Psalm 114, “When Israel Out of Egypt Came,” for Double Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 51

By Felix Mendelssohn

Written for the concert Unjust Obscurity? (II), performed on March 10, 1995 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

As a composer of sacred texts, Mendelssohn is chiefly remembered today for the oratorios Paulus (1836) and Elijah (1846), two pillars of his oeuvre that early on secured his fame in the Germany of the Restaurationzeit and the England of the Victorian period, where they were frequently performed at numerous public music festivals conducted by the composer. Yet these two works were accompanied by an impressive, though now largely forgotten series of psalm settings for varying scorings of chorus, soloists, and orchestra, that also figured prominently in the European concert life of the 1830s and 1840s. This series began with Mendelssohn’s version of Psalm 115 (Op. 31 of 1830, originally set to the Latin text of the Vulgate) and continued with renditions of Psalms 42 (Op. 42 of 1837), 95 (Op. 46 of 1841), 114 ( Op. 51 of 1839, performed today), 98 (Op. 91 of 1843) and finally, 2, 43, and 22 9composed for a cappella chorus and soloists in 1843 and 1844).

Psalm 114 was premiered in Leipzig on New Year’s Day, 1840, but then withdrawn by the composer for revision before he released it to the press the following year. Among the changes Mendelssohn effected was the recall of the opening measures to serve as an introduction for the final, crowning chorus on “Hallelujah! Singet dem Herrn in Ewigkeit” (“Alleluia! Sing to the Lord forever”). This felicitous change strengthened the structural cohesion of the work and underscored the essential organic unity of its various parts.

The Psalm is a compact, powerfully moving expression of communal faith. No soloists are heard here; rather, Mendelssohn relies on an expanded eight-part chorus, which declaims the entire text of the psalm. The conspicuous use of the chorus brings to mind the oratorios of Handel, especially Israel in Egypt (1739), a perennial favorite of Mendelssohn with obvious ties in subject matter to Psalm 114. Handelian, too, is Mendelssohn’s occasional indulgence in word painting, as in the second portion of the work, where the third verse, “The sea saw it, and fled: Jordan was driven back,” is depicted by a wavelike bass line in the bassoons and violas subsequently taken up forcefully by the entire string section. (The vividness of the text may explain in part Mendelssohn’s decision to dedicate the composition to J.W. Schirmer, a painter from the Düsseldorf academy.)

Mendelssohn organized his setting of the psalm into six through-composed sections, the first four of which treat the eight verses of the psalm in pairs. The first movement (lines 1-2: “When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language, Judah was his sanctuary, and Israel his dominion.”) offers a majestic exordium, with the chorus initially divided between the make and female forces. The essential motivic idea of the music, a rising, stepwise line into the tenors and basses, is answered by a descending figure in the sopranos and altos. The two figures are designed to work together in combination, and Mendelssohn makes great use of their contrapuntal juxtaposition, as toward the end of the first movement, where they are extended to form two descending and ascending scales.

The second movement (lines 3-4: “The sea saw it, and fled: Jordan was driven back. The mountains skipped like rams, and the little hills like lambs.”) shifts from the major to minor mode; there is a contrast, too, in the treatment of the chorus, which now frequently doubles its parts, so that the eight-part ensemble is more often than not thinned to a four or five-part texture. The highly expressive third movement (lines 5-6: “What ailed thee, O thou sea, that thou fleddest? Thou Jordan, that thou wast driven back? Ye mountains, that ye skipped like rams; and ye little hills, like lambs?”) forms the emotional core of the composition, and is scored for the eight-part chorus with accompaniment limited to the bass strings.

Brisk horn fanfares now introduce the fourth movement (lines 7-8: “Tremble, thou earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob; Which turned the rock into a standing water, the flint into a fountain of waters.”), a brightly scored chorus that features imitative writing and a dissonant, shifting figure for the metamorphosis of rock into water. The movement ends with a subdued pause; then, the opening measures of the work return, a preamble to the radiant fugal conclusion. Steeped in the Bachian and Handelian traditions, Mendelssohn here displays the contrapuntal craftsmanship for which he was renowned during his time. The Fugal subject comprises two short motives, a rising figure for “Hallelujah,” and a descending one for “Singet dem Herrn in Ewigkeit.” Through the course of the fugue, these two motives are subjected to a variety of artful manipulations; and their origins in the opening of the Psalm are made clear by the concluding measures of the work, in which Mendelssohn revives text from the first two verses of the psalm.

To some extent, Mendelssohn’s psalm settings impress as preliminary studies for his more ambitious oratorios. This may explain the relative obscurity of a work such as Psalm 114, which did not survive will the late nineteenth-century reaction against Mendelssohn, whom George Bernard accused of “despicable oratorio mongering” and “kid-glove gentility.” But perhaps Sir George Grove, editor of the celebrated music encyclopedia and an early biographer of Mendelssohn, came closer to the mark: “The Jewish blood of Mendelssohn,” he observed about Psalm 114, “must surely for once have beat fiercely over this picture of the great triumph of his forefathers, and it is only the plain truth to say that in directness and force his music is a splendid match for the splendid words of t he unknown psalmists.”