The Light of Life, also known as Lux Christi, was composed and first
performed in 1896. Elgar made extensive revisions of the solo parts for a performance three years
later in 1899. At that time Elgar was preparing to write his masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius, and some of the genius of that
score was clearly reflected in these revisions. One critic found them "all the easier and more
effective...though one still feels that the composer has more sympathy with his instruments than
with his voices."
The Light of Life is based on the story of Jesus's miracle in giving sight to the blind
man, as told in St John's Gospel of the New Testament. It was written for the Three Choirs
Festival at Worcester in 1896. Novellos accepted both Lux Christi and King Olaf (also first performed in 1896) for publication but
asked that Lux Christi be kept to under an hour in length. They also expressed concern
about the Latin title, lest an Anglican cathedral might worry about Catholic bias. Elgar suggested
the title The Light that Shineth, but accepted Novello's suggestion of The Light
Elgar, at this time, was on the threshold of greatness. The Enigma Variations and The Dream of Gerontius were only three and four years
into the future. Behind him were two considerable choral works: The Black Knight, of 1893, and King Olaf which was also composed and first performed in
Lux Christi as a subject, was suggested by the Reverend Edward Capel-Cure, who had
played chamber music with Elgar while he was curate of Holy Trinity in Worcester. He developed
the libretto, which utilises direct quotations from St John, interspersed with original stanzas to
provide a broader basis for musical set pieces.
The work was first performed on 8th September 1896 in Worcester Cathedral. It was well
received but some criticism was aimed at the libretto. Writing in the Worcester Echo, Edward
Vine Hall, precentor of the Cathedral, and also a conductor, singled out the words Hadst
Thou a son, O Lord in the Mother of the Blind Man's solo as "somewhat deficient in
reverence". Capel-Cure was reluctant to revise the passage, but did so upon intervention from
Elgar. The Light of Life is indeed an uneven work, but the many moments of greatness
tip the balance against the few weaker passages.
The work begins with an orchestral prelude, Meditation, setting out the main themes
of the work. Elgar used the Wagnerian principle of leitmotives in his major choral works - themes
used in association with the main characters, or with special moods or circumstances.
Meditation introduces us to a number of these themes, including those
associated with the Levites opening chorus, the blind man's prayer, Christ the healer and consoler,
and the Light itself.
The Light of Life was intended to be the prelude to the uncompleted trilogy of New
Testament oratorios which occupied Elgar in the first six years of the new century - that is, The Apostles and The
Kingdom. Right at the beginning of The
Apostles there is a reference back to The Light of Life when in the opening
chorus, The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me, at the words 'and recovering of sight
to the blind' we hear the theme that we first heard in the Meditation of The Light of Life.
The Meditation merges with the opening Chorus - Seek Him that maketh the seven stars
and Orion - in which the Levites within the Temple Courts are giving thanks unto their
Lord for His mercy, and for the gift of the sun to rule the day, and the moon and stars to govern
As the Levites sing their hymn, we hear the Blind Man (the tenor soloist). He is outside the
Temple praying for light:
"All, all is dark to me...
Lord, grant that I may see"
As Jesus passes by, his disciples ask him who has sinned that the man was born blind, for it was
believed that evil-doers would be thus cursed. In a soprano solo, the mother recalls her son's
conception in sin, yet she cannot believe that such circumstances should be punished by blindness.
She appeals to Jesus:
"Blinder than my own blind child are they:
And blind am I."
"Lighten mine eyes O Lord,
That I may learn Thy love's mysterious way".
This solo is distinguished by some very fine and complex string writing and decorative woodwind.
Jesus replies that "neither has this man sinned, nor did his parents" and that "I must work the
works of Him that sent me". In this inspired baritone solo, Jesus goes on to proclaim: "As long
as I am in the world, I am the Light of the world". Notice how Elgar treats the role of the
Saviour, virile and not at all sanctimonious.
There follows a chorus which begins grandly in Elgar's noblimente style - Light out of
Darkness. Elgar said, "I thought a fugue would be expected of me. The British public
would hardly tolerate oratorios without a fugue. So I tried to give them one. Not a 'barn door'
fugue but one with an independent accompaniment. There's a bit of canon, too, and, in short, I
hope there's enough counterpoint to give the real British religious respectability!"
Jesus then anoints the eyes of the blind man with clay and instructs him to wash in the pool of
Siloam. A fine Women's Chorus then tells us Doubt not thy father's care, for He answers
The blind man washes away the clay and the miracle occurs off-stage. We next see him amongst
his neighbours. They are astonished when he tells them that he has been given not only sight, but
also insight into Heavenly grace. He tells them how the miracle happened in this rapturous aria.
Notice how Elgar uses the orchestra so evocatively to convey the working of the miracle as the
blind man recalls it in his aria As a spirit didst Thou pass before mine eyes.
But when the blind man is brought before the Pharisees and they hear about the miracle, they are
outraged that this act should be performed on the Sabbath Day. They call Jesus a sinner, to which
the one who was blind asserts, No, he is a prophet.
We then hear from the narrator. Elgar employs, most unusually, a contralto in this role, and sings
her moving solo:
"Thou only hast the words of life.
Be prophet to my heart O Lord"
"Make a silence in my soul,
Where only Thy true voice shall sound."
But the Jews do not believe that the man could have been blind until his parents assure them. The
Jews persist in thinking the blind man was a sinner but realise that God should be praised. The
Mother of the Blind Man together with the women's chorus admonishes them. It is interesting to
note that consistently throughout Lux Christi, the male choruses are presented as the
doubters, whereas the women are always strong in their faith. One of the highlights of Lux
Christi must be this lovely number for soprano solo and chorus:
"Woe to the Shepherds of the flock,
Ye have not healed that which was sick,
ye have not sought what was lost.
Therefore hear ye the word of the Lord.
I will require my flock at your hands.
I will seek out my sheep and will deliver them."
Jesus, upon hearing that they had cast out the man who had been blind, comforts him and assures
him that he, Jesus, is the Son of God. In this aria, I am the Good Shepherd,
Elgar's inspiration is truly aflame. The sublime passage beginning "Father, I will that they be
with me" foreshadows the very best of The
and The Kingdom.
The Light of Life ends with another big chorus written in the grand English choral
tradition - Light of the World, we know Thy Praise.
Portrait of Elgar
Oxford University Press
Edward Elgar, A Creative life
Jerrold Northrop Moore
Oxford University Press