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A Conductor’s Guide to the Interpretation of Mendelssohn's Elijah: A Theologically-Informed Approach

Abstract

Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah exists in many different performing versions. Conductors often edit the work due to its length; in its original version, Elijah lasts almost two and one-half hours, far longer than today’s audiences are accustomed to listening. Also, many people believe the work contains redundant scenes within the storyline that interrupt its dramatic flow. Therefore, all conductors today face a dilemma: perform the work in its entirety, or make cuts to the score. While this issue has been researched by many scholars, my paper further expands on their work by considering Elijah’s musical and dramatic structure in the context of their theological functions.

First, I analyze the structure of Elijah by dramatic scene, considering in particular how

the choruses function within the work’s overall scheme and affect the flow of the musical drama. Second, I offer a discussion concerning the most common edits and cuts made by four renowned conductors—Robert Shaw, Donald Neuen, Robert Page, and Daniel Delisi—and provide commentary on their decisions. By considering the textual history of Elijah, as well as the ideas that Mendelssohn and his librettist, Pastor Julius Schubring, had at the outset of its composition,

I present a theological context that can help conductors decide which scenes to abridge and which movements to delete. I conclude with a discussion of performance practice issues, mainly with regard to diction and rhythmic articulation. I suggest ways to effectively convey the text, which is sometimes difficult for listeners to understand, particularly during passages of fast recitative or archaic Biblical verse. Thus, this paper will provide practical advice for prospective conductors on how to use the work’s structure and intentions of the composer and librettist to decide which parts of Elijah to edit.

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