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Felix Mendelssohn


1 Kings 18:20 -39

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy

Unlike so many composers, superbly gifted people who are unhappy, miserable, depressed, neurotic, sometimes out-and-out psychotic, Mendelssohn was happy. He was cheerful and contented and enthusiastic throughout his entire life, brief as it was. His name — “Felix”, Latin for “happy” — couldn’t have suited him more.

His father’s given name was “Abraham”, and his grandfather’s, “Moses”. Mendelssohn was Jewish. His grandfather, Moses, was an able philosopher much esteemed in academic circles in Germany in spite of the virulent anti-semitism of Frederick the Great. His father, Abraham, used to say, “Formerly I was known as the son of my father; now, as the father of my son.”

Felix himself was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1809. Three years later his mother, Leah Salomon, and his father became members of the Lutheran Church and had their son baptized Christian, adding the name “Bartholdy” in hope of lessening the social penalties of being Jewish.

Felix showed musical promise very early in his life. His mother, a cultured woman (she read English, French, Latin and Greek) was his first piano teacher. She recognized his prodigious talent and next year sent him to Paris for training. He emerged as a “boy-wonder” pianist when he was nine and as a composer at ten. At age eleven he was taken to visit Goethe, Germany’s greatest poet, then seventy-two years old. Immediately the older man recognized the child as his intellectual and creative equal.

At seventeen Mendelssohn composed the overture to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which composition was deemed thereafter to be as fine a piece of music as he would ever write. Also at seventeen he conducted Bach’s St.Matthew’s Passion. The performance was hailed as one of the glories of German music-making. In the midst of the adulation heaped on him around this event Mendelssohn commented, “And to think that it should be…a Jew who gave back to the people the greatest Christian work.”

By this time Mendelssohn was dazzling music-lovers as a composer, pianist, violinist, violist, and conductor. (Less widely known were his gifts as painter and poet.) When only twenty he stunned English audiences on the first of his ten trips to England. He loved to travel, and since he regarded the sea as the finest of nature’s beauties, a trip to Scotland’s Hebrides inspired the masterpiece, Fingal’s Cave.

Mendelssohn knew he was extraordinarily talented, yet he never flaunted it, always preferring in genuine humility to elevate and encourage those around him. On one occasion, when he was to be the pianist in a piano-cello-violin trio, his music, the music for the piano-part, was missing. Now he didn’t need his music, being able to play his part out of his head. But not wishing to embarrass the cellist and the violinist who needed their music, he placed any music he could find upside down on the piano (so as not to distract him) and then had a friend turn the pages throughout the performance.

A prodigy as a conductor too, Mendelssohn found himself music-master of Dusseldorf and leader of the city’s symphony orchestra. Here he began his first oratorio, St.Paul. Plainly a genius, he was promoted to the world-famous music-position in Leipzig, where he was introduced to Chopin, Schumann, and Schumann’s future wife, Clara (herself a superb pianist).

In 1837 (by now he was twenty-eight) he married Cecile Jeanrenaud, a painter and the daughter of a Lutheran clergyman in Frankfurt. Together Felix and Cecile had five children.

Mendelssohn penned two hundred musical compositions, his violin concerto being acknowledged one of the best. He is regarded as the consummate nineteenth century writer of oratorios. Notwithstanding his German identity, his music is performed more in England to this day than in any other nation.

In 1847, at the age of thirty-eight, he fell ill and died. One year earlier he had written an oratorio specifically for an English audience: Elijah. The inspiration for the oratorio was the Hebrew figure of old, Israel’s greatest prophet.



Unlike Mendelssohn, Elijah looms up at us out of nowhere. We know nothing about his parents, his upbringing, his inner or outer life apart from his vocation as prophet.

But what a prophet! The God of fire ignited him again and again. Wherever we come upon Elijah he is aflame. Polish? Subtlety? Social niceties? Soft speech? He was as far from all this as anyone could be. If we can’t understand why he is always and everywhere afire, he can’t understand why we appear not to be lit.

