Monday, April 6, 2015

Blimey, Elijah!

Last month, the Cumbria Rural Choirs presented Mendelssohn's oratorio, "Elijah".

It is a lot of years (better hadn't say how many) since I first sang it, as a soprano in our school choir. We performed it in the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool, one of the great Merseyside singing spaces, along with "Paddy's Wigwam", the Catholic cathedral. Yes, we sang there too. Doris Parkinson forced us to be VERY good indeed.

Thinking back, at seventeen I found the story of "Elijah" a confusing one. Having sung it again now, this time as a tenor and a grannie, I realise the music carries it, from the opening curse to Elijah's triumphant gallop into heaven; but my word, the action is nasty.

Here's a run-down:

1 Elijah gets a cob on because the Israelites don't worship his god.
2 He curses Israel, saying his god will stop the rain for three years, and all the children begin to die of hunger and thirst (nice, huh?)
3 He challenges the priests of Israel's other religion (Baal) to a burn-the-bullock contest.
4 He gets lucky, lightning strikes when it's his turn so everybody says his god is the winner. The spectators seize on the priests of Baal and kill them.
5 He prays for rain and a storm comes and produces a flood (this bit probably wouldn't have gone down well in Carlisle 10 years ago).
6 Yay, god is good. Cups of tea in the interval.
7 Ahab and Jezebel are pissed off that Elijah had all their priests killed (did I forget to mention that it was his idea?).
8 They wind up the people into a murderous mood.
9 Elijah legs it into the wilderness (you can see why), tells himself he's a failure, and is comforted by the angels.
10 Then (the ultimate Deus ex Machina) his god takes him to heaven in a Fy-erry Fy-erry Charr-Yot with Fy-erry Fy-erry Horses.
11 Wrap and curtain.

I have no doubt that Mendelssohn's contemporaries thought this was a jolly good story. The oratorio has undoubtedly survived, and is still sung with enthusiasm in both English and German.

I find the whole thing much more thought provoking these days than I did back in the 1960s. Maybe it's due to the extensive TV coverage of current events.

Even if we only look at the first couple of points in the story: "You aren't worshipping the same god as I do, so I'm going to curse and punish you." Disregard the Christian / Abrahamic skin under which Mendelssohn wrote, and just consider the premise. Isn't this the same excuse that's given for war by groups like ISIS and Al-Quaeda?

The second point, a three-year drought and resulting famine, is something we're all familiar with from news coverage. What I can't buy is the idea that a prophet calls down such suffering on his people. I'd accept that he might cash in on existing events and say that the drought is because they have been wicked; there are plenty of precedents for religious fundamentalists claiming that disasters are 'intended' to turn other people towards their own beliefs - and in the case of war, creating merry hell with the same intention.

Back to "Elijah". The music in the oratorio is wonderful, and Andrew Mahon, the young bass-baritone who sang the part of the prophet last month, has a part of my heart forever for his wonderful voice and dramatic interpretation. But I can't put Elijah himself on a heroic pedestal. Yeah, I know, it is just a story. So is Noah's Flood. Biblical hokum at its best. But it has a lot of modern parallels, and for me, Elijah-the-prophet needs to be dropped into the same deep hole as any other religious extremist.


Sue Bursztynski said...

I have to admit ton it having seen/heard this one, though I like my oratorios(Handel's Israel in Egypt is a favourite). But I have never thought much of Elijah, even if he IS supposed to turn up at our Seder table at Passover. Nor of his acolyte Elisha. And I can recall a rabbi who said to our class, "If someone came to you and said, 'Hey, he went up to heaven in a fiery chariot and said to tell you I'm in charge now,' what would YOU think? Yeah, me too.: He killed him."

Not a nice man! But oratorios are great!

Sue Bursztynski said...

PS If you like this oratorio you might enjoy Kerry Greenwood's mystery Murder And Mendelssohn which has a production of Elijah in Melbourne in 1929. Good fun, though I confess I picked out whodunnit before the end. But the murder of an obnoxious choirmaster whose mouth is stuffed with the music... Chuckle!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting piece on Elijah.