Southwestern Professor Publishes New Edition of Popular Mendelssohn Oratorio
When Felix Mendelssohn’s “St. Paul Oratorio” was first performed in 1836, it marked a milestone in music history.
The oratorio, which deals with Paul’s transformation from a persecutor of Christians to an evangelist for Christianity who is ultimately persecuted himself, was the first major oratorio to be published in nearly 40 years. It resurrected the art form, and inspired other composers such as Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann and Richard Wagner to write their own oratorios.
The St. Paul Oratorio was first performed in the United States in 1838, and has been performed continually ever since.
“Mendelssohn did for the oratorio as a genre what Beethoven did for the symphony,” says Michael Cooper, associate professor of music and holder of the Margarett Root Brown Chair of Fine Arts at Southwestern University.
However, like many pieces published 100-150 years ago, the St. Paul Oratorio as it is now performed bears little resemblance to what Mendelssohn approved for use.
Music enthusiasts will soon have the opportunity to hear the oratorio as Mendelssohn intended thanks to more than a decade of work by Cooper.
Bärenreiter-Verlag, a leading German publisher of classical music, has recently released a new edition of the St. Paul Oratorio prepared by Cooper. The two-volume score is nearly 900 pages and includes 230 pages of music that has never been heard before.
The new edition of Mendelssohn’s St. Paul Oratorio is one of six critical editions of Mendelssohn choral works that Cooper was commissioned to edit in preparation for the 2009 bicentennial of
Mendelssohn’s birth. Cooper is one of the world’s leading scholars on the music of Mendelssohn, who is often considered to be the 19th-century equivalent of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
“Early editions of music written 100-150 years ago were published with little knowledge of the musical sources and often without being carefully proofread,” Cooper explains. “And many later editions are just knockoffs of those old, poorly-done original editions. So you don’t really know what the composer wrote because there are so many things that have crept in or been left out.”
Cooper has already completed new editions of Mendelssohn’s “Three Motets, Op. 69” (1847) as well as his Psalm settings written for the Berlin Cathedral Chorus in 1842-1844. Other pieces in the series will be the composer’s secular cantata known as “The First Walpurgis Night” (1833-1844), his setting of Psalm 95 to music (1838), and the hymn “Hear My Prayer” (1844).
Cooper began researching Mendelssohn’s St. Paul Oratorio in 1992 as part of an independent research project. In addition to the oratorio’s importance in music history, Cooper says it is important because of the commentary it provided on a social issue that was raging during Mendelssohn’s youth – namely, the persecution of Jews in Europe.
“In the early 19th century, Jews in Europe were treated much like African-Americans in the United States were treated up until the Civil Rights era,” Cooper says. “They were very much segregated.”
Cooper says the oratorio reflects Mendelssohn’s personal belief in the importance of tolerance and the evils of persecution for religious beliefs. He inherited this belief from his grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, who was a prominent Jewish philosopher and influential advocate for Jewish emancipation in the Enlightenment.
“This oratorio was an opportunity for Mendelssohn to bring together his personal experience, his grandfather’s cause (in which he believed) and contribute to contemporary discourse,” Cooper says.
Cooper traveled the world trying to locate surviving manuscripts, letters and diaries that could help him reconstruct the oratorio. He found them in libraries in Germany, Poland and England, as well as several in the United States.
In addition to adding 35-40 minutes of new music to the oratorio, the new edition features a completely new English text.
“Although the oratorio was originally published in German and English, over the years the original English text has been almost completely lost,” Cooper says. “No one in our lifetime has heard the complete text of the English words Mendelssohn approved.”
The public will have two opportunities to hear Cooper’s version of the St. Paul Oratorio next year. Kenny Sheppard, professor of music at Southwestern, plans to perform the piece with Chorus Austin March 29 at the Northwest Hills United Methodist Church. For more information on this concert, visit www.chorusaustin.org.
The piece will be performed in Georgetown June 8 as the finale to the 2008 Festival of the Arts, which is focusing on works of Mendelssohn. The Southwestern University Chorale and the San Gabriel Chorale will join Chorus Austin for this performance. For more information on this concert, visit www.georgetowntexassymphony.org.
Both performances will be in English, and Sheppard will seat the chorus and orchestra the way Mendelssohn originally intended. Baritone Bruce Cain, associate professor of music at Southwestern, will sing the title role of St. Paul.