King Ahab, the wickedest king in Israel’s troubled history, decided it would be politically correct and personally advantageous to have his cake and eat it too. Why not mix together Baal, the pagan deity, and Yahweh, the holy one of Israel? Why not have the self-indulgence that Baal permits his people and the security that Yahweh promises his people? Why not the fornication that Baal laughs about and the forgiveness that Yahweh weeps to bestow? Haven’t popular preachers always retained their popularity by telling hearers that we can all have the “goodies” of the world together with the gospel of God?

In a blazing rage Elijah thundered, “No! The holy one of Israel will shortly expose Baal for the inconsequential puff of smoke that he is. And as for you, Ahab, you are finished. Dogfood, in fact; the scavenger canines that forage in the city streets will lick your blood.” And so they did.

Jewish people always knew that Elijah, the greatest of the Hebrew prophets, would come back. He would come back at the end-time when the kingdom of God was breaking in on the world; he would come back when what all Israel called the “Age to Come” was dawning as it superimposed itself on what Israel called the “Present Evil Age.”

When our Lord Jesus Christ began his public ministry his detractors taunted him saying, “You can’t be the Messiah; everyone knows that before the Messiah comes, Elijah must return. And Elijah hasn’t been seen for eight hundred years!” “Yes, he has!”, Jesus retorted. “Elijah did come back, recently. And you made fun of him. You called him names: John the `dunker’, `dipper’, `ducker’, `soaker’. But make no mistake: Elijah is here. And therefore his word is still operative.”



Yet another Israelite pointed to our Lord. Whereas Elijah pointed ahead to him, the apostle Paul pointed at him. Paul was unshakably convinced that Jesus Christ is alive, present to our world, present in it, the contemporary who can never become antiquated or obsolete.

Paul came from a sophisticated, well-to-do Jewish family on the north Mediterranean. Unlike Jesus, who grew up in a one-chariot town, Paul grew up in a centre of learning and commerce and culture. He knew Hebrew and Aramaic and Latin and Greek.

Paul’s vocation owes everything to that never-to-be-forgotten encounter on the Damascus road, where the risen Lord knocked him down with the kind of violence that was so foreign to Paul (but so natural to Elijah). Thereafter Paul could no more have denied the intimacy and immediacy and intensity of his life with his Lord than he could have denied that he was alive and breathing. It’s no wonder that he said simply and unselfconsciously to the congregation in Philippi, “Christ means `life’ for me.” The Christ who was indeed `life’ for him was always the crucified Messiah. Unlike so many modern church people who look upon the cross as something that Jesus endured for a few hours on Friday and left behind forever on Sunday, Paul knew that his Lord was raised, to be sure, yet raised as crucified. He knew that the risen one was raised with the marks of his suffering still upon him. He knew that Christ’s resurrection doesn’t mean that Jesus of Nazareth has been elevated beyond suffering and vulnerability and misunderstanding and treachery; he knew instead that Christ’s resurrection means that Jesus of Nazareth has been rendered victorious, triumphant, effective, in the midst of suffering and vulnerability and misunderstanding and treachery. The modern hymnwriter who penned the line, “Rich wounds yet visible above“, captured it perfectly.

Paul knew that only a crucified Messiah could get close enough to fragile people like you and me to help us; and he knew that only a crucified Messiah whose raised and therefore rendered triumphant would be able to help us.

For years the apostle had wanted to get to Rome, the nerve-centre of the empire. Then he had wanted to push beyond Rome into Spain, announcing the gospel where it had never been heard before. He got to Rome but not to Spain. While he was in Rome, under house-arrest, emperor Nero decided to make scapegoats of Christians and blame them for a fire that had devastated a sizeable part of the city. Along with Peter, his fellow-apostle, he died in the savagery Nero unleashed. All his death did was permit him to know what he had anticipated for years: the Christ who was his everything to him in life was richer still in death.

                                                                       Victor Shepherd

March 1996