Right from its first performance in August 1846, before an audience of two thousand that had packed the Birmingham Town Hall, Mendelssohn’s Elijah was a hit. The Times raved, eight numbers were encored, and Mendelssohn himself, who conducted the premiere, wrote “No work of mine went so admirably the first time of execution, or was received with such enthusiasm by both the musicians and the audience.”
A correspondent from The Times confirmed Mendelssohn’s view of how beloved the work became in an instant:
The last note of Elijah was drowned in a long-continued unanimous volley of plaudits, vociferous, and deafening…. Never was there a more complete triumph; never a more thorough and speedy recognition of a great work of art.
The fame of Mendelssohn’s Elijah extends into the present. It remains one of the “greatest hits” in the English oratorio tradition, grouped with Handel’s Messiah and Haydn’s Creation as a favourite with choral societies everywhere. No doubt it remains so popular because of its dramatic plot and sophisticated yet tuneful music.
As Elijah opens, the prophet appears alone, delivering a curse because King Ahab has led the Israelites into idolatry. There will be no rain until the people turn away from Baal. In a series of dramatic confrontations between the people, portrayed by the chorus, and Elijah, all come to know “whose God is the Lord.” There is fire descending from heaven; there are earthquakes and whirlwinds and fiery horses. Great stuff!
The Peterborough Singers will perform this grand oratorio on Saturday, May 5, 2018 at 7:30 pm. Two of the guest soloists got their start in Peterborough and were once choristers with the Singers: Melody Thomas (soprano) and Adam Bishop (tenor). Marjorie Maltais (mezzo), who is coming off a 2016–17 performance of Elijah with Toronto’s Pax Christi Chorale, and Alex Dobson (bass), who is a favourite of Peterborough audiences, round out the list of performers.