Elgar, Edward


Elgar, Edward

The Apostles, oratorio


Edward William Elgar
(b. Broadheath, 2 June 1857 – d. Worcester, 23 February 1934)

The Apostles
op. 49

An Oratorio
Elgar belonged to one of the first generations of Britons in recent times to celebrate the Catholic Mass. The Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 had put an end to 200 years of religious intolerance and Elgar’s parents had both been early converts to Catholicism (though it is doubtful that his father was very serious about it. He attended St. George’s Worcester only to play the organ, often leaving during the sermon to drink a pint of beer at a local inn). Nevertheless, Catholicism was still widely distrusted and Elgar’s choral ‘music-drama’ for the 1900 Birmingham Festival, The Dream of Gerontius (MPH score 1186), attracted much criticism for its very Catholic theme – the preparation of a soul for Purgatory.

For the 1903 and 1906 Birmingham Festivals, Elgar turned to a more ‘acceptable’ religious topic. This was the calling of the Apostles and their work in spreading the teachings of Jesus. It was not a new idea and had its roots in an incident at Elgar’s school, when the teacher, Francis Reeve, said that “the Apostles were poor men at the time of their calling: perhaps before the descent of the Holy Ghost no cleverer than some of you”. It was a description that fired the imagination of the young Elgar, and he several times contemplated setting the tale to music. Indeed, the earliest sketches for the project predate Gerontius, and the very first music for that masterpiece was originally intended for Judas Iscariot.

Elgar’s final idea was to produce three oratorios: The Apostles (dealing with their calling and Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection and ascension into heaven); The Kingdom (dealing with Pentecost and the descent of the Holy Ghost); and The Last Judgement. But by the time he had completed The Kingdom whatever religious feelings Elgar once had had left him and the final part of the trilogy was never begun (though many sketches for it found their way into other projects, such as the incomplete Third Symphony). As to why Elgar lost his faith, one suggestion that gets near the truth is that he probably had none to start with. There seems to be no doubt that his mind was more exercised by the intellectual exercise of compiling the libretto in consultation with the Dean of Westminster, Canon Gorton of Morecombe and Canon Dolman of Hereford, than it was with the personal message of the words. Elgar’s emphasis, too, suggests a personal response at odds with conventional belief. Of all the characters in the unfinished trilogy the most complete and the most sympathetic is not Christ, but Judas. He does not appear in The Kingdom, of course, but his 10-minute soliloquy in The Apostles beginning “Whither shall I go from Thy spirit” is the emotional core of the work. Elgar was always drawn to the idea of the repentant sinner (he described Gerontius as “no end of a wordly man in his lifetime and now brought to book). In The Kingdom the corresponding emotional highpoint is “The sun goeth down”, sung by another repentant sinner, Mary Magdalene. …



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