On 5th November 2022, we will be performing Mendelssohn’s famous oratorio, Elijah, at King Edward’s School in Edgbaston. This has particular significance for BFCS as it was 176 years ago, in 1846, that the choir gave the premier performance of this work, conducted by Mendelssohn himself, in the Town Hall, at the Birmingham Triennial Festival.
The Birmingham Triennial Festivals had started as early as 1768 and continued with festival choirs augmented by singers from other Midland cities and as far afield as London. Over time, Birmingham’s own choir increased in size and began presenting charity concerts, until in 1845 when the name Birmingham Festival Choral Society was first used.
At this time, Mendelssohn was enjoying huge popularity in England and already had a relationship with the Triennial Festival, having visited on two previous occasions to great acclaim. In 1845, the committee of the festival decided to ask Mendelssohn to conduct at the 1846 festival and whether he could provide an oratorio. Mendelssohn consented and worked to put the text for Elijah in its final form and in 1845 and 1846 composed his oratorio to the German and English texts in parallel.
Vast crowds thronged the streets for Mendelssohn’s arrival in Birmingham and on the morning of Wednesday 26 August 1846, Elijah was premiered at the Town Hall, with the composer conducting. There were close to 400 performers with an orchestra of 125 (mainly London players from the Philharmonic Society and the Opera) but with some local performers and a choir of 271 singers (with 63 from London).
The performance was a tremendous success. The Times newspaper wrote:
‘The last note of Elijah was drowned in a long-continued unanimous volley of plaudits, vociferous and deafening. It was as though enthusiasm, long-checked, had suddenly burst its bonds and filled the air with shouts of exultation. Mendelssohn, evidently overpowered, bowed his acknowledgements, and quickly descended from his position on the conductor’s rostrum; but he was compelled to appear again, amidst renewed cheers and huzzas. Never was there a more complete triumph – never a more thorough and speedy recognition of a great work of art.’
Mendelssohn himself wrote:
‘No work of mine ever went so admirably at its first performance, nor was received with such enthusiasm by both the musicians and the audience alike as this oratorio. No fewer than four choruses and four arias were encored!’
Sadly, Mendelssohn was only to return to England once more before his premature death in November 1847.
As you can appreciate, Elijah has always held a special place in our hearts at BFCS. Whilst we cannot promise a choir of 271 singers at our performance in November, you can be sure that we will do our very best to live up to the part we played in the proud history of this piece.
Elizabeth Vick, BFCS Archivist