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Words: Psalm 55:22 and 16:8, adapted by Julius Schubring (1806-1889), a pastor friend of Mendelssohn’s, for the composer’s oratorio, Elijah, for which it was translated into English by another friend of the composer’s, William Bartholemew
Music: Felix Mendelssohn (b. Feb. 3, 1809; d. Nov. 9, 1847)
Note: Though Felix Mendelssohn died of a stroke before his thirty-ninth birthday, he has given us a wide range of beautiful music. The oratorio Elijah is a true masterpiece.I encourage you to listen to a recording of it–or better still attend a performance of it if you can. It was first performed in Birmingham, England, August 26th, 1846. The composer had written to Julius Schubring who worked on the original text:
“The personages should act and speak like living beings–for heaven’s sake let them not be a musical picture, but a real world, such as you find in every chapter of the Old Testament.”
There is, in the Cyber Hymnal page on the composer, a wonderful story about him, which is given a striking and practical spiritual application. Worth reading.
Our traditional hymns and gospel songs were written over a period of twenty centuries, by hundreds of men and women, who represent a broad spectrum of religious beliefs.
During that long period it has not been unusual for the world’s greatest classical composers to contribute to the music used with our hymns. In some cases, one of their compositions has been adapted to make a hymn tune. Other times they wrote the melody specifically for the purpose. While it is going too far to suggest that these men were all evangelical, born again Christians, each had a strong sense of the presence and power of God in the world.
Among the masters of music whose names are found in many of our hymn books are: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), George Frederick Handel (1685-1759), Franz Joseph Haydn (1737-1806), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), and Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847).
Several of these composers also created what are called oratorios. An oratorio is a long musical composition, usually based on Scripture or a religious theme, and involving solo voices, a choir, and an orchestra. An oratorio differs from an opera in that it’s performed without action, costumes, or scenery. Handel’s Messiah from 1741 is the most familiar and perhaps the most sublime example. Over more than two hours, it covers the life of Christ with moving and memorable music.
The greatest oratorio of the nineteenth century, Elijah, was created by Felix Mendelssohn. He was the son of wealthy Jewish parents who had put their faith in Christ, and Felix himself was a dedicated Christian. He married Cecile, a pastor’s daughter and a great woman of prayer, and the couple had five children. For Mendelssohn, the Bible was the cornerstone of daily life, and much of his music found its inspiration there.
His use of the Bible in Elijah was, however, slightly different from what we see in Handel’s Messiah. Handel’s oratorio uses passages precisely quoted from both Old Testament and New that directly relate to Christ, either prophetically or in the story of His life. But Mendelssohn’s Elijah, while setting the prophet’s life to music, as it’s recorded in First Kings chapter 17 through Second Kings chaper 2, inserts passages of commentary here and there, Bible verses from outside the story that help us understand it.
In Elijah’s day, Israel was ruled by the idolatrous King Ahab and his wife Jezebel. The latter, in particular, was responsible for leading the nation into Baal worship. Elijah’s confrontation on Mount Carmel with four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal is one of the most dramatic scenes in all of Scripture (I Kgs. 18:17-40), and Mendelssohn’s surpassing skill as a composer gives it an effective musical setting of exhilarating power.
Elijah’s appeal to the Lord on that occasion is taken right from the passage: “Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that You are God in Israel and I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your word” (I Kgs. 18:36). According to inspired Scripture, Elijah spoke those words. But what comes next is not from the passage itself.
As though to encourage Elijah, who stood alone in the conflict, a quartet of voices, representing angels, sings the quietly beautiful song Cast Thy Burden Upon the Lord, based on Psalm 55:22 and Psalm 16:8. It is found in some hymnals.
Cast thy burden upon the Lord,
And He shall sustain thee.
He never will suffer the righteous to fall;
He is at thy right hand.
Thy mercy, Lord, is great and far above the heav’ns;
Let none be made ashamed that wait upon Thee.
Casting our burdens on the Lord is something every believer can do, and it’s a theme taken up by Peter in the New Testament as well, when he says we should habitually be “casting all [our] care [our worries and anxieties] upon Him, for He cares [is concerned] for [us]” (I Pet. 5:7). In that way we are strengthened for life and for service for Him–as the psalmist puts it:
“It is good for me to draw near to God; I have put my trust in the Lord God, that I may declare all Your works” (Ps. 78:28).
1) What burden have you recently given over to the Lord? With what result?
2) Why do we seem to hesitate so long at times with turning our cares and trials over to God?