Does “Personent Hodie” have anything to do with persons wearing hoodies?


Picture

Sorry.  Couldn’t resist.  And of course the answer is “no,” although hooded monks have probably sung this carol many times through the ages.

So what does it mean, and (leading question here) are there any interesting facts about the song’s background?  “Personent” means to resound or resonate, literally “to sound through.”  “Hodie” shows up in many Latin Christmas carols; it simply means “today” or “this day.”  So the title means something like “let resounding happen today.”  And who is doing this resounding?  Children.  “Voces puerulae” means “puerile” or young voices.  Well, that would make sense, wouldn’t it?  Christmas has lots of associations with children, beginning with the Christ child.  We all want our children to have wonderful memories of family celebrations and to get the presents they want. 

The association with children in this song, though, is pretty dark.  The original text seems to have been addressed to St. Nicholas and sung on his saint’s day, Dec. 6, with the first line saying,  “Make a thunderous noise from all the churches on this day of great joy.”  But since Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of children, among other groups, and since his saint’s day is so close to Christmas, the song was changed to reflect another day, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, on Dec. 28.  If you read the commentaries on last year’s concert you’ll remember our selection the “Coventry Carol” with its strange references to slain children.  The source of that story is in the Gospel of Matthew, where we’re told about Herod’s killing all children under the age of two after the Wise Men come to him looking for “the King of the Jews.”  The feast day commemorating that massacre came to be a time when children got to stand in for the adults, with a “boy bishop” being put in the place of the adult one and boy choristers replacing the men in the choir stalls. 

The text has an unusual repetition of syllables within each verse:  “vir, vir, vir,” “dit, dit, dit,” “thus, thus, thus” and “o, o, o.”   There seems to be an idea (I don’t think I want to state it any more strongly) that these repeated syllables originally represented three children whom the saint helped out in various legends, the most famous being about three girls who were too poor for dowries and were going to be sold into prostitution by their father.  St. Nicholas threw purses full of gold into their windows or, alternatively, down the chimney.  There’s even a Sweeney Todd-ish take on the story, with children being murdered and either pickled in barrels as ham or baked into meat pies.  St. Nicholas brings them back to life.  And of course he’s the original Santa Claus, known for going about giving gifts of all sorts. 

The legends of St. Nicholas and the riotous changing of roles between adults and children don’t enter the actual text of the song, though.  Instead, it sticks pretty closely to New Testament doctrine.  I would love to go through it line by line but will limit myself to the ones with repeated syllables.  The first one is pretty obvious:  the “virgineo” is Mary.  The “perdit spolia” line refers to “lost spoils” by the “Princeps Infernorum,” or Satan, the Prince of Hell, those spoils that he has lost being the souls of men.  “Thus” means “incense,” one of the three gifts of the Magi.  (If you know anything about Roman Catholic or Anglican ritual you’ll remember the “thurible” that holds the smoking incense and is swung back and forth during a service; that word is from the same Latin root as “thus.”)  “Ideo” means “for that reason” or “and so.”  A neat little play on words here, “ideo” and “Deo.”   (I can’t resist mentioning the word “involvitur,” which refers to the swaddling clothes that the baby Jesus was wrapped in:  you can see the word “involve” there.  We still say, “I got all wrapped up” to mean “I got all involved.”)

It’s quite fitting that we’re using this carol as our processional, isn’t it?  Just imagine the entrance of the children into a medieval cathedral, holding candles and singing.  A very legitimate form of time travel!


A Pair of Geographically-Named Carols

Was the Sussex carol written in Sussex, and the Wexford carol in Wexford?

With this question we are plunged back in to the delightful, charming, and sometimes weird world of traditional Christmas carols, and indeed of folk music in general. Since true folk music, and not someone’s attempt to write something that sounds like folk music, is passed down orally before being written, it’s always pretty much impossible to find the original version, if indeed there is such a thing.

Picture

So, let’s start with the so-called Sussex Carol, also often titled by the words of the first line, “On Christmas Night.” The words were first published in the 1600’s by an Irish bishop. But wait a minute! Sussex isn’t in Ireland; it’s in southeast England. Why isn’t it called The Dublin Carol, or the Galway Carol, or even (just to confuse things) the Wexford Carol, since Wexford is in Ireland? The answer has to do with where the tune was first written down, which was indeed in Sussex. Apparently (I’m making an assumption here without reading a detailed biography), Ralph Vaughn Williams was going around in the early 1900’s getting elderly people to sing folk songs to him so that he could record them. (And don’t pronounce his first name as “Ralph”! He hated being called “Ralph.” He considered the correct pronunciation to be Rafe.) There were apparently several musical historians doing this work, much like what was done under the auspices of the Library of Congress here in the US. So the only reason why we call it the Sussex carol is that Williams heard the tune from someone named Harriet Verrall of Monk’s Gate, near Horsham, Sussex. (You can see where the town is on Google maps; it looks pretty tiny. I’m sure there’s a story behind its name, probably lost to history.) Don’t these bare facts conjure up a whole narrative? Here’s the young Williams in the hamlet of Monk’s Gate, being directed to the home of Mrs. Verrall who, he’s been told, knows a lot of old folk songs. She’s sitting in a rocking chair with a blanket over her arthritic knees, and her cloudy blue eyes gaze into nothingness as she sings in her quavery voice . . . . Well, it could have happened like that! Whatever the specific situation, Williams really liked her version. He used it in his 1912 “Fantasia on Christmas Carols” and in his collection called “Eight Traditional Christmas Carols.” You are most likely to be familiar with this carol from its inclusion in the King’s College “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.”

