Mendelssohn started work on this monumental oratorio in 1832 when working together with his childhood friend the lutheran pastor Julius Schubring on the libretto using passages from both the Old and the New testaments and chorales and hymn settings rather as Bach had done before him. After two years work on the libretto Mendelssohn began work composing the music and two years later again on May 22nd 1836 Paulus (St. Paul) premiered at the Lower Rhenish Music Festival in Düsseldorf. Its English premiere followed on October 3rd the same year in Liverpool the libretto having been translated from the German by Mendelssohn’s friend, Karl Klingermann. It was very popular during Mendelssohn’s lifetime and was regularly performed both in the English-speaking world and on the Continent but for some reason that I’ve never been able to discern it lost its popularity in the decades following Mendelssohn’s death and, alas, is now rarely performed in its entirety.
Paulus is based upon the story of how Saul a Pharisee known for the enthusiasm and rigour with which he persecuted Christians was converted to Christianity by an encounter with the Risen Christ and went on to become one of Christianity’s most powerful advocates and a founder of the Church. It’s a four-part work (SATB) work with solos for soprano, tenor, and bass, with orchestral accompaniment. The text is Mendelssohn’s own version of the story found chiefly in Acts of The Apostles and the influence of both Bach and Handel can be heard in the music. But it would be a very serious mistake indeed to write off Paulus as merely a homage to baroque oratorios. Nothing could be further from the truth it’s a work of great originality whose elegance, fluidity, contrapuntal versatility, and originality is evident from very early on. Mendelssohn was a great composer and like Bach and Handel before him he was sufficiently confident of his own talent to take inspiration from another composer’s work and transform it into some fresh and entirely original. You can hear this right from the start because like Bach before him Mendelssohn made use of chorales to express his religiosity which is why both the overture and a fairly hefty chunk of the first choral section are based on the chorale "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme". His musical originality manifests itself throughout the piece it’s difficult for us to really understand how shocking and radical it was for Mendelssohn to choose the dramatic point of the oratorio – when Christ addresses Saul directly, and have the Saviour’s words sung by a four-part choir women. A storm of outrage and vituperation broke over Mendelssohn’s head for doing that as he surely knew it must. And yet he went ahead and did it anyway, Mendelssohn was a very brave man.
In fact his portrayal of Christ throughout is astounding. This isn’t Bach’s Christ by any stretch of the imagination this is a Christ whose musical portrayal is powerful and immediate and somehow tremendously remote and not of this world this portrayal symbolising the Lutheran doctrine of God’s simultaneous immediacy and unknowable remoteness lies at the theological heart of the work. But Mendelssohn doesn’t leave it at that. Whether it’s the soulful arias with their exquisite instrumental accompaniment or the dramatic way in which he presents Saul’s life and the stunning dialogue between Christ and Saul Mendelssohn presents us with the full spectrum of religious feeling from the darkness and pangs of doubt to intimations of the power and the mystery of God’s revealed plan of salvation ending with a luminous confidence. I’ve put links to various resources below the performance. Enjoy :-).
- Video Source: Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: Paulus op.36 aus dem Katharinensaal der HMT-Rostock – YouTube Published on 14 May 2013 by hmtRostock.
- Link to complete score: St. Paul, Op. 36 (Felix Mendelssohn)
- Link to original German text and English translation: Paulus