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Conducting Felix Mendelssohn-Bartoldy’s
He Watching Over Israel
By: Kyle Barnett

            Deciphering a composer’s intentions from the mesh of lyrics and notes left on the page makes the conducting experience both challenging and educational by displaying the variety of forms in which a composer can integrate meaning into his or her music.  By applying knowledge of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartoldy’s personal history and musical training along with understanding the story surrounding the composition, conductors and musicians can better recognize and make decisions concerning relationships within the music, including the meanings of the lyrics, the attitude each different chord the choir sings should create, the purpose of the varying dynamic levels, and the severity of tempo changes.  All of these aspects were taken into consideration while making the choices shaping the Misericordia University Chamber Singers’ performance of He Watching Over Israel by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartoldy.

            The conductor training began by selecting He Watching Over Israel, a piece from Mendelssohn’s oratorio, Elijah, and a choice Dr. Steven Thomas, the Chamber Singer’s guest conductor, and myself felt would maximize the vocalists’ potential while remaining within their abilities.  The music successfully challenges choirs to sing at a variety of dynamic levels throughout their vocal range, count meticulously to accurately perform syncopated rhythms, and acutely follow the conductor to remain together and avoid confusion.  Simultaneously, He Watching Over Israel provides the opportunity to introduce basic conducting skills including accurate and clear communication with the choir, a variety of different cueing techniques, and interpretation of the score.

            It is difficult for a composer to write exactly on paper how the music should sound.  However, accepted musical notation can be placed throughout the transcript to provide a guideline for the conductor and performers before they begin using research to make more detailed decisions.  These markings include crescendo and decrescendo symbols which are often accompanied by desired volume levels such as pianissimo, piano, mezzo piano, mezzo forte, forte, and fortissimo, and tempo suggestions in the form of Latin words such as allegro or legato, which commonly come with meter connotation dictating the number of a particular type of note per minute.  The conductor, however, has the final say in how dramatic the dynamic and tempo changes will sound based on their personal preferences and their knowledge, which includes research about the composer and the use of recordings to observe other conductors’ decisions.  To help draw some of my final conclusions about the Chamber Singer’s performance, I referenced recordings of He Watching Over Israel by the 1999 Pennsylvania District 10 Choir and the 1999 Pennsylvania Region V Choir, carefully noting the decisions of these other more experienced conductors.

            The composer can also leave more subtle hints in the lyrics regarding how they desire the music to sound.  Choirs commonly practice taking a breath where commas are found in the text.  I made decisions about where different sections of the choir would breathe by using the recordings, historical information about Mendelssohn, the story of Elijah, and studying the grammatical notation.  By staggering the breaths throughout the choir, sound can constantly be projected off the stage creating a very smooth and soothing atmosphere for the audience.  Having the entire choir breathe together, however, stops the sound and causes a very obvious pause therefore exaggerating the next phrase.  Throughout He Watching Over Israel, Mendelssohn uses both of these techniques to establish either the feeling of a constant and ever watchful God, or to empower the lyrics, in this case referencing the pain Elijah the Prophet is experiencing.

            The conducting process continued by preparing to lead the choir, learning each individual soprano, alto, tenor, and bass parts.  By solidifying my knowledge of the notes and chords to listen for during rehearsal, pinpointing trouble spots became less challenging.  This process also gave me the opportunity to practically memorize the score and therefore make better eye contact with the choir, anticipate upcoming cues, and establish better overall communication with the vocalists and pianist.

However, in addition to leading the choir at the performance, the conductor’s job extends to directing the audience.  People subconsciously watch the conductor’s arms and head, taking cues in regard to what section’s sound they should focus on and listen.  Therefore, regardless of the choir’s needs, the section of the choir singing the melody must always receive a cue to help inform the audience.  During He Watching Over Israel, acknowledging the melody provides a unique challenge when all four sections of the choir are singing because the melody moves quickly from section to section, easily disappearing.  Communicating with the choir during rehearsal to avoid overpowering the section carrying the melody can also help ensure a successful performance.

            Any further decisions and interpretations concerning the performance, including finalizations on tempo, dynamics, and breath marks, I derived from Mendelssohn’s personal history and musical training, current events in Germany at the time of composition, and the precise role He Watching Over Israel plays in the overall oratorio, Elijah.  Knowledge of these interlocked components helps to decipher what Mendelssohn the composer was attempting to convey to his audiences with his mixture of music and lyrics.