Picture

So much for our carol from Sussex. On to Wexford! This one seems to be quite ancient, with some sources saying that it dates back to the 12th century and is one of the the oldest extant carols that we have. But it wasn’t published until 1928 when it was included in the Oxford Book of Carols. The music director from a cathedral in Wexford transcribed it from “a local singer,” but here no name is given for that person. So what we have is an early 20th-century version that someone sang to a professional musician, who wrote it down and made who knows what changes, managing to get it into a prestigious publication. There is a Gaelic version as well as an English one, so I guess that’s what this “local singer” actually sang. I’m afraid my Gaelic is pretty rusty, so I don’t know how closely the English version follows it. Anyway, one bit of irony about the traditions connected with this carol is that only men were allowed to sing it, but one of its most famous performances is by Julie Andrews. (I’d never heard her sing it and so of course went on YouTube; if you’re like me you can hear it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mw347lLESKs. Lovely, although quite a bit different from our arrangement and wording.)

Both of these carols strongly emphasize the purpose of Christ’s coming to earth and not the holiday itself. So there’s no mention of feasting, or gift-giving, or dancing. Instead, both carols clearly spell out the bigger implications of the Christmas story. The sacrificial aspect is noted in the line, “What our good God for us has done/In sending his beloved Son.” Salvation for mankind is emphasized repeatedly: “Oh why should men on earth be sad/When our Redeemer made us glad,“ “When from our sins he set us free/All for to gain our liberty,” and “All out of darkness we have light.”

But not all traditional carols are quite so traditional in doctrine. I have to stop here and pontificate a bit on the absolute weirdest folk carol I’ve run across so far in my research, although technically it’s not a Christmas carol per se since it’s about Jesus’ childhood, not His birth, but it’s included in some old carol collections. It could almost be classified as blasphemous, since it involves a prank that the child Jesus purportedly pulls on some uppity young noblemen, a prank with fatal consequences. But the song, silly and offensive as it may be, has some very interesting theological ideas hidden within it. So, the story goes, one rainy day the child Jesus asks Mary if He can go outside and play ball. He runs out and meets up with three noble children. “Will you play ball with me?” He asks. “Not hardly,” they say, sniffily. “We are highborn, but you are a maiden’s child, of lowly birth.” (Note that they call Jesus “a maiden’s child,” implying that he doesn’t have a legitimate father.) So Jesus gets mad and says that He’ll show them that He is above them all:

Now our savior built a bridge with the beams of the sun
and over the water ran he, ran he
And the three jolly children followed after him
And drowned they were all three.

The mothers of the three dead children come crying to Mary to tell her what Jesus has done, and Mary promptly picks a handful of “withies,” or willow twigs, and gives Jesus “slashes three.” (If you’re of a certain age, you may remember the practice of children being spanked with a “switch,” and even being told to go cut the switch that’s going to be used to spank them.) Jesus curses the “bitter withy,” the willow that has given Mary her weapon, saying that it “shall be the very first tree that shall perish right at the heart.” So one point of this legend is that it explains why the willow tree rots from the inside rather than the outside. (Is that really true? Any arborists reading this post may reply.) The idea of Jesus walking on water is neatly included also. But there’s a lot more going on here, because there were serious theological discussions about the nature of Christ on earth: Was He truly God and truly man, both at the same time? If He had a human nature, could that human nature sin? Did He ever misbehave as a child and need discipline? At some point these questions made their way into this song, and we know it’s a true folk song because there are many versions of it.

So the folk carols that the Chorale is actually singing, from Sussex or Wexford or wherever, tell the beautiful Christmas story straightforwardly, and carols such as “The Bitter Withy” remind us that there were all sorts of extra-Biblical ideas that became traditional legends as time went on. (At some point in these posts I want to write about another truly strange one, “The Cherry Tree Carol.” But we’ll leave that for later.) It’s good to be reminded that Christmas carols aren’t just pretty songs; they include concepts that people have thought worthy of discussion, argument, and even persecution. Understanding those ideas cannot help but enrich the experience of the performers and the audience.

