“O Rest in the Lord” (Mendelssohn 1809-1847)

This article first appeared in the July 2015 edition of our parish magazine.

Written in 1846, this aria for solo alto is taken from Mendelssohn‘s oratorio “Elijah“, and is based on Psalm 37:

  • O rest in the Lord, wait patiently for Him,
  • And He shall give thee thy heart’s desires.

 

  • Commit thy way unto Him, and trust in Him,
  • And fret not thyself because of evil doers.

 

  • O rest in the Lord, wait patiently for Him.
  • Wait patiently for Him.

This was one of the first solos that Jeremy encouraged me to offer at St Margaret’s, and for two or three years it had an annual airing. Each time I sing it I find more in it. The range (distance between the highest and lowest notes) suits me very well indeed, but the melody is deceptively simple. Indeed for some time I sang it with an error at the beginning of the third section, which I have only recently ‘unlearned’.

The whole oratorio tells the story of the prophet Elijah. The published commentary tells us that in this scene Elijah has fled into the wilderness and lies near to collapse from exhaustion. He asks God to kill him because he cannot bear the suffering he is enduring. Worn out by grief and his exertions he falls asleep. An angel appears, wakes him, and both gives Elijah enough food to survive for forty days and forty nights in the wilderness and encourages him by telling him that he should not fret himself because of evil doers but rather that he should commit to God who will give him his ‘heart’s desires’.

The first and third sections of the aria are in C major, and the middle section is in the relative minor. There are few dynamic markings, and it is up to the performer to interpret and present the words and music appropriately. During the Easter break this year I went to visit Jeremy to do a bit of singing, and between us we finally cracked it: the opening and closing sections are passive. The angel is counselling Elijah – and the rest of us – to trust the Lord. All we need shall be given to us when He decides the time is right. We need only be patient and wait. Without any explicit direction from the composer (this is far more subtle than a simple instruction to contrast the sections legato, staccato and then legato again), the middle section has a different feel to it. There is more of a sense of urgency. We have something to do. We must commit ourselves to the Lord and proactively ignore those who would deter us.

There is a lovely performance of “O Rest in the Lord” here.

And if all else fails, remember the prayer “O Lord grant me patience, but please hurry”!

Carol P


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