Yesterday I had the privilege of singing the tenor role in Mendelssohn's Paulus, op. 36, "An Oratorio, the Words Selected from the Holy Scriptures."
Paulus was written between 1834 (when its composer was 25) and 1836, when it premiered to great acclaim throughout Germany and England, before traveling across Europe to Russia and abroad to the U.S. It was among the most popular works of its time and the most successful of Mendelssohn's works in his lifetime.
The performance yesterday marked both the Mendelssohn Bicentennial (1809-1847) and with Meyerbeer's opera, Les Huguenots (see "Meyerbeer and Mary Stuart" posted Aug 9), framed the upcoming Bard Music Festival, "Wagner and His World." Besides being hugely popular works of their day who have unfortunately been neglected in recent generations, both the opera and the oratorio occupy singular places in the controversial world of Richard Wagner.
Both Paulus and Les Huguenots premiered in 1836, and both works impressed and influenced the young Wagner. The impresario behind the 2 current productions, Leon Botstein, programmed both works in order to open up two windows through which to view angles of Wagner the composer deliberately tried to obfuscate through his writings and self promotion.
If there is an artist in history more manipulative, self-serving, and racist than Wagner, that artist is certainly less central & controversial. And there is no case where the gulf between the quality of the artist's character and the artist's creation is greater than in the life and music of Wagner. This very subject is making arts headlines as I write this. A bruhaha is unfolding in LA over an upcoming Wagner festival, owing to the composer's infamous anti-semitism, and his subsequent notoriety as the favorite composer of the Nazis. Without getting too far afield from my intention to write about Mendelssohn and Paulus, I bow to Daniel Barenboim and James Levine, the greatest living Wagnerian conductors who are also Jewish. It is not for me to say we should not program an artist's work because we despise the artist. We should not ignore the character nor the biography of the artist, but should put both in the context of better understanding the work.
Which in this case, is fascinating. The two composers who have suffered most from Wagner's forcefully argued and revolting essay "Judaism in Music" are Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn. It would seem Wagner, intent on creating his image as revolutionary savior to true German art, the "missing link" after Beethoven, was determined to efface any trace of the Jewish composers' influence on his style. According to Wagner, Jewish composers were not progressive or revolutionary enough, nor "pure" enough to write "noble" music that captured the "essence" of the "German soul."
How ironic then, that throughout Paulus one hears traces of Wagner's early operas. Before "Judaism in Music" Wagner wrote glowingly of Paulus. It "showed us in all perfection a work that is a witness to the highest bloom of art." And it is a brilliantly crafted work. Modeled on Handel oratorio and Bach Passion, it is a dramatically compelling large-scale work by one of the greatest musical prodigies in history.
Indeed, I am not alone in claiming Mendelssohn as THE great prodigy. If one compares the number of masterworks written by composers before they turned, say, 20, Mendelssohn wins. Mozart may have been more prolific, but none of his early works match Mendelssohn's Octet or the String Symphonies he wrote as a teen. This is to take nothing away from Mozart, the bulk of whose masterworks were written in astonishing succession the last 10 years of his life. It is to give credit to another prodigy and genius whose life and work have sat too long in the shadows.
Mendelssohn is as well known to us for the "Bach revival" he initiated via a centennial performance of the St Matthew Passion in 1829 (he was 20). One of the first great conductors, he was famous for leading the venerable Gewandhaus Orchestra in (Bach's home) Leipzig.
The indebtness of Paulus to Bach is obvious. The overture opens with the famous Lutheran chorale, "Wachet auf" (Sleepers Awake). Mendelssohn uses chorale tunes in similar ways to Bach throughout the oratorio, as meditative commentary punctuating the action. (Another parallel with Meyerbeer is found here, as "Ein feste Burg" (A Mighty Fortress) punctuates Les Huguenots).
Mendelssohn synthesizes not only Bach, but Handel, and the Viennese classical style of Mozart and Haydn. Wagner was surely impressed by the dramatic force of the work, which shows Mendelssohn absorbing and assimilating Beethoven and early 19th century romanticism, with Janus-faced vision.
