Overgate Hospice Choir is delighted to be giving its first performance of Mendelssohn’s St Paul on Saturday 19th October in Halifax Minster. The choir will be conducted by Alan Horsey and accompanied on the organ by Dr Simon Lindley, in a reversal of their usual roles. We will be welcoming four exceptional soloists, all of whom are also great friends of the choir and as a result supporters of the Hospice – Ella Taylor (Soprano), Margaret McDonald (Mezzo Soprano), Christopher Trenholme (Tenor) and Quentin Brown (Bass).
Some background about Mendelssohn and St Paul.
Mendelssohn was born into a wealthy and cultured Berlin family. He was a precociously gifted child, so much so that the finest musicians of the day hailed him as a second Mozart. This comparison was by no means without foundation; by the time he had reached his mid-teens Mendelssohn had composed a large number of mature works. He was sixteen when he wrote the String Octet, and the wonderful overture A Midsummer Night’s Dream followed a year later. Mendelssohn’s extraordinary gifts were not confined to composition; he went on to become a brilliant pianist and organist, a fine string player and an inspirational conductor. He was a great admirer of the music of Handel and Haydn, whose oratorios he conducted. Mendelssohn visited England many times, where he was received with adulation, feted by the press, and became a great favourite of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
In 1831 Mendelssohn was commissioned to compose an oratorio. He knew his Bible extremely well and invariably turned to it for inspiration when considering a new choral piece. It has been suggested that he chose the life of St Paul as a subject for his first oratorio because, like St Paul, the members of his own family were converted Jews, but this idea seems far too simplistic for a man of Mendelssohn’s considerable intellect. A much more likely reason is quite simply that it offered tremendous dramatic possibilities.
Mendelssohn began work on the oratorio in March 1834. The libretto was compiled by Pastor Julius Schubring, a childhood friend whose help he regularly enlisted. When the opportunity arose, Mendelssohn was in the habit of playing his latest composition to his father Abraham, whose opinion he held in great esteem. When Abraham died suddenly in November 1835, the oratorio assumed an added significance, becoming Mendelssohn’s musical tribute to his revered father.
The first performance on May 22nd 1836 took place at the Lower Rhine Music Festival in Düsseldorf. Its first performance in England was given in Liverpool in October 1836, and the following year Mendelssohn himself conducted it at the Birmingham Festival, to enthusiastic acclaim.
Given Mendelssohn’s high regard for the choral masterpieces of Bach, Handel and Haydn, it is no surprise to find that St Paul is modelled on similar lines, with an integrated scheme of recitatives, arias and choruses. His use of chorales to demarcate important points in the story and to reflect on the action is clearly influenced by the Passion music of Bach. One of Bach’s favourite chorales, ‘Wachet auf’ (Sleepers, wake), is heard at the very beginning of the overture and later on in the chorus. Handel’s influence is also evident in the dramatic use of the chorus, which at times is central to the action, as for instance when the outraged mob calls for Paul to be killed, whilst at other times it provides appropriate commentary on the unfolding events. Of course, the work is full of Mendelssohn’s own innovations, the most striking of which is his use of a four-part chorus of women’s voices – used only once in the whole piece – to represent the voice from heaven, ‘Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?’.
The text of the oratorio is based very largely on the Acts of the Apostles. After a lengthy overture, Part I opens with the martyrdom of Stephen and Saul’s persecution of the Christians. This is followed by the conversion of Paul, his baptism and ordination as a minister by Ananias. Part II finds Paul and Barnabas becoming the ambassadors of the Church. Their duet is followed by one of the oratorio’s best-loved choruses, ‘How lovely are the messengers’. We then hear of the Jews’ attempted entrapment of Paul and the miraculous healing at Lystra of a crippled man. The work ends with Paul leaving his church at Ephesus and sailing for Jerusalem, and new challenges.