Is “Joy to the World” a Christmas song?


Picture

Hey, isn’t that a pretty dumb question? “Joy to the World” is one of the most traditional of Christmas carols. At least, that’s what most of us would say. But a quick look at the words reveals no mention of mangers, angels, shepherds, stars, or Christ as a baby. So what’s the song really about?

I was intrigued to see the name “Isaac Watts” as the author of the lyrics. He’s known as the author of many famous hymns, including “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past.” So it wouldn’t be surprising for him to have written about Christmas. A little digging, though, shows that his lyrics are drawn from a collection he wrote titled Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. His goal was to take a selection of Hebrew Psalms, in particular the ones attributed to David, and re-write them to fit into a singable meter and, more importantly to him, into Christian doctrine. Our supposed carol is actually the last half of Psalm 98. Here are the words of the verses usually included, taken from the King James Bible:

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise. Sing unto the Lord with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a psalm. With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the Lord, the King. Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together before the Lord; for he cometh to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity.

Watts has re-written the above to refer specifically not to the first coming of Christ to earth but to the second, not to the humble birth in the stable but to the coming in triumph when “the Savior reigns.” When you realize the source of the song the words begin to make more sense. So the line, “While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plans/Repeat the sounding joy” might imply that the song of the angels to the shepherds was echoing all around the landscape. That’s what I’ve always vaguely thought, anyway. The psalm clearly refers, though, to God’s coming in judgment to set all things right, an event so joyous that even the “floods clap their hands.” (Isn’t that a great image?) God’s blessings will then flow “far as the curse is found.” Watts is referring to the curse of sin put on humankind when Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, but we don’t typically stop and think, “What curse?” The last verse clearly portrays a world under the direct rule of God: He makes the nations prove (show the truth of) His glorious righteousness.

So how did this hymn become known as a Christmas carol? It’s not completely clear, but what we do know is that Lowell Mason, a leading American church musician, published it in 1839, adapting the words to an old hymn tune. I can’t tell if Mason categorized it as a Christmas carol or if that came later. It’s now firmly established as a part of this season, though, and who would want to do away with that connection? Understanding the original intent of its author can only enrich our enjoyment as we sing its beautiful words.

What is distinctive about Ron Jeffers, composer of “Hanukkah Blessings”?

Picture

What’s distinctive about him is that he’s a living composer who has produced a significant amount of original music and arrangements, all for sale as sheet music from various outlets including his own company, Earthsongs, and whose music is performed quite frequently if YouTube is anything to go by, and yet . . . he has no online presence whatsoever.  No personal website.  No blog, No (worst of all) Wikipedia entry!  How is this possible?  In fact, if I hadn’t looked under “Ronald Jeffers” instead of either “Ron Jeffers” or “Ronald Harrison Jeffers,” I wouldn’t have gotten much information beyond his date and place of birth and a list of his publications.

But no matter.  Perhaps such reticence is refreshing in a time when all is revealed, all the time.  I got quite tickled at the entry for him that I finally tracked down on the website of Oregon State University, where he is a professor emeritus in the music department.  There is a brief bio for him, but the e-mail contact link doesn’t work, the “media” tab produces the message “I currently have no images uploaded,” and he doesn’t even list his publications.  There is a photo of him as a rather distinguished-looked bearded gentleman (he was born in 1943), and that’s it.  Self-promoting he is not.

By looking at his music company and his books, though, we can get a pretty good idea of what he’s about:

1.      He’s interested in text and not just music.  So, his main published work beside his music is a four-volume series titled Translations and Annotations of Choral Repertoire, in which he gives word-by-word translations of works in Latin, German, French and Italian, and, most relevant for our selection, Hebrew.

2.      He’s interested in the diversity of music, as evidenced in the motto of Earthsongs:  “One world – many voices.”  The company even sells pronunciation guides and CD’s for fifty-nine different languages.  Makes the three non-English languages we’re singing in this concert seem pretty paltry!

But what of our actual selection?  Jeffers has taken the three traditional blessings that are sung for the eight nights of Hanukkah and put them in a haunting, minor-keyed setting.  Each verse begins with the words “Baruch Atah, Adonai Elohenu, Melech haolam” (“Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the World”) and then goes on to list a blessing God has given:  He has sanctified His people by His commandments, performed miracles for them, and allowed them to reach the present.  Since Jeffers has provided his signature literal translation on the cover, we know that the last line means “and who has allowed us to reach season this.”  In other words, God’s work is ongoing.  That last word, with the basses hitting their dramatic low note, says “this:”  this time, this place, this situation.  This is what He has given.


Parts of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” seem awfully dark.  Why is that?


Picture

Our concert takes its title from the above carol, and we’re singing two versions of it, so it seems appropriate to look at its background. In particular, the line “For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth good will to men” seems a bit jarring. Are these words a reference to the state of the world in general, or is there a more specific meaning here?

