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Go to my Talk on The Apostles by Edward Elgar

I first became conscious of the name of Edward Elgar when I was at Bishop`s Stortford College. The Music Department was at the bottom end of the school, near the main road in a cottage called `Elgar House`. One day I asked the Director of Music, Christopher Bishop, why it was called Elgar House and was told that it had been named after the composer, Edward Elgar. I was also informed that the name had been given by a previous Director of Music at the school, Herbert Sumsion. Well, the name of Elgar was new to me and I set about discovering some of his music. I cannot remember what I first heard, but I do remember distinctly that later, when I had found that I really did warm to his music, I rashly sent off one day to a record club of which I was a member for an LP recording of Elgar`s Violin Concerto, performed by the young Yehudi Menuhin and conducted by the composer himself. When it came I eagerly put it on the gramophone and sat back in anticipation. Well, to put it bluntly, I could make neither head nor tail of it. It sounded so discordant and so inconsequential. I hated it! Luckily, as time went on, I began to penetrate its mysteries the more I listened to it - I had to persevere: I had bought the flipping thing! - and, of course, now it is a dearly beloved work, one which I have had the privilege of conducting, which only goes to show, as Schoenberg nearly said: "My music isn`t modern; it`s only under-played"! The Menuhin-Elgar performance is a classic, of course, which has stood well the test of time; in fact it is such a classic that all others are measured by it - and often do not measure up to it.

When I took `A` Level Music in the Sixth Form, I was lucky enough to study The Dream of Gerontius; at least, I did the first time I took `A` Level - in 1962; the second time I was equally fortunate to have Elgar`s Second Symphony as a set work. These two pieces were studied with Christopher Bishop who himself is a highly accredited Elgarian. Later - when he had left the school and had become an HMV recording manager - he recorded a number of Elgar works with Sir Adrian Boult and Sir John Barbirolli, including, of course, The Dream of Gerontius. Apparently, at the recording sessions of this work, he used the miniature score that I had used for `A` Level and Sir John was highly amused to see the markings I had made in pencil in the score: the names of the leitmotifs given by August Jaeger in his Analytical and Descriptive Notes published by Novello and Co. Ltd. Today I regard these labels with some serious misgivings; in 1963 I was rather more naïve.

By the time I took up my place at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge I was an avid Elgarian. But, virtually on arrival, I got a shock. I learned that Elgar`s music was not in favour; indeed, it would be best if one did not let on that one liked it: one`s musical taste would be severely questioned if one made such an admission. Well, I am nothing if not a coward, so I kept quiet and refused to admit to having such naïve and romantic tastes. Later I learnt why this strange anti-Elgar faction existed; but more of that later. At Caius I became great friends with Alan Opie, the singer, who had won a choral exhibition and sang in the choir at the college and by curious chance we discovered that we both had the same leanings in the direction of Elgar`s music. So from time to time we would visit each other`s rooms in college to play recordings; but we never dare let on that we had been listening to Elgar: that would never do! So, as might be in a fascist state of some sort, we listened clandestinely to this proscribed music. Ah, the delicious pleasures of secret vices!

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A talk on The Apostles by Edward Elgar
given to
The Elgar Society
(Southern Branch)
at Havant in Hampshire on 22 February 2003

Paul Adrian Rooke

[This talk is in the process of being re-written for the purpose of display on this web site page. Details of musical extracts which I played are clearly labelled with reference to the score and can therefore be accessed on CD by anyone who has the score and can read music. I intend very soon to give CD track reference numbers and timings as well. Audio files of these extracts are not available for copyright reasons. I intend also to give exact references for the quotations I have used. I apologise profoundly both to the authors of the books from which these quotations are extracted and to those of you who read this talk for the fact that references are not yet available. The main question remaining to be solved is how to illustrate the examples which I played on the pianoforte. It is to be hoped that these will either appear as images of musical notation or as audio files. Meanwhile your patience would be appreciated.]

