The Apostles followed a complex gestation. Elgar had planned a
work covering some of the same ground for the 1900 Birmingham
festival but illness delayed progress. Late in 1899, he decided
instead to set Cardinal Newman's poem
The Dream of Gerontius for
the festival. The idea for a work based on the lives of the
Apostles stayed with him, however, and, when approached for a
work for the 1903 festival, he returned to the subject. He
originally planned a single oratorio in three parts covering the
calling of the Apostles, Jesus' betrayal by Judas, Peter's
denial, the resurrection, the descent of the holy spirit and the
establishment of the Christian church in Jerusalem. But illness
again delayed him and he subsequently decided to curtail The
Apostles at the resurrection, leaving the remainder, already
largely composed, to become
The Kingdom. (Later, he planned a
third oratorio, provisionally called The Last Judgement, to
The Kingdom but never completed it.)
The Apostles is nevertheless magnificent in scale, containing
many powerful and innovative musical ideas. It shares a number
of themes with The Light of Life
, perhaps confirmation that this was indeed the culmination
of the earlier work Elgar had planned for the 1900 festival.
The work also makes extensive use of
leitmotifs - Jaeger identified 92 of them - drawing inevitable
comparisons with Wagner. This, the work's length, the
contemplative mood of sections of the work, the lesser dramatic
cohesion of the libretto and the financial burden of six soloists
have combined to prevent the work from gaining the status of
The Dream of Gerontius.
But the work deserves greater recognition. A number of critics consider
the work to contain finer music than Gerontius,
regarding The Apostles as the pinnacle of Elgar's musical achievements.
The dramatic use of the shofar (an ancient Jewish ritual trumpet)
and the beauty of the mystic chorus are just two highlights of the work.
But, above all, few can fail to be moved by the final ten minutes of the
work, covering the resurrection, which must surely be one of the
most moving finales in the whole of the classical repertoire.
Not to be missed.