Soon after the premiere of his oratorio, St Paul in 1836, Mendelssohn conceived the idea of a similar work setting the story of Elijah, the Old Testament prophet. He turned to Julius Schubring for help in assembling the text, and although they exchanged many letters, after a promising beginning, their co-operation broke down around 1838 and the work lay partally forgotten. In the mid 1840's, the Birmingham Music Festival asked Mendelssohn (who was hugely popular in England) to compose an oratorio, and he responded with great enthusiasm, resurrecting his planned Elijah. The work was finally premiered on August 26th 1846 in Birmingham, but Mendelssohn was not entirely satisfied and spent that winter rewriting it. Elijah as we know it today, was first performed on April 16th 1847.
The oratorio falls into two large sections. The first is organised around four important events: the prophet predicts the nationwide drought, he raises the dead son of a widow, he kills the priests of Baal and finally he implores the firmament to be rent asunder. In the second section, we witness Elijah under accusation, his flight and entry into heaven. This tightly wrapped sequence of events around the person of the prophet also determines the musical setting: from the first bars of the work, the bass of Elijah's prevails, while along side him, the chorus (which in Handelian fashion, personifies the masses) is given important roles – the appearance of the other soloists is episodic. Despite this, the oratorio is expressly dramatic, so much so that some analysts claim that in this music, Mendelssohn was directly sublimating his never realised ambition to write an opera. Other scholars (among them Sir George Grove, Hermann Kretzschmar and Alfred Einstein) have stressed it is a great oratorio by traditional standards, and regard it as the finest 19th century example in this genre.