Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Act I, Scene 3

Mendelssohn was at no point in his life a Jew. Though not baptized until age seven, he was not circumcised and never attended a Jewish school or entered a synagogue. But he came from a prominent Jewish family and had many Jewish relatives. (Certainly this was more than enough for racists like Richard Wagner to consider him Jewish.) So it is reasonable to see, as many do, Elijah as Mendelssohn’s effort to reconcile his Jewish heritage with his Protestant faith. In such a reading, Elijah acts as a kind of surrogate or precursor to Jesus, with Obadiah doing the same for John the Baptist. (One could take this further, with Ahab and Jezebel acting as Herod and Pontius Pilate, and the Baal worshipers as the Pharisees, or the Jews of “free Barrabus” fame.)

In any case, Christian audiences are likely notice similarities between the events of the Gospels and those of Elijah’s life as he retakes the stage for the first time since since the Introduction: hermitage in the desert, turning a limited food supply inexhaustible, and raising the dead.

An angel appears to Elijah, telling him to hide in the desert by a wadi (a riverbed where water runs only intermittently) called Cherith, presumably to avoid the wrath of those affected by the drought, where ravens will feed him. Mendelssohn originally intended to include some bird-like music, though apparently the idea was scrapped. Instead, the chorus sings to Elijah that angels will protect him. It’s three minutes of music, but it covers three years of Elijah’s life: if Elijah were a movie, this chorus would serve as the music for a montage of Elijah’s activities at Cherith: wandering, eating food from the ravens, and (probably) praying.

When the wadi runs dry, the angel reappears and tells Elijah to find a widow in Zarephath, a town then in Sidon, now in Lebanon. The angel mentions that the widow’s puny stock of meal and oil will be miraculously replenished, but the widow doesn’t know this, so when Elijah appears and asks her for bread, she’s less than thrilled. (Mendelssohn leaves this out, but in the Bible the widow essentially says, “I’m going to make what little I can for me and my son, and then we’ll both die.”)

What follows is one of Elijah’s major setpieces. The widow’s son falls gravely ill (it’s not initially clear if he’s actually dead: there’s “no breath left in him”), and she takes out her despair on Elijah: “What have I to do with thee?” (Basically, “Can’t you just leave us alone?”) The solo oboe acts as a kind of avatar for the widow, personifying her agitation. The curse motive makes an appearance, on “affliction,” “go mourning,” and “lie down and weep.”

Elijah agrees to beseech Yahweh for aid, in a mini-aria whose key (E major) and repeated string eighth notes echo “Comfort ye” from Handel’s Messiah. The widow grows increasingly skeptical as Elijah’s pleas have no effect. (In the Bible, it’s explicit that Elijah cries out three times, which, as future scenes show, is the typical number of attempts one needs to call upon a god.) Elijah’s final plea, less lyric, more emphatic, and aided by trombones, is effective: the son lives. We hear the curse motive again (on “reviveth”) but of course this act of God is not a “curse” but a blessing, and the motive is flipped: the tritone leap goes up instead of down. The widow finally comes around, and she and Elijah sing a joyous and grateful duet.

This scene is one of the most overtly operatic numbers in Elijah, with a clear narrative progression like what one might find in duet between lovers: first each of the pair sings individually, lamenting some difficulty in their circumstances, before reconciling at the end. (This is the only place in the oratorio where two specified characters sing simultaneously.) It’s not hard to hear the widow’s final vow to love Him “with all my soul, and all my might” as referring to a lover rather than Yahweh.

The duet of Elijah and the widow is followed segue by theological commentary from the chorus – “Blessed are the men who fear Him.” While not part of the narrative, it shows the affects of the first major development of the oratorio: the curse motive of the drought transfigured to express the resurrection of the child. Thus the chorus ends with the curse motive used on the word “Blessed” – blessing and curse are one.

Next: Elijah confronts Ahab.

Earlier:
Overview
Act I, Introduction and Scene 1
Act I, Scene 2

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