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St. Paul

(Bonn: N. Simrock; London: I. A. Novello, [1837])

From the Estate of Irene Stoeckel, Irving S. Gilmore Music Library

Saint-Paul Oratorio Cover
Many nineteenth-century German musicians and critics deemed the oratorio the loftiest of all musical genres; they often contrasted its grandeur and seriousness with what they saw as the frivolity of much Italian and French opera. A profound admirer of the choral masterworks of Bach and Handel, Mendelssohn had considerable sympathy for this view. Although his St. Paul (or Paulus, as it is known in German) is an oratorio, its greatest kinship is with Bach’s passions and cantatas. Like them, it makes extensive use of traditional Protestant chorales, beginning with the overture, which borrows the melody of “Wachet auf” (“Sleepers, Wake”). The publisher even quoted the text of “Wachet auf” on the title page (displayed here), around the cross that appears just below the word “Paulus.”

Mendelssohn composed St. Paul at a pivotal time in his life. His father, Abraham Mendelssohn, died on November 19, 1835, and on May 4, 1836, he met Cécile Jeanrenaud, whom he married the following year. The text undoubtedly had a strong personal meaning for him, because he, like St. Paul, was a convert from Judaism to Christianity.

The premiere of St. Paul took place on May 22, 1836 at the Lower Rhine Festival in Düsseldorf; Mendelssohn conducted an enormous chorus and orchestra. The performance, though not without its shaky moments, was widely acclaimed, and St. Paul quickly became Mendelssohn’s most popular work. It proved to be an important turning point in his career; although Mendelssohn had been something of a celebrity since his youth, the overwhelming success of this oratorio established his status as the dominant composer of his era. Today St. Paul is performed less often than Elijah, but it still ranks among the principal oratorios of the 19th century.