In order to answer this question, we have to look at what was going on in the life of the lyrics’ author and in his times. Unlike many of the pieces in this concert, we have a known author and date for the words.

The words are from a poem of the same name by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow written in December of 1863, when the Civil War was still raging and the outcome anything but clear. Longfellow had suffered the loss of his wife Frances just two years before as a result of an accidental fire and had been left as a widower with six children. (Longfellow’s long beard starts from that tragedy, as he stopped shaving because of the severe facial burns he acquired while trying to rescue his wife.) His 17-year-old son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, ran off to join the Union army against his wishes in March, saying in a letter to his father that “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer. I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good.” Charles luckily missed the battle of Gettysburg because of illness but was seriously wounded in November, barely escaping paralysis. He arrived back home on December 8, and while his father sat by Charles’ bedside he wrote his poem.

All of this information helps clarify the tone of the poem, but Longfellow’s viewpoint is even clearer when the two verses specifically referring to the war, verses that were omitted when the poem was put to music, are put in their rightful place between the third and fourth verses of the carol:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Yet, in spite of all the tragedy and loss of the war, the bells keep pealing out their message of the ultimate triumph of good. Now the line in the final verse can be seen in its rightful context: “God is not dead; nor doth He sleep!”

In our program we are singing the carol with the congregation to its traditional tune that was composed in 1872. The tune sung by the men of the chorale is by Johnny Marks, the same man who wrote “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and the arrangement, a truly non-traditional one, is by Ken Clifton, a noted modern musical theater director whose latest credits include “South Pacific” and “Miss Saigon.” The Turtle Creek Chorale, the group for which this arrangement was written, is a noted men’s chorus in Dallas, Texas.


What’s with the Twelve Days of Christmas?

The first teaser question for our Christmas music is above.  We are singing a delightful arrangement of this traditional piece.  So, what gives?  I remember back in elementary school being teased a bit by some Jewish classmates about the superiority of Hanukkah over Christmas: “You only have one day to get presents, but we have eight.” I’m sure I wasn’t quick-witted enough to mention the plethora of gift-giving in this song nor its extra days of celebration. So here’s the information I didn’t have back then.

But first, before you read any further, you must watch the absolutely definitive performance of this song by none other than John Denver and the Muppets. Here’s the link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YpuNU3y1KAk

Okay. Got that? Now you can keep reading.

First of all, the 12 days are counted from the day after Christmas to the Feast of Epiphany, which takes place on January 6 and is the traditional date of the arrival of the Magi, or Three Kings, to visit the Christ child. There’s a whole quagmire of information about why these dates were chosen which I don’t have the space for here. You can spend your entire holiday season trolling the internet on this subject if you’re so inclined. The final night of the twelve days was called, appropriately enough, Twelfth Night. Yes, just like the Shakespeare play. It was a time of merrymaking and feasting.

If you read the posts for last year’s Christmas concert you’ll remember that some Christmas carols are very old and may incorporate all kinds of legends and folktales, some of which may have originally had nothing to do with the actual Christmas story. (As was the case with “The Holly and the Ivy.”) There is nothing scriptural about the gifts listed in this song, although there have been attempts to find sacred or hidden meanings in them. Instead, the song (which wasn’t written down until 1780 but which is certainly much older) is in the category of a memory-and-forfeits game, in which each person in a circle had to recite or sing all the verses up until that point and then add a new one. If you made a mistake or forgot a verse, you had to pay a “forfeit,” usually a kiss or a piece of candy. (“I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” is in this same genre, also called a “cumulative song.”)

There are at least three known French spring or New Year’s carols that feature a list of gifts beginning with a partridge, and this whole “pear tree” business apparently refers to the French word for partridge, “perdriz“ or “perdrix,” pronounced, of course, “pear-dree.” So, if all this isn’t too arcane, our “partridge in a pear tree” probably isn’t in a pear tree at all but is just the bird, with the location tacked on because of the confusion stemming from its French name. Understood correctly, the first seven gifts are all birds, even the “five gold rings.” Most sources say that these rings don’t refer to jewelry but to ring-necked pheasants. And, to add to all this semantic chaos, the “calling birds” in verse four are actually “colly” birds, from a regional English word meaning “black.” So they’re really blackbirds, but since very few knew what “colly” meant as time went on, all sorts of alternatives were used, including “canary birds,” “colour’d birds,” “curley birds,” and “corley birds” (whatever those may be), before a 1909 written version settled on “calling birds.” The symbolism of at least some of the birds is clear: this is a love song, and the birds are compliments. Partridges were pretty. Turtledoves mated for life and were mentioned in the Song of Solomon in the Jewish Bible (“The flowers are springing up, the season of singing birds has come, and the cooing of turtledoves fills the air” 2:12 NLT). Swans were beautiful and also monogamous. Geese were . . . well, fertile, I guess, since they’re laying eggs. All of these birds are also edible, at least theoretically, so they could be part of the feasting. (Remember “Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds Baked in a Pie”? And of course, from last year’s Carmina Burana, the roast swan?)

