Monday music: “Lift Thine Eyes” by F. Mendelssohn

Today’s music feature ventures into the world of the oratorio, with the gorgeous trio “Lift Thine Eyes” from Felix Mendelssohn‘s Elijah.

Felix Mendelssohn was born in February of 1809 in Hamburg. To give you some musical-historical context, Felix was born less than twenty years after the death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). The fifth symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) premiered in December of 1808, a couple of months before Felix’s birth. Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was studying at the Imperial Court Chapel choir with Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), and had yet to write his memorable “Gretchen am Spinnrade.” Other musical contemporaries of Mendelssohn’s were Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), Frederick Chopin (1810-1849), Robert Schumann (1810-1856), Franz Liszt (1811-1886), and Clara Schumann (1819-1896).

Charles Rosen writes,

Mendelssohn was the greatest child prodigy the history of Western music has ever known. Not even Mozart or Chopin before the age of nineteen could equal the mastery that Mendellsohn already possessed when he was only sixteen. [1]

Other biographers note that unlike Mozart, the financial situation of the Mendelssohn family was secure enough that Felix was not put on display around Europe in the hopes of finding a wealthy patron. As the son of a successful banker, Felix was well educated. His first piano teacher was his older sister Fanny, a gifted pianist and composer. While on a trip to Paris as a child, Felix also had piano lessons with Marie Bagot, “a friend of Beethoven…who had played the great composer’s Appassionata sonata from the nearly indecipherable manuscript.” [2]

Rosen goes on to say,

Most astonishing is the nature of Mendelssohn’s precocious talent: not only a gift for lyrical melodic lines and delicate, transparent textures, but, above all, a control of large-scale structure unsurpassed by any composer of his generation. [3]

The author of the (very brief!) classicfm.com biography page on Mendelssohn writes, “Beethoven heard [Mendelssohn] play in 1821 and made a prophetic entry in one of his conversation books: ‘Mendellsohn – 12 years old – promises much’.”[4]

Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah was written near the end of Mendelssohn’s life, first performed in Birmingham, England, in 1846. Mendelssohn’s previous oratorio, St. Paul, had premiered ten years earlier in 1836. The trio (i.e. three voices; in this case, Soprano I and II, Alto) from Elijah I’m writing about here, “Lift Thine Eyes,” is a short movement in the second half of the oratorio. Elijah has tirelessly worked to convince the people that Baal and the other gods they worship are not truly powerful, and that Elijah’s God is the true God. Elijah is only temporarily successful, and upon hearing that he is a hunted man, he prays to be allowed to die:

It is enough! O Lord, now take away my life, for I am not better than my fathers! I desire to live no longer: now let me die, for my days are but vanity.

I have been very jealous for the Lord God of Hosts, for the children of Israel have broken Thy covenant, and thrown down Thine altars, and slain all Thy prophets, slain them with the sword. And I, even I only am left: and they seek my life to take it away! It is enough! O Lord, now take away my life, for I am not better than my fathers. Now let me die, Lord, take away my life. [5]

After this heart-wrenching plea, Elijah eventually sleeps. As he sleeps, angels surround him and sing:

Lift thine eyes to the mountains, whence cometh help. Thy help cometh from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. He hath said, they foot shall not be moved, thy keeper will never slumber. [5] [6]

The melody and harmonies are what make the trio stand out. Most performances I’ve heard are sung a capella (i.e. without instrumental accompaniment) by three female vocalists. (There are also performances sung by a trio of boy sopranos, as well as choral arrangements of the trio.) Aurally, the trio is a noticeable contrast to the rest of the movements immediately before and after.[7] The angels bring a brightness and life at a dark time. At times, the harmonies are tight between the three voices; in other places there’s an octave-and-a-half spread between the top and bottom voices (SI and A). As an alto in a former life, I really love that the bottom part (A) is an actual alto line instead of a third soprano part. [8] The alto line anchors the two higher voices, while trading off between rhythmic synchronicity with the SII voice and providing contrasting rhythmic motion to the two soprano parts. From a singer’s perspective, I appreciate that Mendelssohn wrote vocal lines which allow for more than just the celebration of the top soprano line.

As a listener, the only portion of the text that is consistently clear aurally is the opening phrase, “Lift thine eyes to the mountains, whence cometh help.” The melodic idea sweeps upward to mimic the implied motion in the text. (Remember I wrote about Hildegard’s music was not an example of word painting? “Lift Thine Eyes” certainly is.) The phrase is one of those that obviously can be read religiously; the oratorio is, after all, concerned with the Biblical figure of Elijah. However, just the opening phrase does not have to be read as belonging to any particular religious tradition or school of thought. Lift your eyes to…watch clouds drift across the sky, the constellations wheel overhead, geese flying in formation, or to a towering redwood tree. Or as the phrase continues, “to the mountains,” which is something I frequently do when I see the magnificent, snow-capped Rockies in the near-distance. All of that beauty and life is brought to mind when I listen to “Lift Thine Eyes.” What do you lift your eyes to?


 

[1] Charles Rosen, The Romantic Generation, Harvard University Press, 1998. 569.
[2] Jeffrey Dane, “Facility and Mastery: Felix Mendelssohn”
[3] Rosen, pg. 569.
[4] “Felix Mendelssohn” (classicfm.com)
[5] “Elijah” (Choral Public Domain Library)
[6] “Lift Thine Eyes” SSA score (PDF)
[7] However, I have never seen a live performance of the oratorio. I’ve sung a choral suite of music from Elijah, and listened to several recordings of the trio and the oratorio; those are what I’m basing my comments on.
[8] I know this may not make sense if you haven’t experienced being an alto in a church or classical choir; some composers seem to approach writing for women’s voices as ‘high soprano’ and ‘everything else.’ A few movements later, Mendelssohn writes the lovely solo “O rest in the Lord” for alto.

Sources, more information, and performances:

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