Mendelssohn's handling of the large forces is masterful. Our performance yesterday sought to replicate Mendelssohn's own arrangement. The orchestra was in a cone shape, with the violins framing the cellos and violas, the winds behind the strings, the brass on risers in the back, framing the double-basses. The chorus was divided and framed the orchestra at the front of the stage: sopranos and tenors on stage right, with the soprano and mezzo soloists, and altos and basses on stage left with the male soloists. This formation instantly solved issues of choral and orchestral balance, otherwise a persistent thorn in the side of the conductor leading these large scale oratorios.
The work is in two parts, and the libretto is taken from the Acts of the Apostles. A variety of styles are used to give the work dramatic pace, interest, and color. The soprano and tenor soloists share the role of the narrator (like the Evangelist in a Bach Passion). The bass soloist is the voice of Saul/Paul, and a prototype for Mendelssohn's more famed oratorio, Elijah. The chorus has several notable fugues, the aforementioned chorales, and functions as the crowd in "turba" fashion (again similar to Bach). Two of the choruses, "Siehe, wir preisen selig" (aka: "Happy and Blest") and "Wie lieblich sind die Boten" (aka: "How lovely are the messengers") are often excerpted and have a life of their own as church anthems. They are also notable for their obvious influence on Brahms.
The dramatic centerpiece of the first part (if not the entire work) is Saul's conversion on the road to Damascus. Mendelssohn originally planned to represent the voice of Jesus with another bass solo but opted instead for a four-part chorus. Worried this would result in critical opprobrium from the pietists, he allegedly said "Yes, and the worthy theologians would cut me up nicely for wishing to deny and supplant Him arose from the dead."
The resulting texture of wind accompaniment and 4-part treble voices is an ethereal, other-worldly sound that is dramatically and musically convincing. The scene is followed by one of the rousing choruses that integrates Handelian pomp with Beethovenian drive. "Mache dich auch, werde licht" ("Rise and shine") is followed by a master-stroke chorale setting of "Wachet auf." Inbetween the calm homophonic phrases of the chorus (doubled by the strings and winds) are brilliant fanfares for the brass. Fanfares that would find their way into Tannhauser and Lohengrin, thank you very much.
My favorite moment, and one of the work's highlights, is the Cavatina for tenor and solo cello, "Sei getreu bis in den Tod" (Be thou faithful unto death"). Coming near the work's end, it is a perfectly balanced duet and another example of Mendelssohn absorbing Bach's influence without a trace of parody or slavish imitation.
That indebtedness to Bach may be something that has not worked in Mendelssohn's favor. Wagner's anti-semitic track portrayed Mendelssohn as being out of touch with the times, and used his penchant for assimilation against him. Wagner's argument leads us to another avenue of consideration where Mendelssohn and St Paul are concerned, namely accusations that Mendelssohn himself was anti-semitic.
Mendelssohn's grandfather Moses was one of the great philosophers of the 18th century, and the founder of modern reformed Judaism. The Mendelssohn family were believers in the enlightenment and thus Abraham Mendelssohn (Felix's father) viewed Protestantism as the next step in this progressive process. Leon Botstein has pointed out that Mendelssohn's own conversion from Judaism to Lutheranism was not the result of "cynicism, careerism, or shame." He goes on to say,
"Protestantism was the religion of modernity, progress, and reason, a historical and logical advance over both ancient Judaism and Catholicism. Mendelssohn shared his father's view of Protestantism. His personal adherence...was not considered a betrayal of his Jewish heritage but rather as the inevitable evolutionary consequence of the reformist efforts of his grandfather."
This is an important point, as some post-modern scholars have inserted anti-semitic readings into not only Bach's Passions but into St Paul as well because of the perceived unflattering portraits of the Jews. Mendelssohn believed in a universalist religion that found Protestantism not as a supersessionist supplanting of Judaism but a logical synthesis. So Saul's conversion to Paul is not "an effort on the part of Mendelssohn to display his authentic Christian credentials at the expense of the Jews."
Les Huguenots offers our post-modern world an enthralling experience of music theatre AND an opportunity to reflect on issues of difference and the consequences of hate. Paulus is an engaging, affirming work embracing reason and enlightenment with faith in the collective potential of humanity's progress. We are better for having both.