In Alice Elgar`s diary, the entry for 24 June 1902 notes: "E. out cycling again. Heard the dreadful news of the King`s illness & postponement of Coronation." King Edward VII`s coronation, as you may know, had to be postponed because of an attack of appendicitis. It had been due to take place two days later than that diary entry – on 26 June 1902. The postponement meant also the delay of the first performance of the Coronation Ode which had been commissioned from Elgar. He might have been disappointed, you would have thought, but no, the next day our intrepid hero writes to August Jaeger: "Don`t, for heaven`s sake, sympathise with me – I don`t care a tinker`s damn! It gives me three blessed sunny days in my own country (for which I thank God or the Devil) instead of stewing in town. My own interest in the thing ceased as usual, when I had finished the M.S. – since when I have been thinking mighty things!" On 2 July 1902 Edward Elgar wrote in a letter to Ivor Atkins: "I have been Biking wildly . . . during the last ten days & playing Bach, who heals and pacifies all men & all things.

. . .

I am now plotting

Of which more anon."

The first musical extract contains the last few minutes of the piece that was formulating at that time in Elgar`s mind. It certainly is a "mighty" and a "gigantic" work, using six (or maybe seven) soloists, a mixed chorus, a semi-chorus and a huge orchestra including triple Woodwind, a large Brass section, a very large array of Percussion, 2 Harps and an Organ plus Strings. In this extract you will hear the magnificent and completely assured way in which Elgar manages these huge forces; not only this but also the total command of the emotional and dynamic structure of the passage in its pacing of soft and loud music and what is in effect the approach to and the descent away from the climax of the whole work, the final climax to a work which will have lasted approximately two hours. It is an overwhelming passage, though it begins quietly with the women of the main Chorus and of the Semi-Chorus. They represent Angel voices “In Heaven”. When the men and the soloists join in, representing the Apostles and the Holy Women, the music increases in volume, changes key rapidly – which creates a sense of urgency – and more instruments are added. It is a kaleidoscope of musical effect, first the soloists, then the womens` choruses, then the mens`, then the orchestra taking up centre stage, wave after wave bursting to the fore. Then we hear the Apostle John holding a very high B flat and the music begins to accelerate. Triplets are added, thus increasing the intensity, full orchestra and all vocal forces combining at the words “seated at the right hand of the power of God.” Power of God it certainly is! The music increases in passion until the tenors and all the sopranos reach their top B flat and hold it over two bars. John joins them again and thereafter everything subsides slowly to its close.

[Extract 1: Elgar: The Apostles, Part II, Section VII: The Ascension, Figure 225 – The end]

By the summer of 1902 Elgar was becoming very famous and very busy. Three years previously, in 1899, the first performance of the Variations for Orchestra (`Enigma`) had been a real and resounding success. It had been followed by a less than satisfactory première of The Dream of Gerontius in Birmingham in 1900 but this was certainly redeemed by the second performance at the Lower Rhine Festival in Düsseldorf in the summer of 1902, after which on 23 May 1902 none other than Richard Strauss, doyen of contemporary modernists, hailed Elgar with these words: "I raise my glass to the welfare and success of the first English progressivist, Meister Edward Elgar . . . " - an accolade indeed! In November 1900 he had received an honorary degree from Cambridge University. In June 1901 there was the première of the Cockaigne Overture, premières of the first two Pomp and Circumstance Marches in Liverpool on 19 October, Grania and Diarmid in Dublin on 21 October and the Concert Allegro at St James` Hall on 2 December. Some of these performances were not only attended but also conducted by Elgar himself. On 19 December came the commission for The Apostles to be performed at the Birmingham Triennial Festival in October 1903. In 1902 the commission came for the Ode for King Edward`s coronation and Dream Children was premièred on 20 May. In the summer he was on a so-called `holiday` – a bit of a busman`s one, this – in Bayreuth, attending performances of The Flying Dutchman, Parsifal and The Ring.

