Mendelssohn introduces us to Elijah much as he is introduced in Bible: with virtually no preamble. In 1 Kings, Elijah is given no origin story nor genealogy; the only biographical information we get is that he is from Tishbe in Gilead. Yet he has earned enough clout as a prophet to gain audience with Ahab, the king of Israel, and declare: “As God the Lord of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall be no shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.”
When Elijah declares the drought, we hear for the first time a series of twisty interlocking tritones, a melodic fragment associated initially with curses and affliction but which will eventually go through various transformations and take on new meanings – a leitmotif if ever there was one. (And pervasive: this instance, 30 seconds into the piece, is the first; the last will be 30 seconds from the end.)
Mendelssohn initially intended to go directly from the Introduction to the first chorus, but his English translator convinced him to insert an instrumental overture between the two, resulting in the unusual scenario where the Overture occurs in the midst of the drama, connected both to the preceding and following numbers. Thus the Overture, a fugue which gradually becomes more and more agitated (and whose fabric is shot through with the curse motive), can be heard as the increasing desperation of the starving Israelites.
(The Introduction and Overture also thus combine to form a structure typical of overtures by Bach and Handel: a slow, declamatory beginning followed by a faster, fugal section. Both Bach’s B Minor Mass and Handel’s Messiah, among many others, follow this pattern.)
The Overture culminates with a segue into the first Chorus, where the Israelites cry for relief at the top of their lungs (“Help, Lord”) and describe the difficulties of their situation (“the rivers are exhausted, the children ask for bread”). This Chorus too is a fugue, giving the impression of a crowd of people speaking over top of each other while once again evincing the work’s Baroque inspiration.
While much of Elijah is dramatic, its status as an oratorio means that at semi-regular intervals, we step outside the narrative to provide commentary or reflection. The first of these, a Duet with choral interjections, follows immediately from the opening Chorus: a lament on behalf of the Israelites (“Zion spreadeth her hands for aid, and there is neither help nor comfort”).
These first four pieces (Introduction, Overture, Chorus, Duet), which are performed attacca without interruption, serve to set the stage. Next we meet one of the few Israelites faithful to Yahweh.