak's The Spectre's Bride (1885), Gounod's Mors e Vita (1885), Dvorak's Requiem (1891), Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius (1900), The Apostles (1903), The Kingdom (1906), The Music Makers (1912).

Further reading:
  • F.G. Edwards: "The History of Mendelssohn's Elijah" (1896), available on Project Gutenberg.
  • Audrey Duggan: "A Sense of Occasion: Mendelssohn in Birmingham 1846" (Brewin Books) 
  • Paul McCreesh's recording of Elijah on Winged Lion/Signum includes valuable information about the first performances 
Update: The Birmingham Festival Choral Society was founded in 1843 to provide the majority of choristers for the festival, and thus provided many of the singers present at Elijah. The society's first three conductors (James Stimpson, William C Stockley and Dr Charles Swinnerton Heap) were also Chorus Masters of the Birmingham Triennial Musical Festival and so the society's concerts often included second performances of works that had been premièred at the Festivals. Birmingham Festival Choral Society still exists, 175 years later, is in fine fettle. 

More details at their website.

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