A far cry, all this, from the little boy who, as R.J. Buckley, Elgar`s first biographer, wrote, "attended school at Littleton House, where a Mr. Francis Reeve, who supervised the education of some twenty-five to thirty boys, appears to have made a lasting impression on the future composer, who told the writer that to those far-away days was due his oratorio “The Apostles”. He said: “The idea of the work originated in this way. Mr. Reeve addressing his pupils, once remarked: `The Apostles were poor men, young men, at the time of their calling ; perhaps before the descent of the Holy Ghost not cleverer than some of you here.` This set me thinking, and the oratorio of 1903 is the result.” " Elgar attended Littleton House from the age of 11 until 15, so the germ of this oratorio was set 30 years or so before it came to fruition. " . . . When he was offered the opportunity of composing a commissioned work for the 1900 Birmingham Triennial Music Festival his thoughts turned immediately to the long-cherished ambition of setting the Apostles story."

The commission came in November 1898. His initial sketches were for the character of Judas – an outsider who appealed to Elgar (I wonder why!). Indeed, on 15 November 1899, in a letter to August Jaeger, he writes: "Here`s Judas! & another scrap. Cheerful ain`t it?"

[Pianoforte Example 1: Judas theme]

He soon realised, however, that the work required more time than he had available and on 10 January 1900 he wrote to Jaeger: "Judas is dropped!" However, on 5 February 1900: "I am setting Newman`s `Dream of Gerontius` awfully solemn and mystic. … Now I must go on to my Devil`s chorus – good! I say that Judas theme will have to be used up for death and despair in this work, so don`t peach." Actually, on 8 November 1899, a week before he wrote the letter to Jaeger containing the Judas theme, he had written another which ended: "All composition is a dead secret but I say I have written a theme, alas! orchestral music and it`s no good on the piano." It may well have been that very theme, and, like all Elgar`s themes, “it`s no good on the piano”, so here it is on voice and orchestra, as it eventually ended up in The Dream of Gerontius

[Extract 2: Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius, Part 2, Figures 106 – 114]

The rest, of course, is history. "Eventually The Dream of Gerontius became recognised for the masterpiece it was and its success led to a further Birmingham Festival commission, this time for 1903."

So Elgar at last began work on The Apostles or, to be more correct, he began to commit himself to paper. Two days after returning from his Bayreuth `holiday` on 29 July 1902, Alice noted in her diary that he "Began to be very busy collecting material."

At this point I must confess that I was for many years a very confused person. If you read the standard Elgar biographies produced up to about 1990 you will come away with the impression that Elgar now undertook a mammoth and probably unrealisable project which was doomed from the start to end in failure. This, apparently, was to be a trilogy of works (in the nature of a religious `Ring`) dealing with, as Michael Kennedy puts it, "the beginnings of Christianity, Christ`s call to the disciples, the years of teaching in Jerusalem, the mission to the Gentiles and, finally but never accomplished, the Church Universal." There is also the distinct implication that he lived in an atmosphere of chaos, as if he did not know what he was doing and was floundering about in all directions. Michael Foster says that his failure to realise this ambition "stayed with him for the rest of his life"; the anonymous programme note writer in the 1988 Malvern Festival programme calls The Apostles a "glorious failure". My problem was that I did not hear the work as a "failure" of any kind. I actually rated it – and still do – as his greatest work. So where had I gone wrong? How could I admire and love this flawed, failed piece? From what aural defect did I suffer? From what lack of mental faculty? Or was it that we had – yet again – another piece of unchallenged Elgar folklore? There are many instances of this – received opinions about Elgar`s music that are never questioned. My own personal experiences with Elgar`s music have confirmed this time and time again over the years. My confusion, thankfully, was lifted ten years ago when a book entitled Edward Elgar: Music and Literature was published by Scolar Press. On reading the chapter called The Apostles: Some Thoughts on the Early Plans by Christopher Grogan, the scales fell from my eyes. I realised that my ears were not deficient, that my brain was not addled, that my sense of the work`s value was not misplaced, for in this chapter Grogan reveals Elgar`s early plans, which were not for a trilogy of oratorios but for a single work. He reproduces an outline plan that Elgar made. Grogan says, "Although lacking in both depth and detail, this first attempt at an outline of the work is in some important respects a remarkable anticipation of the finished product. Thus an Overture (corresponding to the Prologue) is followed by the calling of the disciples in Galilee (`The Calling of the Apostles`), and the Sermon on the Mount (`By the Wayside`). . . . To end Part I, Elgar`s thoughts turned to the incident of Christ quelling the storm on the Lake, . . . " After that, there is "a more personal treatment of individual characters in the group . . . Mary Magdalene, whom he spontaneously associated with the sinful woman who anointed Christ`s feet . . . " and "Judas, whose fate already dominates the scheme to the extent of pushing the Crucifixion and Resurrection to one side. So from the very beginning, Elgar`s intention to concentrate on the Apostles themselves as dramatic characters, rather than on the central events of the Passion, comes strongly to the fore."

