A cantata to celebrate the end of a deadly pandemic

Hoping for salvation. © Charles Thibo

One of my favourite movies is the French production ” Un husard sur le toit” starring Juliette Binoche, my favourite actress. At the center of the plot is a young French lady and an Italian revolutionary fleeing the outbreak of the plague in southern France. A love story amidst human misery and suffering – very romantic, very much my taste. It also compels me to acknowledge how fortunate I am not to have to fear any deadly epidemics in Europe with the exception of HIV. Only a century ago, in 1918, Europe was fighting the outbreak of a particularly tough type of flu and between 1826 and 1837 the great cholera pandemic the killed almost killed the composer Felix Mendelssohn.

In 1831, between October 9 and November 20, Fanny Mendelssohn, Felix’ sister, composed a work scored for soloists, chorus and orchestra to celebrate the end of the epidemic in Berlin, one of the last victims being Fanny’s aunt Henriette Mendelssohn. She noted in her diary that she had finished her “Choleramusik”, but the score could not befound for over 150 years. The work had never been published and lacked a title according to the researcher Larry S. Todd. A first edition appeared under the title “Oratorio on Biblical Scenes”, however in the 90s orchestral parts of a cantata turned up with a reference to the cholera pandemic, dated 1831, and the full score was reconstituted and published only very recently.

Easter Sunday is being celebrated by Christians all over the world, a day of hope with the fulfillment of the promise of Christ’s resurrection and eternal life at the center. Even if you do not believe in any god, you may occasionally need consolation and hope. It is a basic human need since no human’s life is without suffering. The Mendelssohns were lucky to have been more or less spared by the disaster and Fanny’s deep gratitude is easy to understand.

Biblical texts

The composer selected as Todd notes “an array of biblical texts (chiefly from the Psalms, Isaiah and Job, also 2 Maccabees, 2 Timothy, and Revelations)” and arranged them in a three-part libretto “that traces a narrative of human adversity and despair turning eventually to the joyful praise of God”. Ironically, as Protestant, she uses exclusively parts of the Old Testament, texts that in some form or other also appear in the Jewish Torah and thus could appeal to all members of the family, the converted and those who had stayed loyal to the Judaism.

Todd considers the cantata a remarkable achievement on several accounts: Fanny Mendelssohn rose to the challenge of large-scale composition. The work has complete harmonic coherence and anticipates her brother’s later experiments in his oratorio “Paulus” begun in 1834. And finally the composition is unified by a carefully designed tonal plan, proof of Fanny’s “dramatically expanded horizons”.

Now, whenever you are in need of consolation or hope or if you just want to listen to excellent music by an ambitious and gifted female composer, check out the recording by the Stuttgart Philharmonia Choir et al.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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