Frome Voices, a choir of over one hundred singers from various musical backgrounds, have chosen Felix Mendelssohn’s great oratorio Elijah for their annual concert. Taking place on Sunday 22nd March at the Cheese and Grain, Frome, at 7.30pm, the soloists will be Jackdaws Artistic Director Saffron van Zwanenberg, Jackdaws tutor Penelope Davies, 2012 Vocal Awards Finalist baritone Thomas Humphreys and tenor David Webb.
Elijah was first performed in the Birmingham Town Hall on the morning of 26th August 1846 with an orchestra of 125 and a choir of 79 sopranos, 69 altos (all male), 60 tenors and 72 basses. The performance was an immense success with The Times reporting “Never was there a more complete triumph, never a more thorough and speedy recognition of a great work of art”.
Structurally, the work is clearly influenced by the choral masterpieces of Bach and Handel, but its highly dramatic style, at times bordering on the operatic, constitutes a significant step forward from its baroque predecessors. Unlike many of these oratorios, Elijah does not follow a continuous story, but is a succession of tableaux depicting scenes from the prophet’s life, interspersed with prayer-like meditations.
Ahab, the King of Israel, has married Jezabel, the daughter of the Phoenician King of Sidon. Jezabel persuades Ahab that the worship of the Phoenician god Baal should become the official state religion, and that those who remained faithful to Jehovah should be punished. Elijah now appears and prophesies a drought in the land of Israel in punishment for their worship of this false new god. Ahab’s followers now search in vain for Elijah who has taken refuge with a widow in Zarephath, but she has only enough food for one meal. She is told by Elijah to trust in the Lord who will provide, and her stock of food is miraculously replenished during each night that Elijah spends in her house. During this time her son becomes ill and dies, but he is restored to life after Elijah prays three times over his body.
After three years Elijah returns to confront Ahab and challenges his priests to invoke the power of their god Baal by lighting a fire under a sacrificial offering on Mount Carmel. The priests pray in vain during which time they are mocked by Elijah who then prays to Jehovah who answers by sending down a column of fire which consumes the sacrifice. The people of Israel now repent, and the priests of Baal are executed. Elijah now prays to God for an end to the drought, and rain falls on the parched land.
“Never was there a more complete triumph” The Times, after Elijah’s first performance
Elijah’s victory is short lived and Jezabel provokes the crowd against him, forcing him to retreat once more to the desert. He despairs over his inability to restore the Israelites back to the true faith, but an angel appears to him and instructs him to go the summit of Mount Horeb where the Lord will appear to him. There now comes a mighty wind followed by an earthquake, and finally a raging fire; Jehovah is not to be found in any of these, but he comes in a still, small voice which tells Elijah to return to Israel where he has a final confrontation with Ahab together with his son Ahaziah who both repent and return to the true faith. Elijah has been instructing his own successor, Elisha, who watches in awe and wonder as a fiery chariot with fiery horses appears, and the prophet is taken up into heaven in a whirlwind.
“this local group is fast becoming a well honed and superbly musical entity” – Alastair Johnston on Frome Symphony