Pinpointing the exact moment of conception of a work of art is rarely easy. But, for Elgar, there was a clearly defined event that set his creative imagination working on the subject of the Apostles. It came during his time as a pupil at Littleton House School, Worcester. His teacher, Francis Reeve, remarked that ‘The Apostles were young men and very poor. Perhaps, before the descent of the Holy Ghost, they were no cleverer than some of you here.’ The idea of writing a religious work that would centre on the ordinary men called to lay the foundation of Christianity stayed with him into his adult life. The first sketches appear to date from the early 1880s – when the summit of Elgar’s musical activity was conducting a band at a local lunatic asylum. When the commission came to write a work for the 1900 Birmingham Festival, he thought hard about tackling the Apostles project then. In the end, it wasn’t to be; instead, Birmingham was given The Dream of Gerontius, in which a dark-hued theme originally intended for Judas now appears accompanying the Angel of the Agony.
When The Apostles was finally completed, in 1903, Judas had acquired other music, and a prominent dramatic role. Well, the betrayer of Jesus was one of the original twelve Apostles chosen by Jesus, so his place in the work was more or less assured. But Elgar had been fascinated by some remarks in a book by Archbishop Whately of Dublin. Judas, Whately had said, was a thinker, a man a cut above the others, perhaps with even a touch of the aristocrat. His intention in betraying Jesus was not to bring about his death, but to force his hand – to compel him to show his power by saving himself, so that the Jews (and perhaps the Romans, too) would have had to acknowledge him as King. Judas’s despair and agonising guilt when he realises that his plot has failed, and that Jesus has been brutally executed, is central to the drama of The Apostles. It drew some particularly fine music from Elgar, especially Judas’s confession of guilt before the indifferent priests in the Temple (choral psalm-singing in the background only emphasising his aloneness), or again at the very end of the ‘Betrayal’ section, where a rapid crescendo is suddenly cut off, leaving the chorus to comment quietly, almost unemotionally: ‘He shall bring upon them their own iniquity.’
At this point, the Scriptures tell us, Judas kills himself. Elgar omits any reference to that desperate act. We are left to imagine it – an effective device, all the more effective after music of such power. But there was probably another reason. In a sense, Elgar hadn’t finished with Judas. His spirit turns up in another human guise as Simon Magus, the magician who tries to buy spiritual power in The Kingdom, the work Elgar intended as the second part of a projected Biblical trilogy, following on from The Apostles. The third part, The Last Judgment, was never written, but Elgar’s sketches and letters make it clear that the character of Antichrist was to have been another manifestation of the Judas type, the despairing thinker who tries to force God’s hand. Did Elgar identify with Judas? He certainly understood what Whately had called ‘the sin of despair’. After the failure of Gerontius at its Birmingham first performance, Elgar had written to his close friend August Jaeger, ‘I always said God was against art and I still believe it ... I have allowed my heart to open once – it is now shut against every religious impulse and every soft, gentle impulse for ever.’ The mood hadn’t lasted, but that is not to say that the confession was anything other than deeply felt.
The prominence of Mary Magdalene in The Apostles is more surprising. She was not one of the chosen twelve (these were unequivocally patriarchal times), and in the Bible she is dealt with in a few verses. But in this work she plays a larger part than any of the disciples other than Judas. This is partly because Elgar wanted to show how Christ speaks to human beings in their weakness, their sinfulness. In the Bible we learn that Mary was a poor prostitute. The self-righteous condemn Jesus for mixing with such a disreputable creature. But Jesus’ response marks the doctrinal climax of The Apostles’ first part: ‘Thy sins are forgiven; thy faith has saved thee: Go in peace.’
A few critics have doubted the success of Mary Magdalene’s music. One may feel that Elgar is not as involved personally in her scenes as he is in those of Judas; but that’s not to say that the musical invention is weaker. A more serious charge has been levelled against The Apostles as a whole – that it lacks the dramatic pace and unity of purpose of The Dream of Gerontius. This, it is often argued, goes a long way towards explaining the success of the latter work and the failure of the former (The Apostles remains one of the most neglected of all Elgar’s major works). In that sense, The Apostles is bound to suffer by comparison with Gerontius. But if one can shed oneself of such expectations, it is possible to accept The Apostles simply as a work that contains plenty of good music – and to enjoy those moments where music and text are in harmony as a luxurious bonus.
And The Apostles is full of good music. The Prologue is recognisably by the Elgar of Gerontius and the First Symphony (with which it shares its key, A flat major). The ‘Dawn’ section, on the other hand, is like nothing else in Elgar: we hear the characteristic upward-sixth call of the Hebrew shofar (ram’s horn), combining with the ancient Hebrew chant in ‘Morning Psalm’ and building to an overwhelming climax. Judas’s music has already been mentioned. It is matched in intensity by the opening of the ‘Golgotha’ section, in which muted violins and violas wordlessly intone the Biblical line ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ – ‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ The Passion and Crucifixion of Christ are not directly depicted by Elgar; we see only their effects on the bystanders. ‘My wish was to look at things more from the poor man’s (fisherfolk etc.) point of view than from our more fully informed standing place,’ he wrote. It is that intention – combined with Elgar’s natural brilliance of musical invention – which raises The Apostles head and shoulders above the overwhelming majority of pious English choral works of his day.
Programme Note © Stephen Johnson
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