            The private life of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartoldy includes his musical training, medical treatment, family history, and social stature, which all contribute to the music of He Watching Over Israel and oratorio Elijah.  Born into a wealthy family, Mendelssohn’s musical career was encouraged, and supported by his family.  He began composing at a very young age, successfully producing his first major work at the age of sixteen (Moshansky, 34).  These early marks of genius, however, could not bring him unparalleled fame and fortune when placed in comparison to other, more notable Romantic composers including Schubert, Chopin and Liszt.  And because Mendelssohn’s composing years bridge the gap between the Classical and Romantic Eras, he is often critiqued alongside the Classical composers as well, where his works are equally lost amidst the greatness of Bach, Beethoven, and young Mozart who began composing as early as age six (Moshansky, 35).

            Specifically categorized, Mendelssohn is a Romantic composer who clearly shows evidence of Classical training in his compositions (Moshansky, 21-24).  His knowledge and respect for his Classical predecessors is made clearly evident and put on display when his conducting debut in 1829 is Bach’s oratorio, the Matthus Passion (Moshansky, 34), a purely Classical selection.  Throughout He Watching Over Israel, it remains important for the choir to display the structure and rigidity of Classical influence in addition to the fluid, emotional intensity of Mendelssohn’s Romantic writing style.

            Though meaning to insult Mendelssohn’s “lack of Romantic musical concepts,” critics only manage to emphasize the unique dual influences infecting Mendelssohn’s music.  They describe his work as “too fluent, too suave, too insinuating inoffensive to embody tragic emotion...and descriptive of fairies, elves, visionary landscapes, and ethereal joys and sorrows…” (Mason, 191).  Emotion, however, by no means needs to be tragic or offending, and by using the adjectives of fluent, suave, joy, and sorrow to describe Mendelssohn’s music, critics only manage to exaggerate how much feeling he manages to capture.  In He Watching Over Israel, Mendelssohn successfully grasps the beauty and grace of the angels’ comforting words while simultaneously reflecting the tragic sorrow of Elijah.

            Conducting He Watching Over Israel to encompass both the Romantic and Classical styles challenges the choir to include dramatic dynamic changes while maintaining preciseness.  The vocal and piano accompaniment need to remain fluid and connected, to successfully represent the Angels’ words to Elijah and the emotion between these two characters.  Corresponding with this legato feeling, the music needs to uphold cleanliness, making sure voices enter correctly at the precise instant and the piano avoids any deviations from the set tempo or score.

            Knowledge of Felix’s medical history also plays a role in ensuring the performance of He Watching Over Israel is historically accurate.  As a child, alongside his music lessons, Mendelssohn’s father paid for him to receive treatment to help correct a stutter in his speech.  The therapist taught Mendelssohn to think about what he wanted to say, and then speak quickly to avoid getting stuck.  This practice carried over into Mendelssohn’s conducting, often times resulting in quicker tempos than called for by the score.  Fellow composers, including, Wagner, the great German composer, occasionally ridiculed him, claiming Mendelssohn always performed his music too quickly, saying, “every Allegro inevitably ended as a Presto…” (Jacob, 312-313).  Mendelssohn chose to defended his quick tempos arguing that “too slow a tempo is more harmful than anything else…” and since good performances are “so rare,” taking a quick tempo will gloss over the piece, deluding the audience from all the choirs mistakes (Jacob 312-313).  To make the Chamber Singer’s performance of He Watching Over Israel historically accurate, pushing the tempo remains important while staying within the choir’s abilities.

            Mendelssohn’s reasons for writing the oratorio, Elijah, also have connection with his family’s religious background.  “Mendelssohn” is a Jewish name and family, and as a result of Jewish persecution in Germany during the early 1800’s, Felix was baptized a Protestant at the age of seven along with the rest of his family.  In order to avoid future conflict, the family also hyphenated their name with the more Christian sounding Mendelssohn-Bartoldy.  A first generation Protestant, Mendelssohn never personally encountered any direct social problems in retrospect of his family’s long Jewish history.  He did, however, remain aware of his previous faith, using Elijah to express his feeling about the religious persecution in Germany (Moshansky, 11-12).

