“Elijah is the peak of religious music between Beethoven’s Christ on the Mount of Olives (1802) and Wagner’s Parsifal (1882).”

–Eduard Jacob Heinrich

Elijah (1846), the second oratorio by Felix Mendelssohn, pays tribute  to Mendelssohn’s love and championship of the oratorios of Handel and Bach. Elijah is Mendelssohn’s reaffirmation of his Jewish heritage and a confirmation of his Christian belief. He did not strictly follow the Old Testament account of the prophet Elijah the Tishbite found in 1 and 2 Kings. He totally omits the character of Elisha, to focus on certain episodes, loosely strung together with devotional, biblical texts, which culminate with pre-Messianic texts from Isaiah. Mendelssohn reconstructed Elijah as a Christ “type”, a biblical personage who foreshadows the actual person (the antitype). Consequently  Obadiah echoes John the Forerunner’s call for “repentance”; Elijah raises the widow ‘s dead son, as Christ will in  Saint Luke’s narrative; Queen  Jezebel plots to kill Elijah as the  Pharisees plot to kill Christ; Elijah’s journey to the wilderness parallels Christ’s  prayer vigil in Gethsemane; Elijah encounters the Lord at Mount Horeb as Jesus experiences the Transformation; Elijah ascends into Heaven as Christ is resurrected into Heaven.

‘When Elijah the Tishbite began to prophesy around 870 B.C.E., it was far from the first time that messengers of God had surfaced in the turbulent country.” His tale is told in books 1 and 2 Kings in the sixth century B.C. Elijah’s God is the God of Psalm 104, “who looks on the earth and it trembles, / who touches the mountains and they smoke.”

“According to the Bible, the Israelite King Solomon’s worship of regional gods a century earlier had repeated itself in the actions of nearly all the northern Israelite kings before Ahab came to power. The public honor that Ahab gave to Canaanite gods was the worst Israelite offense against God yet in a chain of religious errors in Israel’s history.”[i] Ahab did more evil things than all the kings of Israel before him. God’s people, like many people today, lived double-minded lives, split between Baal and the Lord. The division was destroying their souls.

Elijah believed that shock tactics on Mt. Carmel were needed because sin was deeply embedded in a people under a particular covenant with God to be holy. Scripture and other documentary sources indicate that by Elijah’s time, the kingdom was far removed from the ideal political state promoted by the Bible, in which all successful Israelite relationships depended on allegiance to God…Canaanite fertility practices such as temple prostitution and child immolation were being carried out and that co-worship of Yahweh alongside gods such as Baal, lord of storms, or Asherah, his consort, occurred. They burned their sons and their daughters as offerings, and used divination and sorcery, and even sold themselves to do evil in the sight of Yahweh,

“ In 1–2 Kings “the people” gathered to witness God’s power. Elijah branded them all with the sin of mixing Baal worship with worship of Yahweh. As their ancestors did in the Exodus narrative, the assembled northern Israelites collectively humbled themselves, speaking with one voice. When the fire of Yahweh consumed Elijah’s offering, the people “fell on their faces; and they said, ‘Yahweh, he is God; Yahweh he is God’” (1 Kings 18:39) [ii]

The Tishbite did not choose God or his people for a prophetic relation. God chose him. In Elijah’s situation, the power that took over his will was not a group of laws or a totalitarian leader. It was the unknowable, unthinkable divine. “What he is most, in his oldest story, is a mediator between God and his people, a sign of the One he serves, and a surprising invitation to mutual interaction with the divine.”[iii]

Hearing Elijah live is an overwhelming experience. The mind and heart become filled with new and old things, suddenly in a new and profound context. For example, I came to believe that the oratorio form is Brechtian  theater long before Bertolt Brecht was  born. The characters, including the choruses, are not “people” to be personified. Rather they are narrators of the story to be understood as they relate to the didactic message Brecht insisted all mimetic art should have. The singing actors play multiple roles with no attempt to hide their  switch through costume or makeup. Formal attire insists that the story and the music are as important as the lesson. The lesson of all oratorios I have heard is:

God rules.


Or else.

Mendelssohn’s work premiered in Birmingham England’s music festival in 1845. The Birmingham Musical Festival dates back to 1768. Elijah’s tremendous success – four choruses and four arias were encored – caused it to be repeated  throughout England. On April 23 Mendelssohn arrived at London’s  Exeter Hall for a performance of the oratorio with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in attendance. The next day the Prince inscribed, in German in his program book: “the Noble Artist who, surrounded by the Baal-worship of debased art, has been able by his genius and science, to preserve faithfully. Like another Elijah, the worship of true art.”[iv]

Mendelssohn, like Mahler later, tried to reconcile his Jewish roots with his newfound Christianity, despite the cynics’ mockery of his sincere efforts. Elijah has two parts. Part 1 is a series of scenes framed and supported by reflective choruses. In Part 2 King Ahab and  his people have forgotten Part One’s miracle of the rain and lapsed again into idolatry. Queen Jezebel cannot forgive the deaths of the priests of Baal. God again rescues Elijah. The prophet no longer wishes to serve. He is overcome with weariness , “that deep sadness, that Mendelssohn himself knew so well. He feels he has lived in vain. He has been unable  to extirpate the worship of Baal. All  his anger has accomplished nothing.. Profound melancholy overpowers him. He wishes to die.” [v]

But God will not let him die. An angel leads him to Mount Horeb. Elijah is warned to cover his face as God will approach him. God sends a chariot of fire to carry the prophet off to heaven.