"From here on the planned sequence of events becomes noticeably more vague. . . . The great events of the Ascension and Pentecost were incorporated, it is true, . . . generally, however, Elgar does not seem at this stage to have been thinking ahead in very concrete terms, . . . "

"That the earliest plan we have should end thus is of some importance as it shows that Elgar originally conceived The Apostles as a single work only … not as a trilogy culminating in the Last Judgement."

So the idea that Elgar planned to write a trilogy of oratorios on the Wagnerian scale in response to his visit to see The Ring is – frankly – baloney; and the idea that his imagined “failure” to complete this imagined trilogy has left us with a fatally flawed work is – frankly – baloney!; and, as you will see from the overall structural plan, the work is beautifully balanced. As Jerrold Northrop Moore says in the foreword to the Elgar Complete Edition of this score: "The Apostles as it stands has a strong sense of form. The central portraits of Mary Magdalene and Judas are framed within the pastoral episodes Scenes II (`By the Wayside`) and VI (`At the Sepulchre`), and then by the heroic opening (`The Calling of the Apostles`) and closing (`The Ascension`)."

So the work is not a failure: it basically achieves its original intention; and it was not produced in chaotic fashion, but had a beautifully balanced structure, or, at least, a “strong sense of form”. My instincts were right. Could this possibly be due to the fact that I had actually listened to the music and had made judgments of my own rather than pass on received opinions? I sometimes wonder whether certain commentators have actually heard the music. Though two CD recordings are currently available performances of The Apostles even today are significant occasions. Some years ago, particularly before the advent of the CDs, it would have been difficult to hear the music. But this is no excuse: a full orchestral score could be obtained - at a price - and commentators of renown owe it both to the composers on whom they make pronouncements and to the trusting public they serve not to make judgments that do not have firm basis in the evidence. Further, whilst I am in full flight on this particular hobby horse, vocal scores will not do, as anyone who has compared an Elgar vocal score with an Elgar full score must admit. It is not just that it sounds different when played by an orchestra, it is that much musical substance is missed out in the vocal scores: they are not true reflections of Elgar`s works.

Enough! - more music! The second extract is the Prologue to Part I. It intimates at the mighty scale of things to come:

[Extract 3: Elgar: The Apostles, Part 1: Prologue, The beginning – Figure 115]

Again you will notice the arch form of the piece, in that it begins quietly, reaches its climax and then subsides to a gentle end, just as the first extract did. You will also notice how its structure involves bracketing, with the repetition of the opening words, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He hath anointed me to preach the Gospel … at the end. The choral writing is superb; not difficult to sing, but solemn and noble. The way Elgar handles his vocal forces is excellent. Opening with the full choir in a hushed unison, he then breaks out into four parts, then the women sing on their own and then again we return to full unison. The sopranos by themselves are followed by another full unison and the climax is reached. The final utterance is an even more hushed unison. So he varies the tone colour of the choral utterance. Equally colourful is the orchestra. Now we all know that Elgar was one of the greatest orchestrators of all time; actually, for me he is the best, topping even Berlioz, Wagner (I sometimes vary my opinion on this one!) and Strauss. Great orchestration entails writing for instrumental forces with complete aptness and skill, but it does not mean blasting away all the time. Deft touches are just as important. For me, the opening of this Prologue is wonderful, with its strings divided into fifteen parts, but there are greater marvels to come, so I shall move on. You will also have noticed that the beginning and the end of this work have themes in common. In fact they share two themes. The first is played by the divided strings:

[Extract 4: Elgar: The Apostles, Part 1: Prologue, Bar 2 – Bar 5]

The second appears at the point where the chorus sings “He hath anointed me”.

