Donald Macleod concludes his survey of Mendelssohn as the composer's elation at the success of his oratorio Elijah turns to despair at the death of his beloved sister Fanny.
Donald Macleod concludes his exploration of Mendelssohn's last seven years with a look at the genesis of his oratorio Elijah, whose popularity in Victorian England was second only to that of Handel's Messiah - certainly not a claim that could be made today, when it tends to be regarded as the height of kitsch. In 1846, the city of Birmingham invited Mendelssohn to take charge of its music festival. He turned the job down, but agreed instead to compose an oratorio for the festival. After the earlier success of his oratorio St Paul, Mendelssohn had considered composing an Elijah; the Birmingham commission prompted him to return to this idea, which he'd had on the back burner for the past 10 years. The first performance was a huge success - "Never was there a more complete triumph!", as The Times put it - but Mendelssohn wasn't completely satisfied, and immediately set about overhauling the work for the London première the following year. According to a contemporary report it was met with a "long-continued unanimous volley of plaudits, vociferous and deafening applause." Mendelssohn's elation, however, was short-lived. On his return to Germany he was met by a letter from his brother Paul, telling him that their beloved sister Fanny had suffered a series of strokes and died - while rehearsing one of his pieces. Mendelssohn remained in a state of emotional collapse for some time, but when he was able to compose again he poured his grief out in his anguished 6th String Quartet - the last major work he completed before his own death, just two months later.
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