Celebrating the Conversion of St. Paul with some help from Felix Mendelssohn

Today (January 25th) is the day on which we celebrate the conversion of St. Paul. The only musical portrayal of that remarkable event that I’m aware of is by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847).

The oratorio Paulus, premiered in 1836, was the work that catapulted the twenty-seven-year-old Mendelssohn into international prominence. Mendelssohn biographer R. Larry Todd writes:

Paulus was greeted with a rare, nearly unanimous critical acclaim. A clear indication of its success was its rapid reception in foreign countries, including England, Denmark, Holland, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States (where three performances followed in quick succession in Boston, New York and Baltimore between 1837 and 1839).*

The text of Paulus follows the apostle’s life from his participation in the stoning of St. Stephen until his departure from Ephesus for Jerusalem. As Bach did in his settings of the story of Jesus’ passion, Mendelssohn uses a narrator (a tenor soloist) to describe the events. Paul’s own words are sung by a bass soloist. And in the scene on the road to Damascus, when Saul of Tarsus hears a voice asking “Why do you persecute me?” Mendelssohn assigns those words to a women’s choir. Here’s a recording of that conversion scene:


The last words of the ascended Christ sung by the women’s choir are “Arise, and go into the city, and there thou shalt be told what thou must do.” Mendelssohn follows this command with a dramatic chorus with a text from Isaiah 60: “Arise, shine, arise. For thy light comes . . . ”


Mendelssohn’s oratorio begins with an overture that employs a familiar Lutheran chorale melody, Wachet auf, “Sleepers awake.” Todd writes that this instrumental introduction to the life of St. Paul symbolizes “Paul”s struggle for spiritual awakening and growth.”


The text to the entire oratorio can be found here, in German and in English, but not, sadly, an interlinear format. For that, you’ll have to buy a recording.

Meanwhile, here is a recording of a complete concert performance of Mendelssohn’s Paulus. (For complete credits, click on the YouTube icon.)


* If you have an Apple or Android phone or tablet, you can hear an interview with Mendelssohn biographer R. Larry Todd, released today on the Mars Hill Audio app, a resource I highly recommend.