[Extract 5: Elgar: The Apostles, Part 1: Prologue: Figure 26 – Figure 26]

This second theme is a remarkable – but typical – example from The Apostles. I hope I will not destroy your appreciation of it, but I have to tell you that it contains what we in the trade know as a “Gor blimey”! Since your dictionaries, like my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, will not define this terminology, I shall have to explain! When a composer, as happens time and time again, starts in one key and modulates to what is called the dominant key (don`t worry about the musical term – it is only a label for an effect), there are at least two ways of returning to the original key: one is subtle, the other less so. In the next extract, which you may know (!), the composer modulates twice to the dominant key - the first time where, if you imagine the words, you would hold thee at the end of the sentence: "How shall we extol thee, Who are born of thee?" and the second time at the word yet in the sentence: "God, who made thee mighty Make thee mightier yet" - and, to get back home again, he uses both these methods, the subtle one first, the “Gor blimey!” second.

[Extract 6: Elgar: Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D, Final Trio section]

That effect is a chromatic cliché. What is typical of not only this second theme but of so many in The Apostles is that it is chromatic; that means that it employs notes foreign to the prevailing key. Additionally, it contains a simultaneous false relation. Now this is not a reference to any of Elgar`s wicked uncles (!) - it means that notes which themselves contain a clash of prevailing key are used together in two different parts of the musical texture. Here, for instance is our chromatic “Cor blimey”:

[Pianoforte Example 1]

On top of this is added a simple phrase:

[Pianoforte Example 2]

But when the two are played simultaneously, there is alchemy of the highest order, base metal transformed into the purest gold – a theme of the utmost originality is born:

[Pianoforte Example 3]

And here is the false relation:

[Pianoforte Example 4]

Additionally, however, the phrase is played over a pedal note – a note held in the bass while the superimposed harmony changes. This also makes a clash:

[Pianoforte Example 5]

So we have two scrunches:

[Pianoforte Example 6]

“Cheerful, ain`t it?” (!)

It is these three musical effects which appear time and time again in the themes of The Apostles and which give the work its unique atmosphere. It has themes of the utmost chromatic originality, often giving rise to equally startling false relations and pedal notes which abound throughout, from the first bars to the last. By the way, August Jaeger, who wrote a detailed analysis of The Apostles in time for the first performance, claims that this second theme represents “Christ, the Man of Sorrows”. Unfortunately, for the life of me, I cannot see this connection. It is another of those errors to which Elgar commentators have fallen prey. He finds in the work ninety-two - yes 92! - themes to each of which he gives a label and for the first performance his booklet was printed containing all the words interspersed with all the 92 labelled themes! I really do question whether this booklet aided the listeners` pleasure or whether it gave them musical dyspepsia! Commentators lately have queried these analytical methods and I would certainly question them. But it is a large topic and I shall have to leave it for another day. Suffice it to say that my approach to the work does not entail affixing concrete labels to themes. For one thing, the themes often reappear so changed in character that any fixed label cannot cope with the musically changing reality. I regret very much, therefore, that amateurs - who know that Jaeger during his lifetime gave Elgar considerable support and is one of the great luminaries in his life story - seem to treat his analysis as gospel. Indeed I have known not a few academics who fall into the same trap.

