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Longing for Mendelssohn

About twenty years ago, I sang in a chorus that was preparing performances of Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the same time. Like any musician, I knew that Mendelssohn was no Beethoven. Beethoven was a revolutionary genius, and Mendelssohn wrote some beautiful music. There is nothing in Mendelssohn’s works list that can compare to the sublime late string quartets of Beethoven; none of Mendelssohn’s symphonic works can keep up with the spectacular genius of Beethoven’s third or seventh symphonies. In his fifth symphony Beethoven introduced three instruments into the symphony orchestra for the first time like some kind of Chuck Norris of orchestration, and the listening public had to nod in agreement. Beethoven was Beethoven, and Mendelssohn was just Mendelssohn.

But, as I sang those two works in rehearsal each Tuesday night, I realized that Beethoven did have weaknesses. For most of us, Beethoven’s Ninth is no treat to sing. I associate the piece with being crammed onto a too-small stage, trying to muster dozens of high Fs with my middle-C voice, and longing for choral music that lives and breathes like a singer.

Longing for Mendelssohn.

Mendelssohn choral music is luxurious. It feels Swiss-made. The phrases breathe; it’s like God created the human lung after singing a Mendelssohn alto line. Mendelssohn can spin out an eight-part choral setting with drool-worthy voice leading. And his gift for melody is extraordinary. He sails through Elijah, burning through beautiful tune after beautiful tune: “He watching over Israel slumbers not nor sleeps”, “If with all your hearts”, “Hear ye, Israel”, “Lift thine eyes, O lift thine eyes”.

Yet, in my imagined battle between the ghosts of Beethoven and Mendelssohn, the older master can point out quite rightly that composing one of the two greatest oratorios of all time hardly makes him a composer of the very highest order. “Do oratorios really matter?” a ghostly Beethoven might ask.

“Maybe not,” the ghost of Mendelssohn might answer, “but did I mention that my oratorio has an overture?”

And there is no overture like the overture to Elijah. Mendelssohn channels Beethoven at the outset; he starts with just two notes, or half the number of notes Beethoven needed to begin his iconic Fifth Symphony. It’s just an ascending half-step, like some kind of 19th-century Jaws, loaded with Great-White gravity and impending doom. The two notes turn out to be the opening of a fugue subject (Beethoven knew something about orchestral fugues). What sets Mendelssohn’s orchestral fugue apart is its unparalleled drive. Even though Mendelssohn never composed an opera, he knew quite a bit about drama. From its very start, the overture tips the listener on an 89-degree incline into the dramatic action of the narrative that follows. It is so inextricably tied to its place in the larger work that no one, including the composer himself, has been able to arrange the overture to stand on its own without its inevitable plummet into the first choral movement. The only suitable ending for this three-minute overture is two hours of a perfectly told story in music.

Beethoven never did that, and I’d like to think that he’s a little jealous.

On June 4 at 3:00 PM in the GPPC sanctuary, the combined choirs of Ginter Park and Three Chopt Presbyterian Churches will sing Elijah (abridged) with Joan Lee Pi, conducting; Douglas Brown, organist; and brass and percussion from the Richmond Symphony. A free-will offering will be taken. Thanks to Doug for his always entertaining and insightful words on the music of our church.

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