Saint Paul Oratorio
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847)
"Saint Paul," first of Mendelssohn’s oratorios, was begun in Düsseldorf and finished
in Leipzig in the winter of 1835, the composer being then in his twenty-sixth year.
Its three principal themes are the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, the conversion of
Saint Paul, and the apostle’s subsequent career. The work was first produced
May 22, 1836, on the occasion of the Lower Rhine Festival at Düsseldorf.
After a long and expressive overture for orchestra and organ, the first part opens
with a strong and exultant chorus ("Lord! Thou alone art God"). It is massively
constructed, and in its middle part runs into a restless, agitated theme ("The
Heathen furiously rage"). It closes, however, in the same energetic and jubilant
manner which characterizes its opening, and leads directly to a chorale ("To God
on high"), set to a famous old German hymn-book tune ("Allein Gott in der Höh'
sei Ehr"), which is serenely beautiful in its clearly flowing harmony. The
martyrdom of Stephen follows. The basses in vigorous recitative accused him of
blasphemy, and the people break out in an angry chorus ("Now this Man ceaseth
not to utter blasphemous Words"). At its close Stephen sings a brief, but beautiful
solo ("Men, Brethen, and Fathers!"); and as the calm protest dies away, again the
full chorus gives vent to a tumultuous shout of indignation ("Take him away").
A note of warning is heard in the fervent soprano solo ("Jerusalem, thou that killest
the Prophets"); but it is of no avail. Again the chorus hurls its imprecations more
furiously than before ("Stone him to Death"). The tragedy occurs. A few bars of
recitative for tenor, full of pathos, tell the sad story, and the follows another
beautiful chorale of submission ("To Thee, O Lord, I yield my Spirit"). The lament
for Stephen is followed by the chorus ("Happy and blest are they"), which is
beautifully melodious in character.
Saul now appears, "breathing out threatenings and slaughter" against the Apostles.
His first aria ("Consume them all" ) is a bass solo which is fiery in its energy. It is
followed by the lovely arioso for alto ("But the Lord is mindful of His own").
Then occurs the conversion. The voice from heaven ("Saul, Saul, why persecutest
thou Me?") is represented, as was often done in the passion- music, by the soprano
choir, which gives it peculiar significance and makes it stand out in striking contrast
with the rest of the work. A forcible orchestral interlude, worked up in a strong
crescendo, leads to the vigorous chorus ("Rise up! arise!") in which the powerful
orchestral climax adds great strength to the vocal part. It is a vigorously constructed
chorus, and is followed by a chorale ("Sleepers, wake! a Voice is calling"), the effect
of which is heightened by trumpet notes between the lines. At the close of the
imposing harmony the music grows deeper and more serious in character as Saul
breathes out his prayer ("O God, have Mercy upon me"); and again, after the
message of forgiveness and mercy delivered by Ananias, more joyful and exultant
in the bass solo with chorus ("I praise Thee, O Lord, my God"), Saul receives his
sight, and straightway begins his ministrations. A grand reflective chorus
("Oh, great is the Depth of the Riches of Wisdom"), strong and jubilant in character,
and rising to a powerful climax, closes the first part.
The second part opens with the five-part chorus ("The Nations are now the Lord’s")
-- a clear fugue, stately and dignified in its style, leading, after a tenor and bass duet
("Now all are Ambassadors in the Name of Christ"), to the melodious chorus ("How
lovely are the Messengers that preach us the Gospel of Peace!") and the soprano
arioso ("I will sing of Thy great Mercies"). After the chorus ("Thus saith the Lord"),
and a second tumultuous chorus expressive of rage and scorn ("Is this He who in
Jerusalem"), another chorale occurs ("O Thou, the true and only Light"), in which
the Church prays for direction. The tenor recitative announcing the departure of
Paul and Barnabas to the Gentiles, followed by the tenor and bass duet ("For so
hath the Lord Himself commanded"), leads to the scene of the sacrifice at Lystra,
in which the two choruses ("The Gods themselves as Mortals") and ("Oh, be
gracious, ye Immortals"), are sensuous and in striking contrast with the
seriousness and majestic character of the harmony in the Christian chorus ("But
our God abideth in Heaven") which follows. Once more the Jews interfere, in the
raging, wrathful chorus ("This is Jehovah’s Temple"). In a pathetic tenor aria
("Be thou faithful unto Death") Paul takes a sorrowful leave of his brethren, and
in response comes an equally tender chorus ("Far be it from thy Path"). Two
stately choruses ("See what Love hath the Father") and ("Now only unto Him")
close the work.