Once we get past the seven swans, we’re in a different territory altogether. One source said that at this point we’re clearly at a wedding, with dancing and music. But where do the milkmaids fit in? Who knows for sure, but it’s true that they were known for their smooth skin since they tended to be immune to smallpox (because of getting cowpox—you do remember that bit of scientific history, don’t you?), so they might be seen as ornamental as well as useful. By the time we get to the end of the song the scene has become pretty riotous, whatever the original occasion may have been. So if you want to think of a Henry VIII-ish figure throwing the gnawed bones of all kinds of birds over his shoulder as he sits at the banquet table and watches the revelry, go ahead. That image may put you in the right frame of mind for singing the song.

The arrangement that the Chorale is singing is just a total blast.  Not only do we have the fun of the song itself, but we also get to sing it in twelve different musical styles, starting with ancient Gregorian chant and ending with John Philip Sousa.  There’s cleverness to spare, including a nice musical joke for the verse “Seven Swans A-Swimming.”  You may be familiar with Craig Courtney as a composer and arranger of Christian music.  I do hope that the Chorale gets to perform something from that category of his work at some point.  For now, though, we are thrilled to be doing this witty and charming piece.


Save

Our Fall 2014 Concert–Mendelssohn’s “Elijah”

Monument to Felix MendelssohnBack in August of 2012 I decided to try out for a local choral group, The Cherry Creek Chorale, taking my chances that I could get in since I sing tenor.  Hey, they always need those!  Jim and I had gone to several of their concerts and I had been truly impressed.  What a great thing it would be if I could actually perform with them!  Well, THEY LET ME IN.  Somehow I’ve ended up getting considerably involved.  The CCC has become my part-time (volunteer) job.  Since I love what we do so much, I’ve decided to include a blog page about what we’re currently rehearsing.  I write background commentaries about our pieces, so usually there will be a short essay every week during a concert set in the form of a “teaser” question and its answer.  However, I didn’t get the idea for this blog until we were almost ready for our first performance, so below are all the notes I’ve written on Mendelssohn and his oratorio.  If you read this material and think it sounds interesting, I encourage, nay implore, you to go to the CCC website, listed on the side of this page, and buy a ticket.  This concert will take place on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 3 and 4, 7:30 PM, at Bethany Lutheran Church, 4500 East Hampden Ave., Greenwood Village.  It is going to be fabulous.  As always.

Please note that the following is one long post of the individual selections that I did originally for the CCC website.  I wasn’t doing images to go with the posts at the time and decided that I would just post it as is on this website.  So it’s pretty long and totally text.  But it’s interesting–I promise!

Who was the bigger prodigy, Mozart or Mendelsshon?

I’d have to say that I didn’t realize just what a towering genius Mendelssohn was until I did some background reading for this post, although I had a vague memory of an NPR commentary saying that Mendelssohn’s early works display more maturity and accomplishment than those of Mozart. Heresy! But no. To quote from ClassicFM.com, “Felix Mendelssohn was the most profoundly gifted prodigy-composer of all time.” Yes, Mozart as well as Saint-Saens and Korngold produced skillful compositions during their teens, but Mendelssohn’s output included “full-blown masterpieces of supreme originality.” The German poet Goethe, who heard Mendelssohn perform at the age of 12, said that what he had accomplished “bears the same relation to Mozart of that time that the cultivated talk of a grown-up person bears to the prattle of a child.” (Not that we don’t all love Mozart.)

One reason why Mendelssohn’s music doesn’t get the same attention as Mozart’s is that he led a sheltered life as a child instead of being dragged around Europe to perform as Mozart was. Those with contented, well-regulated lives get far less attention than the ones with all the drama. Mendelssohn’s parents were wealthy, so much so that they could afford to hire a private string orchestra to perform his works at the intellectual salons they held. Although at first Mendelssohn’s father didn’t encourage the idea of his having a professional music career, he gave in when he saw his son’s dedication. So apparently no dramatic scenes with Abraham threatening to disinherit Felix if he didn’t become a banker like him. A movie about Mendelssohn’s life probably wouldn’t do very well at the box office, although it does resemble Mozart’s in one important, and tragic, aspect: both men died in their thirties, Mozart at 35 and Mendelssohn at 38.

Why is Mendelssohn’s last name sometimes listed as “Mendelssohn-Bartholdy”?

I remember seeing this version of Mendelssohn’s name on a piano piece I was (very unsuccessfully) working on, and thinking, Is this another Mendelssohn? You’ll see both version of Felix’s last name used. So what gives? It’s a very complicated, and fascinating, story that concerns itself with Jewish culture in Europe and the role of anti-Semitism.