I have talked about this second theme as being typical of many in The Apostles because of its chromaticism. This chromaticism takes two forms, the first where the whole theme is chromatic, the second where only the inner parts are. I would like to take the second type first. Here is one of the themes of the Prologue:

[Extract 7: Elgar: The Apostles, Part I: Prologue, Figure 5 – Figure 55]

And here it is as some lesser Victorian composer might have penned it:

[Pianoforte Example 7: Elgar: The Apostles, Part I: Prologue, Figure 5 – Figure 55 with late Victorian harmonisation]

There is a big difference between these two versions of this theme. I say, “as some lesser Victorian composer might have penned it”. For all I know, that may be how Elgar originally conceived it – it rings true to me – but, if so, he must have realised that it would not do, that it needed more harmonic individuality. After all, he is not "a lesser Victorian composer", he is a greater! And harmonic individuality is what we get with the first type of chromatic theme, where all of the theme is chromatic, melody as well as harmony. There are some really very striking and modern sounding themes in The Apostles. Here is one to try:

[Extract 8: Elgar: The Apostles, Part I: Prologue, Figure 9 – Figure 10-1]

It is a simple but outrageous idea which, like many in this work, would have had the harmonic purists tossing in anguish and consulting their dictionaries of invective. The reason is that, in essence, it consists merely of chords stepping down in parallel:

[Pianoforte Example 7]

That actually is very crude, but Elgar `improves` it by altering the bass. (By the way, Elgar`s bass lines are one of the most fascinating and important features of his musical style. His bass lines are almost as good as Bach`s!) Here it is again, with his bass line:

[Pianoforte Example 8]

That improves things to our twenty-first century ears, but, unfortunately, not for the critics of his day because his bass – when it drops – turns the chords above them into what are called `second inversion` chords. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as you treat them `properly` – but Elgar doesn`t! Here is a second inversion chord:

[Pianoforte Example 9: a Tonic chord of G major in Second Inversion (Ic)]

and here is where it should go:

[Pianoforte Example 10: a Dominant Seventh chord of G major in Root Position (V7)]

and then, possibly, here:

[Pianoforte Example 11: a Tonic chord of G major in Root Position (Ia)]

- as in this phrase:

[Pianoforte Example 12: the last two bars (in G major) of The National Anthem]

Elgar – beautifully and mysteriously – goes here:

[Pianoforte Example 13: Elgar: The Apostles, Part I: Prologue, Figure 9 - Figure1 (beat 1)]

- and not only does that once but twice in succession. Naughty, naughty! Hail to the “first English progressivist, Meister Edward Elgar . . . ” (!)

Section I: The Calling of the Apostles begins with a short narrative episode and is followed by an orchestral passage depicting Christ at prayer in the mountain at night. This is beautiful writing for the orchestra, with the Oboes and Cor Anglais playing three octaves above the `Cello and Double Bass pedal note. There is then the short chromatic/false relation theme followed by yet another chromatic theme. This one gets its effect from the juxtaposition of harmonically distant chords and from its orchestration. It is played by muted strings divided into 17 parts, with two solo `celli having the tune. There are also muted horns and trumpets and harps and organ. The whole theme is marked mistico (mystic) in the score and there is an immense atmosphere of mystery and awe in this passage.

Extract 10: Elgar: The Apostles, Part I: Section 1: The Calling of the Apostles, Figure 122 – Figure 184]

Following this, the Angel Gabriel then announces Jesus as “My servant, Whom I have chosen; My beloved, in Whom My soul is well pleased” and at the end of the passage occurs another chromatically sliding theme, with the Violas at first having the tune over the Violins. Actually this is its second appearance in this passage, but I have started the extract here in order to link into the next scene, The Dawn. This is a wonderfully evocative piece of orchestral writing, heralded by our dear old friend, the Shofar. The use of the Shofar, a Jewish liturgical instrument of ram`s horn, probably dating back to the Exodus, shows to what lengths Elgar took his research for this work. Not only does he call for the appropriate instrument, he also gives it the appropriate calling sign (a melody composed of two notes rising a sixth) as explained by Rev. Francis L. Cohen in Jaeger`s descriptive analysis. Equally authentically, he gives the men`s chorus a melody based on a Jewish penitential chant and the authentic tune for Psalm 92. The orchestral colouring in this passage is thrilling – Shofar, small Gong, Cymbals, Bass Drum and Side Drum all adding to the effect.

