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(Bonn, N. Simrock; London, Ewer & Co. [1847?]) Irving S. Gilmore Music Library

Mendelssohn’s first oratorio, St. Paul (1836), achieved such an extraordinary success that it was a difficult act to follow. Mendelssohn immediately began contemplating the possibility of a second oratorio, and he even considered setting the story of Elijah. But for nearly a decade, these plans remained unfulfilled. He was apparently thinking about Elijah again in 1845, and when the Birmingham Music Festival commissioned him to compose an oratorio, he was ready to get to work.

As he had with St. Paul, Mendelssohn asked Julius Schubring, a friend and Lutheran pastor, to assemble a libretto from the German Bible. Because the audience in Birmingham expected an English-language oratorio, Schubring’s text had to be translated. Although Mendelssohn spoke English himself, he entrusted this assignment to his friend William Bartholomew. It was sometimes a delicate task, because many of the Biblical passages were famous ones, so English listeners would have been dismayed if they had heard literal translations of Luther’s German Bible rather than the King James version that was so familiar in England.

The premiere took place in Birmingham on August 26, 1846, under Mendelssohn’s direction. It was a tremendous success, and ever since Elijah has been widely regarded as the pre-eminent oratorio of the 19th century.

Today we usually think of Mendelssohn as the composer of two oratorios, but he was already at work on a third, Christus, when he died in 1847 at the age of only 38.