Today Christians all over the world celebrate Easter Sunday, the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his painful death on the cross. Jesus has left a powerful legacy – the command of charity. So has Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. In 1847, the year of his death, he was working on an oratorio initially named “Erde, Himmel und Hölle” (Earth, Heavens and Hell). It later became known under the name “Christus” and was posthumously attributed opus number 97. The fragment was published in 1852 and first performed in Birmingham the same year.
“Crucify him, crucify him”
Before his death, Mendelssohn had finished seven parts: a recitativo, a terzetto and a choral on the birth of Jesus (Da Jesu ward’ geboren/Wo ist der neugeborne König der Juden/Es wird ein Stern aus Jacob aufgehn), a choral on the Jews’ accusations against Jesus brought forward to Pontius Pilate (Und der ganze Haufe stand auf), and two more on the Christ’s suffering (Ihr Töchter Zions/Er nimmt auf seinen Rücken.)
I would like to draw your attention to part IV “Und der ganze Haufe stand auf” (And all these people rose). When the choir, representing the crowd hostile to Jesus, cries “Crucify him, crucify him”, a single violin sets in to underline the ecstatic, violent behaviour of the masses. Mendelssohn creates a most dramatic moment contrasting greatly with the calm and gentle voice of Pontius Pilate.
An acquaintance from Rome
Mendelssohn was of Protestant faith though his name betrayed his Jewish origins. He did never really accept the second family name Bartholdy his father had taken to protect the family against a growing anti-Semitism in Germany. He took up the work on this oratorio upon a suggestion by the German diplomat Christian Karl Josias von Bunsen. Von Bunsen was an amateur theologist. He was the German Emperor’s representative at the Holy See and helped solve the delicate issue of mixed Catholic-Protestant marriages. He and Mendelssohn had met in 1831 in Rome, and they worked together on the draft of the libretto. However none of the drafts have survived and only one letter from Bunsen to Mendelssohn related to “Christus” is known.
I can recommend the recording by Accentus Ensemble Orchestral de Paris and Laurence Equilbey. This album also features Mendelssohn very moving choral work “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” where the composer again uses the strings to emphasize the drama of Jesus crucifixion. In part III “Ich will hier bei dir stehen” (I want to stand by your side), the rapid string tune transports the intensity of the emotions and pledges of loyalty of Jesus followers. I am always surprised, how emotional I react to that part. Happy Easter. Peace be with you!
© Charles Thibo