Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy
(1809 - 1847)

Mendelssohn

When in [Giacomo Meyerbeer's 1831 opera] Robert le diable
one nun after another appears trying to seduce the hero,
until the abbess is finally successful; when the hero,
overcome by magic, appears in the bedroom of his beloved
and pushes her away in a manner for which the audience
here applauds, and the audience and Germany will applaud
also; when in another opera the girl undresses and sings a
song at the same time about how she will be married the
next day at that time: it is effective, but I have no music
for this. Because it is mean-spirited, and if that is what
today's times are calling for, I will rather write church music.


This letter written by the 22 year-old Felix Mendelssohn to his father in December
1831 expresses the young composer's frustration with the lack of spiritual or even
moral content in the musical repertoire of his time. Only a few months later
Mendelssohn began work on his first oratorio, St. Paul, which quickly became his
most ambitious project up to that point. During the five years of work on the
oratorio, Mendelssohn started his professional career in Dusseldorf, establishing
himself as a conductor and a composer. While in Dusseldorf he explored different
genres in church music, opera, and concert music. After completing the first draft of
St. Paul, Mendelssohn moved to Leipzig, finishing his first oratorio one year later.
St. Paul put on hold Mendelssohn's lifelong search for an opera libretto, perhaps
satisfying temporarily his desire to compose a dramatic work. When Mendelssohn
began work on St. Paul, he settled away from home for the first time. Before he
finished the oratorio his father had died, and Mendelssohn had found a new
companion in his wife Cecile Jeanrenaud (her father Auguste had been a pastor of a
French reformed Church in Frankfurt, Germany). During the compositional phases
of St. Paul, Mendelssohn focused almost exclusively on this one major work,
limiting his other output to a few songs and piano pieces. By the time Mendelssohn
finished St. Paul, it had become an immensely important part of his life.

Only half of the five years Mendelssohn worked on St. Paul were spent on the music.
He spent the first two and a half years on the libretto. The fact that Mendelssohn
asked for help with the libretto from three different people one musician, Adolf
Bernhard Marx, and two theologians, Julius Furst and Julius Schubring - shows the
seriousness with which Mendelssohn approached his first oratorio; it also reflects
the fact, however, that the composer was entering new territory.

Mendelssohn viewed the oratorio - contrary to the modern, dramatic approach of
Friedrich Schneider as music for edification. His models were not the lyric,
expressive oratorios of Louis Spohr either, but rather the large-scale choral works
of Bach and Handel. Mendelssohn realized that his idea of oratorio was different
from the modern approach, as one can see in a letter from his father Abraham:

The question, however, ought to be put in a different
form, not whether Handel would compose his oratorios
now as he did a century since, but rather, whether he
would compose any oratorios whatever; hardly-if they
only could be written in the styles of those of the present
day. From my saying this you may gather with what
eager anticipation and confidence I look forward to your
oratorio, which will, I trust, solve the problem of combining
ancient conceptions with modern appliances.

During the composition of the initial draft, Mendelssohn worked from several
libretto drafts. As the work progressed, however, the composer began to work
directly from the Bible:

When I am composing, I usually look at the Scriptural
passages myself, and thus you will find that much is simpler,
shorter and more compressed than in your text; whereas at
that time I could not get words enough, and was constantly
longing for more. Since I have set to work, however, I feel
very differently, and I can now make a selection

As he methodically composed the oratorio from beginning to end, he changed the
libretto frequently and substantially. Although Mendelssohn started with the text,
during the process of composing the oratorio the text and the music influenced
each other, creating the single expression Mendelssohn wanted to convey.

One of the fundamental questions to be settled was whether to use the chorale
(Protestant German hymn) the way Bach did in his Passions:

And I mainly want your opinion... if you think I could use
chorales? I was most emphatically advised against it by
[Adolf Bernhard] Marx and others, and yet I cannot decide
to give up the chorale completely, because I think that the
chorale is a natural component of every oratorio from
the New Testament.

Mendelssohn's comment clearly indicates that he made a distinction in his approach
to stories of the Old Testament and the New Testament. To Mendelssohn an
oratorio based on a New Testament event was-because of its more immediate
relevance to Christian living-as much edificational as it was dramatic. The
composer's decision to incorporate chorales into the dramatic presentation as
points of reflection and response is based on his experience during his historic
performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion in 1829:

... they sang with such devotion, as if they were in church.
The first two performances went wonderfully, and it became
clear once again that the audience is good; they felt that this
was not mere music and concert, this was about religion
and church.

Mendelssohn wanted to write a work with spiritual substance in a time when the
communal focus had shifted from the church to the concert hall. To Mendelssohn
and to many of his contemporaries, however, the concert hall was more than a
place of entertainment; it was a platform where profound ideas and concepts were
shared and where religious experiences were desired. Mendelssohn's intent in
writing St. Paul was to provide an edifying experience by creating an intense and
realistic representation of Paul's life and drawing spiritual applications.

St. Paul was premiered on May 22, 1836 (Pentecost) at the Lower Rhine Music
Festival in Dusseldorf. Numerous performances followed in England, Germany,
Switzerland, Denmark, Holland, Poland, Russia, and the United States (in Boston
in 1837, New York in 1838, and in Baltimore in 1839). It was Mendelssohn's most
popular work during his lifetime.

Dr. Siegwart Reichwald
Professor of Musicology, Palm Beach Atlantic University
Author of "The Musical Genesis of Felix Mendelssohn's Paulus"