            Elijah is meant to call out political leaders, encouraging one to take a dominating leadership role in Germany and minimize or eliminate Jewish persecution.  In a letter to his friend in 1838, Mendelssohn states,

“I imagined Elijah as a real prophet through and through, of the kind we could really do with today:  Strong, zealous, and yes, even bad-tempered, angry and brooding-in contrast to the riff-raff, whether of the court or of the people, and indeed at odds with almost the whole world-and yet borne aloft as if on angel’s wings”

(http://www.coker.edu/Elijah/mendelssohns.htm).  Mendelssohn sees Elijah as a symbolic leader willing to stand up for righteousness, and the music and lyrics of the oratorio and He Watching Over Israel relate both to the troubles in Elijah’s life, and to the political complications in Germany.  The lyrics meant to comfort Elijah, “He watching over Israel, slumbers not, nor sleeps.  Shouldst thou, walking in grief, languish, He will quicken thee” also share words of hope and comfort with the persecuted people of Germany.

             If performed correctly, He Watching Over Israel sends a feeling of reassurance through the use of its characters and music.  The music attempts to create this sensation of comfort and security by maintaining a constant sound throughout the first and third sections, and appropriate chord structures.  Immediately, the first phrase, “He, watching over Israel, slumbers not, nor sleeps” is heard without pause and this first sense of comfort then continues to grow throughout the rest of the first section.

             The middle section moves on to describe the intense “grief and languish” that Elijah and the persecuted people of Germany are feeling.  Mendelssohn empowers this phrase by having the entire choir breathe together before addressing this intense emotion.  The group is singing, smoothly, softly, and then suddenly breaks together to sing “Shouldst thou, walking in grief, languish.”  The pain and suffering of section two continues to build until Mendelssohn creatively scripts another break by the entire choir, after which they sing the phrase, “He will quicken thee,” which releases all the tension and stress just as easily as it was created.  So the location of where the choir breathes is just as important in creating emotion as the dynamics, tempo, and quality of the music.

             Mendelssohn chose to use a biblical character to push for more tolerant political leadership.  He carefully composed lyrics and music to symbolically reflect his personal hopes while simultaneously telling the story of Elijah.  This entire work itself is categorized as a sacred oratorio, a “form of religious music with chorus, solo voices, and orchestra and/or organ, normally telling the story of an independent or at least separable form of the liturgy” (http://www.ptloma.edu/music/MUH/genres/oratorio/oratorio.htm).  In order to understand the role He Watching Over Israel plays, the accounts in the Old Testament leading up to and following the song are significant.

             Beginning with 1 Kings 12:1, the Old Testament describes the many rulers who inherit the throne of Israel after the death of King Solomon.  During each change of power, the rulers and the people of Israel grow farther away from God until in 1 Kings 16:29, the throne is inherited by Ahab, Son of Omri.  Ahab marries Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal.  Under their rule the people of Israel commit idolatry, breaking the First Commandment by beginning to worship and serve the pagan god Baal, building him a temple and altar.

             The Lord, angry with the people of Israel and Ahab, sends Elijah to Israel to condemn this blasphemy.  Mendelssohn’s entire oratorio begins with Elijah confronting Ahab saying, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (Jacob, 252).  The people of Israel, fearful because Elijah has condemned the city to drought, beg and plead with the Lord for forgiveness, but He turns a deaf ear, demanding repentance of them.  Elijah is given instructions from an Angel to move east and hide, where according to God’s word, the ravens will bring him food and water.

             Approximately three years pass before the Lord instructs Elijah to return to Israel and speaks with Ahab.  Upon his return, Elijah finds a city suffering from famine and starvation.  Queen Jezebel is persecuting and killing all of the Lord’s followers, although some have found refuge in a cave where the faithful Obadiah has hidden them.  Elijah presents Ahab with a challenge, “Get two bulls for us.  Let them choose for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it.  I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it.  Then you call the name of your god, and I will call the name of the Lord.  The god who answers by fire—he is God” (1 Kings 18:1-24).

             After calling their pagan god without success, the people of Israel turn to Elijah, who completely saturates his offering with water and calls upon the Lord.  His fire ignites immediately, turning the hearts of the people.  During the slaughter of all the prophets of Baal, the skies open and it begins to rain.  Word of Elijah’s actions return to Jezebel’s ears and in anger she sends a message to him saying, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life that of one of them.”  Elijah flees in great fear, running until he collapses in complete exhaustion (1 Kings 18:24-46, 1 Kings 19:1-3).

