The notion that there might be autobiographical, or personally confessional, registers at work in Mendelssohn’s 1846 Elijah has long been established, with three interpretive approaches prevailing: the first, famously advanced by Prince Albert, compares Mendelssohn’s own artistic achievements with Elijah’s prophetic ones; the second, in Eric Werner’s dramatic formulation, discerns in the aria “It is enough” a confession of Mendelssohn’s own “weakening will to live”; the third portrays Elijah as a testimonial on Mendelssohn’s relationship to the Judaism of his birth and/or to the Christianity of his youth and adulthood.
This article explores a fourth, essentially untested, interpretive approach: the possibility that Mendelssohn crafts from Elijah’s story a heartfelt affirmation of domesticity, an expression of his growing fascination with retiring to a quiet existence in the bosom of his family.
The argument unfolds in three phases. In the first, the focus is on that climactic passage in Elijah’s Second Part in which God is revealed to the prophet in the “still small voice.” The turn from divine absence to divine presence is articulated through two clear and powerful recollections of music that Elijah had sung in the oratorio’s First Part, a move that has the potential to reconfigure our evaluation of his role in the public and private spheres in those earlier passages. The second phase turns to Elijah’s own brief sojourn into the domestic realm, the widow’s scene, paying particular attention to the motivations that may have underlain the substantial revisions to the scene that took place between the Birmingham premiere and the London premiere the following year. The final phase explores the possibility that the widow and her son, the “surrogate family” in the oratorio, do not disappear after the widow’s scene, but linger on as “para-characters” with crucial roles in the unfolding drama.
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