To begin with, Felix’s grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, came to Berlin in 1743 at the age of 14, even though that city’s society was very hostile to Jews. He managed to become quite prominent in the philosophical and literary world, beating Immanuel Kant in an essay contest sponsored by the Berlin Academy. Frederick the Great even granted him the title of “Protected Jew,” which guaranteed his right to live peacefully in Berlin. Moses is a worthwhile historical figure in his own right and was hailed as the “German Socrates.” He devoted much of his later life to writings that eloquently supported the idea of religious freedom, saying that the state should not seek to control the religion of its citizens.

But even such a respected and beloved figure as Moses Mendelssohn couldn’t wipe out the widespread anti-Semitism in European culture. So Abraham, Moses’ son and Felix’s father, took several steps to distance himself and his family from their Jewish heritage. One of those actions was to adopt the surname “Bartholdy,” an action suggested by Abraham’s brother-in-law. Jakob Salomon, who took the name from a property he had acquired. Abraham urged Felix to drop the Mendelssohn name and just use Bartholdy, but even though Felix was baptized as a Protestant and married a minister’s daughter, he refused to drop his use of Mendelssohn. It’s never possible to know exactly what was going on in the mind and heart of someone from the past (or even someone in the present), but it seems to me that Felix wanted to honor both aspects of his background. Most of the time, his public knew him as Mendelssohn without the Bartholdy, but sometimes both names were listed. And that inconsistency has carried over until today.

His Jewish ancestry came to the fore during Germany’s Nazi regime. Even though Mendelssohn’s music was beloved by the German people as a whole, he just could not be tolerated by the Reichsmusikkammer (“Reich Music Bureau”). He was degenerate. His music could not be performed except for Jewish audiences. The monument built in his honor in Leipzig was removed; the scholarship bearing his name at the Leipzig Conservatory was discontinued. Even his incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream was banned, a work that had been so popular that Queen Victoria had used the “Wedding March” in her own wedding. Nazi-approved composers were asked to write new music for the play. Guess who obliged? None other than Carl Orff. Can you believe it?

If you’d like more information on the whole Mendelssohn/Jewish/Christian/Nazi story, I would highly recommend that you watch the excellent documentary on “Mendelssohn, the Nazis, and Me.” It’s only about an hour long and will give you a real glimpse into this whole story. (And ignore the mean-spirited comment that says it’s one of the most boring docs on YouTube. I don’t know what the guy was smokin’!)

And a small (very small) bonus teaser:What 1940’s cartoon has the theme from Mendelssohn’s “Fingal’s Cave” as the motif for one of the characters?

I was so surprised when, probably sometime in my teens, I heard this piece in a concert or on a recording. Why, that’s from the cartoon with the minah bird! I thought. Sure enough, for some reason that tune was felt by someone in charge at Warner Bros. to be symbolic of the rather mysterious creature who appears in the following:  “Inki and the Minah Bird

(I will say that as far as I’m concerned this cartoon makes no sense whatsoever. And it’s probably not necessary for me to point out that Inki the African hunter is portrayed in a way that’s pretty typical of the times.) There may be other Merry Melodies cartoons with the minah bird, but this is the one that pops up on YouTube. Hey, a true classic is at home anywhere!

And now on to the oratorio itself:

Isn’t the beginning of Elijah rather abrupt?

And the answer is, Not any more abrupt than the opening of the actual story in the Bible, I Kings 17:1. Elijah suddenly appears before Ahab, the king of Israel. We are told of him only that he is from an area of Israel called Tishbe, in Gilead. And that’s it for background material on him. What has Ahab (and by extension Israel) done to deserve Elijah’s message, the dire news that there is going to be a complete drought for the next few years, without even dew? At least part of the answer involves the infamous Jezebel. We are told in the previous chapter that “Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him. . . . he also married Jezebel daughter of the king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him. He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal that he built in Samaria” (16:30-32 NIV).

The implication is clear that Jezebel is at least partly to blame for Ahab’s idolatry. We’ll save a discussion of her character for a later post and just point out here that she’s not guilty, as far as we know, of the type of behavior that we usually associate with her name. She has plenty of other problems, but nowhere in Scripture is she accused of sexual immorality. So what was she really like? We’ll see.

For now, though, let’s take a look at the god Baal whose worship causes Israel so much grief and who is ultimately shown to be powerless. This name was used for a number of pagan deities in the area, usually associated with control over crops and the weather, but the word “baal” simply means “lord.” The fact that Baal was a weather god makes the connection between Ahab’s worship of him and Elijah’s prophecy of a drought especially telling. In other words, Elijah is saying, “You want to depend on Baal to send you rain? Think again. The Lord, the true God of Israel, is the One who is really in charge, and there won’t be any rain until He says so. All those sacrifices you’ve made to Baal are totally useless.” This theme of a divine judgment that specifically targets the supposed power of a pagan god is seen a number of times in the Bible, with the most extended being the ten plagues of Egypt. If you’re up on your Egyptian mythology you can trace a connection between each plague and a specific deity. (For example, the Egyptians worshiped Hapi, the god of the Nile River, and the first plague turned that river, and indeed all of the water in Egypt, into blood.)