             Weary, and scared for his life, Elijah pleads with the Lord to put him out of such misery and take his life.  In response to his plea, an Angel appears from the Lord bringing Elijah peace and reassurance that the Lord shall be watching over him.  At this point in the Mendelssohn’s oratorio, the choir performs the selection He Watching Over Israel, representing the angels bringing the message and describing how the Lord will always take care of His people (http://www.coker.edu/Elijah/page6.htm).

             He Watching Over Israel is composed in three sections:  section one using the lyrics, “He, watching over Israel, slumbers not, nor sleeps,” section two stating “Shouldst thou, walking in grief, languish, He will quicken thee,” and a third section where both sets of text overlap.  By the conclusion of the piece, Mendelssohn has allowed angels to appear before Elijah and reassure him of the Lord’s goodness in section one, remind him of his previous pain and fear in section two, and then again re-establish Elijah’s faith and understanding that the Lord is always watching and protecting His people in section three.

             The first complete section lasts for only eighteen measures, during which the Angel’s first phrase, “He watching over Israel, slumbers not, nor sleeps” is heard three times in several different fashions.  A soli, or a portion of the music where an entire voice section sings the melody alone, by the soprano section opens and establishes the lyrics, melody line, and reassuring consistency of sound.  The soprano section symbolizes the one voice of the first angel appearing to comfort Elijah.  Before the sopranos can quite finish holding their last note in their phrase, the tenor section enters with the same melody, maintaining the constant vocal sound.  Other sections of the choir begin to enter as scores of angels arrive to comfort Elijah.  These other entrances accompany and harmonize with the melody, filling in the gaps and making sure the sound is unwavering.

             Only one section of the choir is singing the melody at a given moment throughout the piece.  In section one, the three remaining sections are musically harmonizing in major chords, which because of their structure generally please the ear.  The lyrics of these harmonies involve only portions of the opening phrase, for example, “He slumbers not, nor sleeps, slumbers not, nor sleeps.”  Just as the purpose of the Angels’ words, “He watching over Israel, slumbers not nor sleeps” are to reassure in Elijah, the musical, major chords combine with these lyrics intensifying this comforting atmosphere.

             Mendelssohn uses the dynamics throughout the first section to further animate Elijah’s story.  By slowly adding different voice sections, the dynamics naturally increase to signify the arrival of more angels.  Once the entire choir has entered, it remains important for them to keep the sound sweet and reserved, avoiding any maximum dynamics, and reflecting the “slumbers” and “sleeps” portions of the lyrics.  By communicating with the choir during rehearsal, avoiding the loud, vulgar sound during the performance is achievable through appropriate conducting motions and good eye contact between the conductor and choir.

             The initial mood of comfort and hope He Watching Over Israel establishes is not only speaking to Elijah, but the persecuted people of Germany.  Through its combination of major chord structure, appropriately quieter dynamics, and delicate lyrics, Mendelssohn is speaking to them of hope and love.  The pure sounding major chords, in correspondence with quieter volume levels and lyrics referencing “slumber” and sleep” are meant to successfully comfort both Elijah and the people who Mendelssohn feels have been done an injustice.

             In complete contrast to section one’s tranquil feeling, section two is a reminder to Elijah of how turbulent his life was before the angels appeared bearing God’s message.  “Shouldst thou, walking in grief, languish, He will quicken thee.”  A tenor section soli establishes these lyrics in a more unsettling, minor chord progression, and a louder, more disturbing volume.  Mendelssohn maintains these darker, minor tones, refusing to provide relief and resolution until the end of section two.

             The dynamics of the second section grow in a fashion similar to that of section one, except they become louder and more dramatic to better create an element of fear.  The minor chord structure and new volume enhance the “grief” Elijah is feeling.  The second section comes to a climax on a very high and dissonant chord with the word “languish,” at this point reflective of how fearful Elijah had been before the angels’ arrival.  Immediately following this wave of fear, Mendelssohn begins the resolution of the tones back to a more major format, decreasing the dynamics to a quieter level, and reminding Elijah twice that the Lord will “quicken,” or protect him.

             Just as intricately as section one intertwined the use of chord structure, dynamics, and text to convey peace, section two equally matches and recognizes the intense opposite emotions of fear and pain being felt by both Elijah and followers of the Jewish faith in Germany.  In section three, Mendelssohn will combine these elements again to allow the feelings of comfort, harmony, and the understanding of God’s undying love for His people to prevail.  The melodies and lyrics of the first two sections, intricately weave a web of sound throughout the beginning measures of section three, and as Elijah grows continually inspired by the comforting words, the text referring to “grief” and “languish” dies away, leaving only God and His eternal love.

