Existing scholarship struggles to theorize the relation between aesthetics, especially the aesthetics of catastrophe, and concerns with ecology and the environment. Mendelssohn's sacred oratorio Elijah premiered in 1846 at the birthplace of the steam engine in Birmingham, England. Commissioned by municipal reformers, Elijah constitutes a case study in disaster art. It was conceived as a vehicle for atmospheric repair, clean breathing, and moral healing for Black Country working populations. Its contexts include the development of biomedicine, public health discourse, and the history of air-purification systems, as well as the prophetic rhetoric of such firebrand modern Elijahs as the contemporaneous preacher-evangelist John Cumming. The popularity of the singing-class movement, moreover, aligns with the “great sanitary awakening” both because of its allegedly sanctifying spiritual potential, and because it was thought to fortify the lungs. Mendelssohn's oratorio was at once financed on the back of the profits of coal-fired energy systems and produced by well-meaning environmentalists to mitigate against the effects of heavy air pollution. The reception of the work is evidence of the extent to which the concerns of industry and the concerns of natural recovery co-constituted each other. Elijah deals in a cosmology—a way of narrating nature—that begins with the very real experience of ecological crisis. The endgame is to count the cost of a master narrative that sought natural recovery in an industrial enframement of global nature.
James Q. Davies is professor of music at University of California, Berkeley. He is author of Romantic Anatomies of Performance (2014), co-editor with Ellen Lockhart of Sound Knowledge: Music and Science in London, 1789–1851 (2016), and series co-editor with Nicholas Mathew of New Material Histories of Music with the University of Chicago Press. His latest book project, also with Chicago Press, is entitled Creatures of the Air: Music, Atlantic Worlds, Breath, 1817–1913.
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James Q. Davies; Elijah's Nature. 19th-Century Music 1 July 2021; 45 (1): 49–64. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncm.2021.45.1.49
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