After Elijah makes his dramatic announcement to Ahab he needs to escape to someplace safe, so he is told by God to go to a valley called Cherith. He can drink from the brook there, and ravens will bring him “bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening.” (I have fond memories of this story from Sunday School.) Later on, as the drought worsens, that brook dries up and Elijah is sent to seek provision elsewhere. Raises an interesting theological question, doesn’t it, that the prophet who foretold the drought also ends up suffering from it? We aren’t singing the section of the oratorio that tells the story of where Elijah goes, but he ends up bringing blessing to a widow and her son who live, of all places, in Jezebel’s home country of Sidon. If you’re interested in finding out what happens with that whole situation, read the rest of I Kings 17.

So the stage is set for the confrontation that will occur on Mount Carmel between Elijah and the priests of Baal.

Why do the priests of Baal get so much air time in Elijah?

They get three, count ’em, three, choruses. Was Mendelssohn enamored of these guys, or what? Well, no. He was actually following the biblical story quite closely in how he structured this section of the oratorio, as they do go on and on for quite awhile.

Let’s get the scene straight before going any further. Israel has been suffering a drought for three years, as prophesied by Elijah. Things have gone pretty badly, as the early choruses show, and even King Ahah is struggling to keep his livestock going. (He seems to be more concerned with his horses and mules than he is with his people.) When Elijah comes before him, Ahab calls the prophet “he that troubleth Israel,” making the usual mistake of confusing the messenger with the message. Elijah tells him in no uncertain terms that it is Ahab who has troubled Israel with his idolatry and challenges him and all of Israel (including the priests of Baal “who eat at Jezebel’s table”) to come to a face-off testing who is the true God. “The God who by fire shall answer, let him be God,” he says. And so the contest takes place on Mount Carmel. I can’t resist quoting Elijah’s words in the wonderful old King James Version as he challenges the crowd around the two altars: “How long halt ye between two opinions? If the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him” (I Kings 18:21).

The priests of Baal are allowed to go first, and a bull is killed and put on their altar. Now they begin crying out to him, which is what the three choruses portray. How long do their pleas go on? Let’s just say that it’s a good thing Mendelssohn didn’t try to re-create this scene in real time. First they go from morning till noon, then Elijah taunts them, then they begin slashing themselves with swords and spears and go on until the time of the evening sacrifice, 3:00 PM. So we’re talking about at least six hours here. (The whole self-mutilation idea is prevalent in a number of ecstatic religions.) “But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.”

So Elijah decides that it’s his turn. He calls the people over to him and his altar, arranges the wood and the bull, and then, just to be sure there’s no question of any fakery, has gallons and gallons of water poured over everything, so much so that even the trench around the altar is filled. Now, in contrast to the hours of frantic prayer from Baal’s priests, Elijah prays about 60 words. What happens? “The the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench” (I Kings 18:38). There’s no question that Elijah’s prayer has been answered. The people of Israel fall on their faces and proclaim that “The Lord—he is God!”

Does Elijah get any earthly reward from his performance on Mount Carmel?

You’d think that Elijah would now be sitting pretty, wouldn’t you? That Ahab would offer him a cabinet position, at the very least? Well, you’d be wrong. Nothing of the sort happens. Instead, Elijah now faces yet another test of faith: Will the rain come as he prophesied? The three years of drought that he foretold have ended. He’s confident enough that he sends Ahab off to get something to eat before the storm hits. Then he climbs back up to the top of Mount Carmel to watch and pray. It’s a very human story if you think about it: No one has perfect faith, not even the man who has just called down fire from heaven. So he’s sure that God will send the rain . . . but he wants to make sure. He bows in prayer and then keeps sending his servant to look out over the sea (Mt. Carmel is very close to the coast) for rain clouds. It’s almost amusing. The book of James in the Christian New Testament says, “Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops” (James 5:17-18). God answers Elijah’s prayers even though he isn’t perfect. It’s the object of our faith that counts, not the quality of our faith. And so the seventh time the servant reports, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” That’s it! He sends the servant down to warn Ahab, since otherwise he’ll be stuck there. And a nice ending touch: “The power of the Lord came upon Elijah and, tucking his cloak into his belt, he ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel,” a distance of about 17 miles.