             By having the lyrics “grief” and “languish” disappear by the conclusion symbolizes the restoration of Elijah’s faith in the Lord allowing him to return to the city of Israel and unite the people who believe in the Lord (http://www.coker.edu/Elijah/page6.htm).  This idea involving the re-unification of Israel is strikingly similar to Mendelssohn’s dream of a re-unified and organized Germany along with religious tolerance.  The whole picture created by the oratorio Elijah concerns a man who came to his people, enlightened them, and set them back on the path of righteousness.  This concept of being set straight again, and given a fresh start is what Mendelssohn desired for Germany.  Mendelssohn wanted the people to come together and be a strong, unified country, and he used the story of the prophet Elijah to convey this message.

             In the concluding measures of the song, Mendelssohn finishes his composition but maintains the feeling of God’s constant gaze even after the song concludes.  The vocalists and piano alternate solos, the accompaniment stopping while the choir sings acapella, and then the choir stopping to allow the piano to solo conclude the song with the exact same measure with which it began.  Although the vocals and the piano accompaniment are no long together, their parts overlap, continuing to produce a constant flow of music.  Mendelssohn creates this consistency of sound by never allowing the music to fade and drift off, but never stop.  The last lyrical line of the music, “slumbers not, nor sleeps,” is simply a final reminder to the audience that even though the song is coming to a conclusion, God’s protective love will remain.

             With the lyrics whispering the last reminder to Elijah of God’s watchfulness, the piano accompaniment helps to enhance the feeling of God’s constant protection.  At the beginning of the song, the piano lightly begins the piece, gently introducing the notes to the audience in rhythmic but fluid triplets.  Now, at the conclusion, the exact same measure with which the song began concludes the composition, leaving the audience straining in their seats to hear the last note.  It feels as though the music is still playing even though it can’t be heard.  This feeling of continuous music being played is the exact sensation Mendelssohn was striving to achieve to make the listeners understand and feel the gaze of the Lord upon them at all times.

             The decisions I made concerning the Chamber Singers’ performance of He Watching Over Israel had rationalization either musically or historically.  By applying my knowledge of music, and researched knowledge of Mendelssohn’s personal life and feelings, I made decisions about how the choir should sound during the performance.  In the case of Elijah and He Watching Over Israel, it is clear Felix Mendelssohn-Bartoldy’s intentions stretch far beyond what he left on the page.


References

Elizabeth Boatwright Coker Performing Arts Center (2003).  Watson Theater.  Historical Narrative.  Retrieved February 11, 2003 from http://www.coker.edu/Elijah/mendelssohns.htm

Elizabeth Boatwright Coker Performing Arts Center (2003).  Watson Theater.  Complete Text to the Score.  Retrieved February 11, 2003 from http://www.coker.edu/Elijah/text.htm

Goldsmith, J.  (Condcutor).  Mendelssohn, F.  (Composer).  (2000).  He, Watching Over Israel.  2000 PMEA Region V All-State Chorus [CD].  Hanover, Pennsylvania:  Sound Works Audio Productions.

Hendrix, J.  (1999).  What is an Oratorio?  Retrieved February 11, 2003 from http://www.ptloma.edu/music/MUH/genres/oratorio/oratorio/htm

Holy Bible, The  (1989).  The Holy Bible containing the Old and New Testaments.  Nashville, Tennessee:  Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Jacob, H.  (1963).  Felix Mendelssohn and His Times.  New Jersey:  Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Kerchner, J.  (Conductor).  Mendelssohn, F.  (Composer).  (2000).  He, Watching Over Israel.  2000 PMEA District 10 Chorus Festival [CD].  Maple Shade, New Jersey:  AMP Recording and Duplicating Service.

Mason, D.  (1970).  The Romantic Composers.  Westport, Connecticut:  Greenwood Press Publishers.

Mendelssohn, F.  (1961).  He Watching Over Israel from ‘Elijah’.  New York:  Carl Fischer, Inc.

Moshansky, M.  (1981).  Mendelssohn:  His Life and Times.  Neptune City, New Jersey:  Paganiniana Publications, Inc.

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