THE APOSTLES - Synopsis
The orchestral prelude begins gently and majestically and the choir sings words from St. Luke’s Gospel (The spirit of the Lord is upon me). Part One of the oratorio (The Calling of the Apostles) begins at night. After we hear from the Angel Gabriel (The voice of they watchman) the section that Elgar calls ‘The Dawn’ begins with the sound of a distant shofar (a ram’s horn). A chorus of watchers from the temple roof (It shines!) is followed by a chorus within the temple singing a psalm (It is a good Thing to give Thanks). Much of the music for this section is based on Hebrew melodies. The scene ends with the calling of the Apostles and their response (We are the servants of the Lord).
The second scene is ‘By the Wayside’. It consists of Jesus’ famous sayings known as The Beatitudes (Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven) and to each the Apostles and the Virgin Mary respond. In the third scene, ‘By the Sea of Galilee’ we meet Mary Magdalene in a dramatic monologue. (O Lord Almighty, God of Israel) The chorus sings of her earlier life (Let us fill ourselves with costly wine and ointments) and she then describes seeing a storm and Jesus’ stilling of the sea. Next we hear the story of Jesus declaring the Apostle Simon to be Peter, the rock on which the church will be built. Part One ends with Mary Magdalen’s sins being forgiven by Jesus (Thy face, O Lord, will I seek) and a solo quartet and chorus (Turn you to the Stronghold ye prisoners of hope) end the section in a mood of confidence.
The mood is very different at the opening of Part 2. A solemn orchestral prelude leads to the scene of Christ’s betrayal. A choral recitative sets up the opposition of the authorities to Jesus’ preaching (Then gathered the Chief Priests and Pharisees) and Judas Iscariot shows his hand as being willing to betray him, receiving his thirty pieces of silver in return. Quick scene changes take us first to the Garden of Gethsemane and Jesus being captured, then to the Palace of the High Priest where Peter’s denial of Jesus happens. Here the chorus adds a beautiful comment. (And the Lord turned and looked upon Peter and he went out and wept bitterly.)
Next we’re in the Temple where Judas sings of his remorse (Our life is short and tedious). The next scene, in Golgotha, describes the crucifixion itself, though only briefly. Unusually it’s the orchestra which describes Jesus’s final words and the only vocal writing is a short dialogue between Mary and John.
Now there’s a complete change of mood. The next scene ‘At the Sepulchre’ begins with music that describes the early morning. The watchers on the temple roof are heard again (The face of all the East is suddenly ablaze with light) and soon we hear the voices of angels. (Alleluia! Why seek ye the Living among the Dead?). The oratorio closes with ‘The Ascension’. The risen Christ appears to the Apostles (Peace be unto you) and the choral sound is dominated by female voices. At the end of the whole work soloists, choruses, orchestra and organ unite in a mighty Alleluia.
Read the programme note on The Apostles
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