A good performance can change how you understand a piece. I stumbled upon a YouTube recording that I keep listening to over and over, a piece I thought I knew.
There are two contrasting tenor arias in Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah. I’ve sung them both in church a number of times, so of course I’ve memorized them inside out. Even so I didn’t really understand them.
The one near the beginning is a probing exploration of faith, including an admission of doubt. “Oh if I knew where I might find him, that I may even come before his presence.”
The one near the end is the opposite, its confident prophecy like an answer to the doubts in the first, an affirmation using text from Matthew 13:43 and Isaiah 51:11
Then shall the righteous shine forth
as the sun in their heavenly Father’s realm.
Joy on their head shall be for everlasting,
and all sorrow and mourning shall flee away forever.
Sure, I understood this in terms of how to sing it, and where it comes in the narrative of the oratorio.
My new perspective might be better aligned with what the composer was trying for.
A few weeks ago I wrote about how I am sometimes troubled about singing some religious texts, that I am at least a bit conflicted about reconciling performance, especially foregrounded virtuosity, and the notion of prayer and worship. They seem like a contradiction.
Meanwhile, I’ve been singing this piece over and over, feeling no contradiction in this confident prophecy. For whatever reason it’s been a comfort to me, the only piece that seems to work as something touching upon our physical manifestation in a way that doesn’t contradict science. In the weeks before and after our dog Sam was put down, I’ve enjoyed the spiritual overtones of this text. It’s almost pagan in the simplicity of its suggestion that when we die we become pure energy: “the righteous shining forth as the sun in their heavenly Father’s realm.” Never mind doctrines or complexities, this is simple.
We have eternal life as the radiant sun.
Mortality is my troubled subtext. We may try to live as though we will live forever but truth stares back at us. My mom is coming up on her 101st birthday. My dog is now gone. I cannot help thinking about what follows life.
I’ve wondered sometimes whether one should sing this Mendelssohn piece gently and softly or passionately with energy. Good music usually offers alternatives, more than one way to make a score work.
But when I stumbled on this version, my doubts were gone.
For the 1979 funeral of John Diefenbaker (a former Conservative Prime Minister of Canada, strongly associated with the province of Saskatchewan) they brought in a tenor born in Saskatchewan, namely Jon Vickers, who sings this with heroic intensity.
I believe this is how the piece should be sung. Vickers’ high notes are explosive, brightly shining like what they would sing of.
I recall when I mentioned I was a big fan of Vickers back in my days at UTS, my friend Richard Outerbridge happily said “he’s my uncle”.
Richard passed away earlier this year. Vickers died July 10th 2015.
This aria proclaims that they live on, that we all live on.
Happy Canada Day