The Apostles - A Study Guide

Historic background and overview of the oratorio

Elgar in 1900, the year he started work on The Apostles

A provincial composer rises to prominence

When Edward Elgar began composing The Apostles around the year 1900 at the age of 43 (see photo), he had just recently received his first public acclaim for his masterful Enigma Variations for orchestra. Until then, this largely self-taught Catholic son of a provincial piano-tuner had made his way as a free-lance musician and little-recognized composer in the overwhelmingly Anglican, aristocratic culture of the London music world. A somewhat shy and self-conscious man, Elgar’s mature oratorios The Dream of Gerontius and The Apostles reflect some of the internal struggles he faced related to class, religious identity, and personal faith.

The Dream of Gerontius was a setting of a poem by English Catholic Cardinal John Henry Newman that was quite formative for Elgar. While Gerontius later came to be performed much more frequently than The Apostles (thus our Philadelphia area premiere), its first performance was a disaster for a number of production reasons, not all of which related to the quality of the music itself.  However, the text Elgar chose was also perceived as representing a distinctly Catholic, emotive piety that seemed foreign to the Protestant majority in Britain.

Elgar and Victorian views of music and musicians

When we look at Elgar's photograph from this period (here to the right), we might never guess the sense of social inferiority and artistic insecurity he felt.  But according to Elgar scholar Bryon Adams (in The Cambridge Companion to Elgar), "To mitigate his feelings of exclusion, Elgar modeled his public persona on the popular image of the 'English Gentleman:' his bearing was rigid and quasi-military; he strove for emotional reticence in society; his politics were Tory and staunchly Imperialist; his clothing was immaculately tailored; and at times he disavowed any knowledge of, or interest in, his own unfashionable [because it was considered effeminate] musical profession." 

While some of Elgar's music (such as his Pomp and Circumstance marches) reflects this hyper-masculine, emotionally controlled aesthetic, his great oratorios and extended symphonic works reveal a much richer and more expressively complex inner world capable of both grand and intimate statements.  (And this is why 19th Century English music before Elgar was of little interest to the outside world until Elgar caught their attention.) 

The origins of "The Apostles"

In The Apostles, Elgar sought to focus on how the early disciples of Jesus were ordinary men and women like himself – not of high education or social status - and who faced serious doubts about their faith, as he had himself. He had long treasured the words of a boyhood teacher in his Catholic school, a Mr. Reeve, who said, “The Apostles were poor men, young men, at the time of their calling; perhaps before the descent of the Holy Ghost not cleverer than some of you here.” Elgar wrote that he had started collecting texts for his oratorio from that time.

Instead of using pre-existing texts such as that of the emotively Catholic John Henry Newman's Dream of Gerontius, Elgar decided to compile his own text solely from the Bible (with the hope of being more acceptable to the dominant Anglican audience).  The essential stories from the gospels are always represented, but because Elgar was interested in fleshing out the inner lives of the apostles without using non-biblical text, he adapted scriptural texts from throughout the Old and New Testament.  These are sometimes very brief quotations taken out of context.

Judas, Mary Magdalene, and Peter

Because of his primary interest in the inner struggle to believe, he decided to build the oratorio around three central characters who would represent three different approaches to faith in Christ: one who despairs of faith in pursuit of worldly success (Judas Ischariot, the betrayer of Jesus), the repentant woman of the world who is converted (Mary Magdalene), and the forthright believer and visionary leader (Peter, founder of the church).

In the end, Elgar concluded The Apostles with only two of those three character portraits fully in place. Part I builds toward an extended portrayal of Mary Magdalene as a social outcast who moves from doubt to faith in the presence of Jesus.  (Her prominence in the oratorio is all the more remarkable because though she was a witness to the empty tomb, she was not named as one of "The Twelve" apostles in the gospel accounts.)

The dominant character of Part II is Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus, depicted by Elgar as a believer possessed by worldly ambition who misunderstand Jesus’ mission as one of political success against the Romans in this world rather than spiritual fulfillment in the next.

With only a few months left before the scheduled premier, Elgar abandoned the idea of a Part III with Peter at its center building the new church, and instead wrote a grand concluding chorus to Part II depicting the Ascension of Christ into heaven. The sketches for Peter’s role became the basis for his next oratorio, The Kingdom. However, the two large scenes of The Apostles for Mary Magdalene and Judas are well framed by the opening prologue and sunrise calling of the apostles at the beginning of Part I, and at the end of Part II by the grandly climactic choruses for the Ascension as the sun rises again.

Elgar’s birthplace, a rented house in Lower Broadheath near Worcester

The new harmonic language of Wagner

One of the most controversial figures of the Romantic Era was the German composer Richard Wagner. Wagner developed a harmonic language that was much more fluid and unpredictable in defiance of the rules of traditional harmony.  While this language was quite influential and popular among many French and German composers and audiences at the turn of the century, the Victorian sensibilities of Anglican England found this harmonic "chromaticism" to be unduly sensual, ruminative, and effeminate, prefering the more controlled language of traditional "diatonic" harmony.

However, the poetic, sensitive, and expansive artistic imagination of Elgar was deeply influenced by performances he heard of Wagner's Parsifal and Ring Cycle. He was inspired to create a distinctively English form in this style in his mature symphonies and oratorios.  In retrospect, Elgar's independence from the national style led to him becoming the first internationally acclaimed English composer since Purcell in the Baroque era, and an important influence a string of prominent composers who followed in his footsteps, including Vaughan Williams, Holst, Howells, and Britten.

Elgar's use of the "leitmotif"

One of the primary ways to give cohesion to such broad-scaled, open-ended structures using this new, less predictable harmonic language, was through the device of “Leitmotif” or “leading theme” (in this series we will call them "themes."  These musical mottos could be a short melodic fragment or a progression of a few harmonies introduced early on in the work to symbolically represent certain emotions, ideas, or characters which then recur throughout the oratorio. It was so important to Elgar that audiences were aware of these themes and their significance that he instructed his editor and closest friend August Jaeger (the friend represented in the famous "Nimrod" variation in Elgar's Enigma Variations) to point out these themes in a publication accompanying the score.

Sometimes these themes are easy to recognize – others require a few hearings. But even if we’re not consciously aware of them while listening, they work their way into our musical memory and help us to make sense of what might, at times, seem like quite sprawling piece. (Go to this link to hear and read about Wagner’s most famous leitmotiv, the “Tristan chord” )

Questions to keep in mind as we come to know the music of "The Apostles":

- Over the years, many have suggested that in order to remain alive, religion needs both clearly articulated principles (dogma) and experientially based expression and practice (mysticism and ritual).  Is Elgar's music an example of how artistic expression can probe thoughts and feelings of religious faith and doubt in a unique way?  How so?

- As you listen to "The Apostles" what conclusions if any can you draw about Elgar's own personal faith or religiosity? Do you think he considered himself a believer at the end of his life?  Would it matter?

- Elgar thought of himself as an "outsider" in his own culture and society, and may have projected that sense of being an "outsider" onto the biblical characters he portrays. Does this portrayal seem true to you?

- Elgar takes many passages of scripture out of their original context to fill out the gospel accounts; does the music tie all these texts together in a way that allows these texts to find new meanings without distorting their original meanings?

[Written by Thomas Lloyd, Artistic Director, Bucks County Choral Society; all rights reserved.]

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