Nick

On May 10th 2008 I was in the chorus for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah to open the Newbury Spring Festival at the large 16th century church of St Nicholas (pictured). It was a memorable performance, with the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by David Parry and with Sir John Tomlinson as the bass soloist. The chorus was expertly prepared by Janet Lincé (who is excellent at taking rehearsals). However, while I enjoyed learning the music far more than I expected, nearly five years on the only part that has really stuck in my brain is one chorus – No 29 in Part 2 – “He Watching Over Israel”. It’s beautifully mellow and melodic and, although I’m not religious, it compliments the biblical text perfectly. The structure is simple. The first part sets the phrase “He watching over Israel, slumbers not nor sleeps”. Then comes the second part: “Shouldst though walking in grief, languish, He will quicken thee”. Finally, the two parts are combined for eight bars which ratchets up the emotional tension and leads straight into a beautifully intense, but still languid coda, where most of the emphasis is put onto the words “slumber” and “sleep”. The harmonic sequence used in the coda, repeated twice with variations, shows just how rich the combination of four voice parts can be – and Mendelssohn is a master at tweaking the parts to unexpectedly turn what might have been a major chord into a minor one, and vice versa. It really gets the blood pumping – it did so in the performance and continues to do so whenever I hear it again. Music history tends to put Elijah in a somewhat negative light. Bernard Shaw dismissed it as conventional and uninspired, and it set the tone for the often stultifying English oratorio tradition which its popularity here sparked off. But there are gems within, and this chorus is one of them.

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