Mendelssohn’s Elijah oratorio Synopsis

"Elijah" is a celebrated oratorio composed by Felix Mendelssohn in 1846. This powerful and dramatic work tells the Biblical story of the prophet Elijah.
Image of Felix Mendelssohn on stamp

For the uninitiated Old Testament Bible scholars, the story of the prophet Elijah is broad and lengthy and warrants an overview to get a good grasp on the “Elijah” oratorio composed by Felix Mendelssohn in 1846. Following is a brief summary of this powerful and dramatic work, drawing inspiration from the First and Second Books of Kings in the Old Testament. Here is a synopsis of Mendelssohn’s oratorio, “Elijah”:

Act 1:

The oratorio opens with a chorus of the Israelites, who are suffering from a severe drought and famine. They lament their plight and pray for relief. Elijah, the great prophet, enters and declares that God will send rain to end the drought, but the people must first turn away from idol worship and return to the true God.

Act 2:

Elijah confronts the prophets of the false god Baal in a dramatic showdown on Mount Carmel. The prophets of Baal attempt to call down fire from their god, but they fail. In contrast, Elijah prays to the God of Israel, and fire descends from heaven, consuming his offering. This miraculous display leads the Israelites to repent and turn back to their true faith.

Act 3:

Jezebel, the wicked queen, is enraged by the defeat of the prophets of Baal and vows to kill Elijah. He flees into the wilderness, exhausted and disheartened. In a moment of despair, Elijah cries out to God, feeling abandoned and alone. An angel appears, providing him with sustenance and comfort.

Act 4:

Elijah continues his journey, guided by God. He eventually encounters a widow and her son who are starving. Through his faith and prayers, he miraculously multiplies their meager food supply. This act of compassion and God’s provision strengthen Elijah’s resolve.

Act 5:

The oratorio concludes with a majestic chorus, as a chariot of fire descends from heaven to carry Elijah to heaven in a whirlwind, signifying his ascent to God. The people mourn the loss of their beloved prophet but are left with a message of hope and faith.

Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” is a masterpiece of oratorio literature, known for its vivid storytelling, dramatic choral writing, and expressive solo arias. It explores themes of faith, redemption, and the power of divine intervention while showcasing Mendelssohn’s exceptional compositional skills and emotional depth.


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