It was to have been one of the grandest things in English music – if not the grandest of them all: a trilogy of oratorios, dealing, not with selected events from Christian or Old Testament history, but with the foundation and ultimate purpose of the Church. Elgar remembered the event that first set his imagination working towards this exalted goal. A teacher at his Worcester school, Francis Reeve, told Elgar’s class: ‘The Apostles were very young men and very poor. Perhaps, before the descent of the Holy Ghost, they were no cleverer than some of you here.’ Gradually, the young Elgar began to think in terms of a religious work about those lowly, uneducated men who had laid the foundations of modern Christianity. The idea stayed with him into adulthood – the first sketches date from the early 1880s – but by the time he sat down to compose in earnest, it had become clear that one work, however ambitious, could hardly contain all he wanted to say. And so Elgar arrived at the idea of the trilogy: three full-length oratorios depicting the calling of the twelve young men (The Apostles), the beginning of their evangelical mission on earth (The Kingdom) and – most ambitious of all – the outcome at the end of time (The Last Judgement). Wagner’s monumental operatic Ring cycle would at last have found its religious counterpart.
But Elgar only managed to get two-thirds of the way through his trilogy. The Apostles was finished in 1903, The Kingdom in 1906; but although he continued sketching out The Last Judgement almost up to his death in 1934, the music remained fragmentary. In the end, a few of the more striking ideas were commandeered for the Third Symphony, which Elgar began in 1933, but never finished. The austerely powerful idea associated with ‘Antichrist’ in the Last Judgement sketches can now be heard in the opening bars of Anthony Payne’s magnificent reconstruction of the unfinished Symphony.
Why was the trilogy never completed? For one thing, the experience of writing The Kingdom was unusually draining. Elgar’s physical health declined, and towards the end he began to suffer seriously from anxiety and depression. The first performance seems to have been a success with the audience, and critical reaction was far from damning; one reviewer even ranked The Kingdom with Bach’s St Matthew Passion. But several critics were politely dubious – and gently expressed doubt can be far more dangerous to an artist’s self-confidence than outright abuse. One article, by the influential critic Ernest Newman, seems to have left a deep imprint:
‘He has seen fit to fasten upon his own back the burden of an unwieldy, impossible scheme for three oratorios on the subject of the founding of the Church; and until that scheme is done with, and Elgar seeks inspiration in a subject of another type, the most sanguine of us cannot expect much from him in the way of fresh or really vital music ... At present he is simply riding post-haste along the road that leads to nowhere.’
It may be pure coincidence – or it may be that Newman had instinctively fastened onto something that Elgar was beginning to feel himself; but about the time that article appeared, Elgar began work on his First Symphony, which – at its premiere in 1908 – was to prove one of the greatest successes in the history of British music. It was followed by more great symphonic works: the Symphony No. 2, the violin and cello concertos, and the ‘symphonic study’ Falstaff. Elgar had found his true métier. He may have gone on tinkering with The Last Judgement, but it seems that, at heart, he knew the trilogy idea was dead in the water.
Still, The Kingdom itself survives, and it has had some distinguished admirers, among them the conductors Hans Richter and Adrian Boult (who rated it above The Dream of Gerontius). So why isn’t it widely appreciated as the thing of beauty it undoubtedly is? Well, dramatically speaking, Elgar did set himself a few problems. The character of Judas, who inspired such memorable, dark music in The Apostles, is absent (his suicide takes place before the action of The Kingdom begins), and Elgar doesn’t seem to have been in a hurry to find a substitute for him. As a result, the Good–Evil contrast of the first oratorio is nowhere near as pronounced in the second. Opposition to the early Church is portrayed in The Kingdom, but with nothing like comparable force. The Apostles are arrested and brought before the Jewish authorities; but the latter are incapable of finding anything serious to charge the young evangelists with, and so they let them go. Also, it has to be admitted that Peter the preacher – as depicted in the biblical Acts of the Apostles – is far less sympathetic a figure than the fearful, ultimately remorse-racked human being of the Passion narrative.
But if one tries for a moment to imagine how The Kingdom might have worked in its originally intended context – as the second part of a huge trilogy (possibly performed, like Wagner’s Ring, on successive evenings) – these objections begin to sound like accusing the Devil of not being a Christian. Within that grand scheme, The Kingdom can be understood as a kind of symphonic ‘slow movement’. Granted, the opening of the orchestral Prelude may not initially suggest slowness, but this ardent, confident music soon settles down into something more typical of The Kingdom as a whole: a splendid slow march tune, quietly dignified at first, but growing to a rapturous climax. Elgar called this theme ‘New Faith’, and if it doesn’t actually carry his favourite marking, nobilmente [nobly], that’s probably because it goes without saying.
In terms of story, the emphasis in The Kingdom is not so much on the vigorous action of the young Church as it sets out to convert the world, but on its spiritual consolidation. Some of the most wonderful moments in the work are those that depict the Apostles together: celebrating Mass in the first and final scenes, and receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Nevertheless, there are moments where the emphasis is on individuals. Peter’s condemnation of the ‘men of Israel’ for crucifying Christ is given much space – too much, perhaps, for modern ears; though it may well be that Elgar chose this scene to show how those who rejected Christ could also repent and be accepted into his Church, rather than for any specifically anti-Semitic reasons. Less controversial – and musically much more memorable – is Mary’s solo ‘The sun goeth down’ after the arrest of the Apostles. It is simply one of the most haunting, touching things Elgar ever wrote, and during the composer’s lifetime it became popular as a separate concert piece. It is much better, though, to hear it as Elgar intended it: as the culminating point of this radiant, serene confession of faith.
Programme Note © Stephen Johnson
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