The libretto is attributed to Mendelssohn’s friend and intimate companion of his boyhood, the Reverend Julius Schubring, D.D., Rector of St. George’s Church, Dessau. It was Schubring who suggested “that as Elijah appeared to Christ on the  Mount of Transformation, so Christ might come to Elijah, transfigure him, and show him from afar the streams of peace, which flow over the heavenly Canaan.” [vi] Mendelssohn rejected that idea, but requested of him and utilized some “really fine Scriptural passages” for Part 2.[vii]

Mendelssohn wrote the soprano part expressly for Jenny Lind who had recently made her first appearance nearby. She did not come to the festival due to her fear of the Theatre Royal’s opera manager Mr. Alfred Bunn. According to Lind’s biographers, Henry Scott Holland and W. S. Rockstro, the singer “was so terrified at the penalties, the law-suits, and the disgrace with which Mr. Bunn had threatened her, that her dearest and most trusted friends could not persuade her to entertain the idea of appearing at an English theatre, under any circumstances, or upon any terms whatever.[viii]

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is blessed to have James Conlon at the helm of their Elijah. His wide and deep experience of all sorts of musical narratives gives him an almost unique insight into the peculiar demands of Mendelssohn’s work. And from his brilliant production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni recently at Ravinia, he is joined by the magnificent baritone Lucas Meachem. Mr. Meachem has been an awesome presence whether as the Lyric Opera’s Chorebus in its 2016 The Trojans, Marcello in 2018 Met’s La Boheme with Sonya Yoncheva and Michael Fabiano, or as the best-ever Don Giovanni in  James Conlon’s 2022 Don Giovanni with Rachael Willis Sorenson and Amanda Majeski

As Elijah Mr. Meachem commanded the stage. From his opening words sung with a defiance for anyone to challenge him as God’s emissary, his presence, silent or singing, was dominant. His duets crackled with electricity as God’s messenger took on all comers. His final tender aria of God’s love ( “I go on my way in the strength of the Lord”) was made even more poignant due to his previous harsh insistence that the people repent.

Joining Mr. Meachem on stage was mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon whom I heard  in 2019  when she joined Frederica von Stade at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco for a Solidarity Concert for Notre Dame, featuring Notre Dame’s organist Johann Vexo.  Her lovely dramatic voice is now even richer and fuller as she sang, among other roles, An Angel and Queen Jezebel. Soprano Masabane Cecelia Rangwanasha made a distinguished Chicago debut as, among others, the Widow with the dead son. The unforgettable tenor  Isaachah Savage brought his powerful voice and commanding presence to Symphony Hall as he did a couple of years ago with Riccardo Muti’s Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Whether as Elijah’s defender Obadiah or his enemy King Abab. Mr. Savage was a dynamic foil for Meacham’s prophet.

An oratorio is nothing without a wonderful chorus. And the Chicago Symphony Chorus, under the masterful direction of Guest Conductor Eugene Rogers, was at least wonderful, as they switched roles with aplomb, from suffering Israelites to Angels, to Priests of Baal, their powerful contributions were some of the concert’s highlights. Finally the resurrected boy was played by young Lincoln Reed from the Hall’s balcony, giving her voice a wonderful supernatural quality suggesting a son already risen and another Son yet  to come.

The world famous Chicago Symphony Orchestra seemed at home with the oratorio format, perhaps due to their many Verdi staged operas under Riccardo Muti. They provided a magnificent soundtrack for God’s great story.

God’s prophets live in places like the oratorios of warning. Christianity “struggles to reconcile belief in a God who so loved the world that He sacrificed Himself for its salvation with the suffering of innocents. That was the nub of Voltaire’s attack on theodicy after the Lisbon earthquake killed 12,000 in 1755, as well as Ivan Karamazov’s protest that “if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price.”[ix]

“The post-Christian world, which eschews the mystery of Divine Providence in favor of a squeamish urge for earthly salvation, is all the more vulnerable to the theater of horror. The post-Christian West has become paralyzed by the fear that the world is beset by forces hostile to humankind, which J.R.R. Tolkien called “the black breath…Man is called to be God’s co-creator and perfect the work, by extirpating Amalek. Repelling Amalek emulates God’s creation of the world, and is an act of imitatio dei.”[ix]

PS. James Conlon has recently announced that he is leaving the L.A. Opera as Musical Director to “move on to a new phase of my professional activities.” With the General Directorship of the Lyric Opera vacant, the opera board should consider offering the position to Mr. Conlon. His many years of wide-ranging experience makes him one of the most knowledgeable and tasteful of opera makers who, together with Lyric Music Director Enrique Mazzola would constitute the country’s most Dynamic Duo of Opera Leaders. Chicagoans have shown their love and admiration for both men, and I believe both men love Chicago.

 [i] Jane Ackerman, Elijah, Prophet of Carmel ICS Publications; illustrated edition (April 5, 2003)

[ii] Ackerman.

[iii] Ackerman.

[iv] R. Larry Todd, Mendelssohn. A Life in Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. p. 545.

[v]Heinrich, Eduard Jacob, Felix Mendelssohn and His Times. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall,

Inc., 1963, p.55

[vii] F.G.Edwards The History of Mendelssohn’s Oratorio “Elijah”,  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (May 6, 2014).

[viii]  Holland, Henry Scott (1891). Memoir of Madame Jenny Lind-Goldschmidt. London: John Murray. pp. 429

[ix] David P. Goldman. ‘Horror and Humiliation in Gaza” Tablet Magazine 8 April 2024.

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