The Apostles (Elgar)

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The Apostles, op. 49, is an oratorio for soloists, chorus and orchestra composed by Edward Elgar. It was first performed on 14 October 1903.


Elgar had experienced international success with the Enigma Variations and The Dream of Gerontius, and was encouraged by a commission from the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival (which had also produced Gerontius) to compose the large work he had long been contemplating. He said he had been thinking about the topic, and selecting the words, since boyhood. The Apostles, like its successor The Kingdom, depicts the disciples of Jesus and their reactions to the extraordinary events surrounding them.

It is a narrative work, dealing with the calling of the Apostles and their experiences of Jesus’s preaching, crucifixion (which is not directly depicted), and ascension. The Kingdom would carry the story onward. Elgar was more interested in human motivations than philosophical underpinnings; and the most memorable characters in the work are the two sinners Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot. Elgar's conception outgrew the confines of a single work: The Kingdom was first conceived as the last part of The Apostles, but later Elgar considered them as the first two parts of a trilogy. In the event, the projected third part was never written.


The Apostles is written for a large orchestra, of typical late Romantic proportions, with the addition of a shofar (usually substituted by a more conventional instrument, such as a flugelhorn), which announces the dawn. There is a double chorus with semichorus, and six solo singers representing: The Blessed Virgin and the Angel Gabriel (soprano), Mary Magdalene (contralto), St John (tenor), who also narrates, St Peter (bass), Jesus (bass) and Judas (bass).


The work is in two parts and seven sections, each played without a break. Words were selected by Elgar from the New Testament and Apocrypha.

  1. (Part 1) The Calling of the Apostles. The music begins just before dawn; the sun rises, and one by one the Apostles are chosen.
  2. By the Wayside. This depicts Jesus's teaching, and particularly evokes the Beatitudes.
  3. By the Sea of Galilee. Crossing the sea is incidental; Mary Magdalene is the focus here. After a stormy night scene, her conversion is portrayed, and the scene moves to Caesarea Philippi and Capernaum. Elgar added an epilogue "Turn ye to the stronghold", which does nothing for the drama and is intended as a show-piece for the chorus.
  4. (Part 2) The Betrayal. Although it follows the Passion narrative, the section is chiefly concerned with the character and motivation of Judas. He is shown as trying to maneuver Jesus so that he is forced to show his divine power and establish his kingdom. In the end Judas gives way to despair.
  5. Golgotha. This is a brief interlude, as is the following section. The two sections frame the "off-stage" crucifixion.
  6. At the Sepulchre. The story of the Resurrection is briefly told by the narrator and a chorus of angels, in a blissful, spring-like interlude.
  7. The Ascension. The miracle is almost incidental; the point is that the Apostles, though here joining in praise with the angels, are about to establish the church on earth.


Unlike The Dream of Gerontius three years earlier, The Apostles was an immediate success with audience and critics — by now, everyone was prepared for its complexity. However, the work has not fared well. It is difficult and expensive to prepare, and few choristers know the music. Of Elgar's three great oratorios, it is performed the least. Indeed, most critics find it the least satisfactory of the three. Although Elgar's method was always to choose words and music together (as opposed to setting an established libretto), it is generally considered in this work that literary and evangelical considerations stand in the way of the musical.