“Christus” is the title given by the composer’s brother Paul to fragments of an unfinished oratorio by Felix Mendelssohn, published posthumously as Op. 97.
In 1836 Felix Mendelssohn, already a major German composer and conductor, had his greatest success to date with the first performance of his oratorio “Paulus” [St. Paul]. This work single-handedly revitalized the oratorio genre in Germany. Immediately Mendelssohn began to turn his thoughts to two new oratorios: one based on the life of the prophet Elijah, another on the life of Christ. This latter work was conceived very much in the tradition of Handel’s “Messiah”, telling the life of Christ in three sections, dealing with his birth, passion, and resurrection.
Provisionally titled “Erde, Himmel und Hölle” [Earth, Heaven and Hell], Mendelssohn seems to have consulted at least six potential librettists, eventually deciding on Baron Christian Karl Josias von Bunsen, the esteemed German diplomat who was then ambassador to Britain. He compiled the German libretto from biblical sources, as had been done previously with “Paulus” and “Elias”. After the success of “Elias” [Elijah] in Birmingham, England in 1846 Mendelssohn began to devote increasing energies to the completion of his oratorio about Christ.
In May 1847 he was again visiting England when he played a choral section for Queen Victoria. She noted in her diary: “For some time he has been engaged in composing an oratorio but has lost courage. The subject for the oratorio is “Earth, Hell and Heaven”, and he played one of the choruses out of this to us, which was very fine.” Later that month, Mendelssohn was devastated by the death of his elder sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, his lifelong confidante and musical inspiration. During this time he ceased composing, finding solace instead in painting the Swiss Alps. He slowly returned to activity but suffered a series of four increasingly debilitating strokes. He died that November. After Mendelssohn’s death, his brother Paul assisted in the posthumous publication of his works. Among them were these fragments of an unfinished oratorio to which he gave the title “Christus”, and which which were published in 1852. It is believed that the music was intended for the incomplete “Erde, Himmel und Hölle”. The only known copy of Bunsen’s complete libretto passed to Felix’s grandson, but it was destroyed in a fire in the early twentieth century; we therefore will probably never know the intended structure of the full work. We do know that the first part was to have dealt with Christ’s birth and youth, the second part with Christ’s Passion and descent to Hell, and the third part with the Resurrection. What survives is about sixteen minutes of music, which is about one-sixth the duration of his previous two oratorios.
The completed portions include a recitative relating Christ’s birth, a TBB chorus “Where is this newborn child”, the well known SATB chorus “There shall come forth a star from Jacob” using Philipp Nicolai’s chorale “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern”, and a Passion section ending with another chorale, Paul Gerhardt’s “O Welt, sieh hier dein Leben”. The first performance took place in 1852.
Part 1: 5.30 Part 2: 10.30 Total duration: 16 minutes
Instrumental parts are available for hire from BARN END PRESS
2 Fl; 2 Ob; 2 Clar; 2 Bsn; 2 Hn; 2 Trpt; 3 Trbn; Timp; Strings
Please contact Neil Jenkins