Note that it apparently doesn’t occur to Ahab that it would be good manners to give Elijah a ride. And what does he do as soon as he gets home? He tells his wife Jezebel all about the killing of the priests of Baal, news that does not make her very happy. Let’s stop a minute here and ask,

What was Jezebel really like, according to the Bible?

She appears only briefly in Mendelssohn’s work, but, as already mentioned, she was instrumental in encouraging the worship of Baal in Israel and so plays a very important part in the story we’re singing. And she’s a fascinating character in her own right, well worth a little bit of discursive discussion.

The character of Jezebel in the Bible is quite different from her portrayal in extra-biblical sources. To call a woman a “Jezebel” used to be an insult, indicating that she was sexually immoral and focused on her appearance. Nowadays the term has been appropriated by some feminists to mean a strong woman who is conscious of her rights. Who’s right?

Well, actually the second group. Jezebel was indeed a strong-minded woman who got her own way a great deal of the time, but she didn’t use that powerful personality in positive ways. In addition to her part in promoting Baal worship, she’s known for committing judicial murder in the Naboth’s vineyard incident. While there’s nothing funny about murder, I have to laugh at the picture of Ahab, king of Israel, coming home after Naboth has turned down his offer to buy the vineyard: “He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat” (I Kings 21:4). Jezebel’s reponse is to say, “Is this how you act as king over Israel? Get up and eat! Cheer up. I’ll get you the vineyard” (5). And so she does, coming up with a scheme to frame Naboth for blasphemy and get him stoned to death. Elijah shows up in this story, too, confronting Ahab at his newly-seized property and prophesying how he and Jezebel will die. And indeed, the only mention of Jezebel’s possible vanity about her appearance occurs at the very end of her life, after her husband Ahab has been killed in battle, when she paints her eyes and arranges her hair before looking out of the window at the new king of Israel, Jehu, and giving him a piece of her mind. She doesn’t survive this encounter, and the manner of her death fulfills Elijah’s gruesome prediction. You can read all about it in II Kings 9:30-37.

Anyway, getting back to our part of the story, Elijah never expresses any fear of Ahab, but Jezebel is a different matter. He runs for his life when Jezebel sends him this message after she hears about the fate of her Baal priests: “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” He knows that she means what she says, and rather than fall into her hands he asks God to take his life. “I have had enough, Lord,” he says. What follows is a fascinating scene between Elijah and God, which we’ll get to next. For now, we’ll leave him sitting under a tree in the desert, praying for death.

Why are we shown Elijah’s vulnerabilities in the biblical account?

The picture of Elijah we’ve just seen isn’t a terribly noble image, is it? I believe we’re shown this scene because we’re supposed to realize that he’s a real person, not a superhero.

Another scene showing Elijah’s humanity shows up in the context of our selection “Behold, God the Lord.” Mendelssohn doesn’t include the interactions between Elijah and God which occur in the biblical account. Elijah has ended up in a cave, and there God speaks to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” The prophet answers, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” The subject heading in one version of this passage says, “Elijah has self-pity.”

How does God deal with him? First, He shows His power with a series of three huge natural events: a mighty wind, an earthquake, and a fire. But God is not “in” any of these events, even though He brings them about. Then He speaks to Elijah in a “still, small voice” or “a gentle whisper.” Here’s the part that isn’t in our selection and which to me makes the scene so real: “And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave.” So he’s almost certainly been cowering in the cave while the three catastrophic events have been happening. But when he hears that soft voice he knows who it is, covers his face in reverence, and goes out to meet God. Can’t you just see it?

What does God tell him, after the prophet reiterates his “I, only I am left” speech? Elijah is to “go, return upon thy way” and carry out the tasks God has for him. And he is reassured that he’s not, after all, the only prophet left: “But the Lord hath left him seven thousand in Israel knees which have not bowed to Baal.” And indeed Elijah does get going on what God has told him to do. We don’t have another instance recorded of his fear and doubt.

And, finally, how does Elijah’s life end?

Well, this is sort of a trick question. According to the Bible, he didn’t actually die but was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire, with horses of fire, in a whirlwind. (The movie title “Chariots of Fire” refers to this event but is more directly drawn from an incident in the life of Elisha in II Kings 6:17. If you have a hard time keeping Elijah and Elisha straight, just remember that “j” comes before “s” in the alphabet, so Elijah comes before Elisha.) Our chorus “Then Did Elijah” describes this climax to the prophet’s time on earth. (I can’t resist another Elisha reference here: he is a follower of Elijah, and the departure of his master, however dramatic, is for him a great loss. We are told, “Elisha saw it and cried out, ‘My father! My father! I see the chariots and charioteers of Israel!’ And as they disappeared from sight, Elisha tore his clothes in distress.”)

Mendelssohn doesn’t end the oratorio with the fiery chariot. There are still four more sections, each one centered around God’s promises to His people. The final words are sung in praise to Him: “Thou fillest heav’n with Thy glory.”