Last Sunday afternoon I spent a wonderful two-plus hours at the Anglican Cathedral in town enjoying a performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s Oratorio, Elijah. It’s the best twenty dollars I’ve spent for a long time. The place was packed out with standing room only. I managed to find a seat in the very front row within arm’s reach of the conductor – the best place from which to listen to this kind of performance. It was two hours of being absorbed in the life of the Old Testament prophet who called Israel to forsake the Baals and return to the Lord – well, okay, Mendelssohn took some liberties and added some bits and pieces from Isaiah and Jeremiah too.
Apart from the story line and the music – which at times moved me to tears – there were a couple of things that set me thinking.
First I am always amazed at the talent that enables people to compose music. My talent is limited to enjoying it…! But what a gift God has given to composer’s like Mendelssohn. At the same time I’m convinced that this piece of music was not just something that Mendelssohn thought up one morning under the shower – as some contemporary Christian songs appear to have come into being. My guess is that it took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to put together a work such as this. If you want a sample of Mendelssohn’s talent, then listen to the poignant aria, “If with all your heart…” on YouTube. What is also interesting is that although Mendelssohn was of Jewish stock he was baptised in the Reformed Church. While he was rather reserved about expressing his faith Mendelssohn did believe that one’s Christian faith ought to impact everything one does. Another of his works, the Reformation Symphony, indicates his sympathy for things Reformed.
The other aspect of my reflection was the question: I wonder how many of the seventy or so performers here are actually Christians? Many of the singers, and especially the soloists, sang with great passion and feeling. And what were they singing about? They sang of God’s glory, justice and mercy. But how could anyone sing this material over and over in rehearsals and not be struck by those glorious realities to the point where you want to embrace these truths for yourself? Of course the reality is that you can sing gospel songs until the cows come home without them impacting your life one iota. Many years ago I found myself sitting in a car with an undertaker on the way to a burial. I asked him, “Your work confronts you daily with the reality of death and at funeral services you must hear a lot about the Christian faith, does all that impact you in some way?” His reply was sobering, “No, mate, it’s just a job.” Perhaps some of the singers last Sunday might comment, “This musical masterpiece does nothing for me, I’m just a singer who enjoys singing it!”
Having said that, I am delighted that a piece of music like this is publicly performed in our city. There were hundreds of people there last Sunday. I’m sure that many were not Christians, they were just music lovers. But who knows how the Spirit of God can work in the life of a music lover? Perhaps someone was impressed by that poignant aria, “If with all your heart you truly seek Me”, and so by the grace of God began their journey of faith.