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Mendelssohn was evidently bursting to write his glorious oratorio Elijah quite some time before he actually composed the music.
Soon after the premiere of his first oratorio, St Paul, in 1836, his thoughts turned to the subject of this Old Testament prophet – a person who intrigued the young Mendelssohn and who would, he thought, be a perfect musical subject. Frustratingly, though, no librettist could be convinced of this. So, the work remained on the back-burner for a good ten years, during which time Mendelssohn cracked on with writing his Piano Concerto No. 2 instead.
In the end, the composer penned most of the libretto himself, spurred on by a commission from the Birmingham Festival to write an oratorio for performance in the city in 1846. It was very much the Messiah of its day: a hugely popular work that absolutely cemented Mendelssohn’s position as one of the greatest composers of sacred music. Two thousand people attended the premiere performance of Elijah, which saw Mendelssohn himself take to the podium at Birmingham Town Hall.
To quote a review published in The Times shortly afterwards, ‘The last note of Elijah was drowned in a long-continued unanimous volley of plaudits, vociferous and deafening ... never was there a more complete triumph; never a more thorough and speedy recognition of a great work of art.’
Illustration: Mark Millington