[Extract 11: The Apostles, Part I: Section 1: The Calling of the Apostles, Figure 24 – Figure 284]

At the end of this chorus there is an orchestral passage in which, at first, the Shofar theme is developed. Then we reach a tremendous climax where the mystic theme is completely rewritten for full orchestra, replete with throbbing triplets and a massive pedal note. This, for me, is terrifying and awe-inspiring stuff.

[Extract 12: Elgar: The Apostles, Part I: Section 1: The Calling of the Apostles, Figure 31 – Figure 364]

It is interesting to note that even Robert Anderson, for whom I have the greatest possible respect is, I think, mistaken at this point for in his book on Elgar for the Master Musicians series, he says: "The dawn itself is a moment of orchestral splendour [ - can`t quarrel with that! - ] that cannot quite silence doubts about the wisdom of declaiming `Christ`s Prayer` fff on trombones, tuba and organ." This is what I mean about how Jaeger`s labels can be misleading. If you label that theme "The Prayer of Christ" (as Jaeger does) when it first appears, then this full-blown version seems to jar, but there is no justification in giving it that label. Without the label it makes perfectly good sense as a glorious metamorphosis of that theme from the darkness of night to the glorious light of day. Jaeger has, I believe, a lot to answer for and the sooner we `ditch` his labels the better.

The next extract contains the whole of Section 2 of The Apostles. This is called By the Wayside and is a setting of The Beatitudes. This for me is the most completely satisfying passage in the whole work. As Jaeger says: "The whole is a picture of purest beauty and simplicity, without the least striving after sensational effect. It may tax the patience of those (there are many such) who have lost the power of appreciating simplicity of design and expression, or no longer possess the faculty of listening to a long-drawn, slow movement which has nothing to recommend it but its message of beauty and peace – “peace, the central feeling of all happiness.” But to those who look upon the realization of beauty in simplicity as a composer`s most difficult problem, and as a genuine desideration in these days of unprecedented stress and complexity, this movement may appear the gem of the work . . . " - a little Victorian in its over-moralistic sentiment, I feel, but one can only say plus ça change, plus ça reste la même chose (!). Christ`s words are set to a beguiling phrase over a downward-stepping bass line. In fact much of this section is built on a descending bass. In between Christ`s utterances, the disciples – John, Peter and Judas – Mary, the Blessed Virgin and the chorus – singing the parts of The People – interject their own responses. None of these need comment, save to say that it is Judas who, though he never steps out of the picture, is here portrayed as an ambitious man, somewhat dissenting from the tone of the others` utterances . . . You will notice that the music often darkens when he is singing.

[Extract 13: Elgar: The Apostles, Part I: Section 2: By The Wayside, Figure 6011 – Figure 717]


Sections 3 and 4 of The Apostles are portraits of Mary Magdalene and Judas. Mary`s portrait begins with a narrative describing Jesus` sending of his disciples in a ship to Capernaum while he himself ascends into the mountain to pray. She is then pictured in the Tower of Magdala, lamenting her former sins – which are graphically illustrated by a Choral Fantasy and followed allegorically by the depiction of a great tempest at the height of which Jesus is seen walking on the waters towards the boat. The next extract starts after the storm subsides, when the scene changes to Caesarea Philippi and to the recognition of Jesus by Peter as “the Son of the living God”. Some of the most frequently used themes should be becoming familiar by now. One theme that appears – at the words “My Father Which is in Heaven” – will reappear in The Kingdom, appropriately enough at the setting of the Paternoster. Incidentally, this will mean that the extracts played so far contain themes from four Elgar oratorios, not just The Apostles. The first extract contained a theme from The Dream of Gerontius: it appears near the end of that work. A theme from The Light of Life appeared in Extract 3, the Prologue. So, The Light of Life, The Dream of Gerontius, The Apostles, The Kingdom – all these works - are thematically interlinked. And if I remind you that themes from The Dream of Gerontius appear in The Music Makers together with themes from Sea Pictures, Variations for Orchestra (`Enigma`), the Violin Concerto and both symphonies, you will begin to realise, as I do, that a large number of Elgar`s works are interconnected. Why? Well, that`s the subject of yet another talk!

Back to Cæsarea Philippi: Jesus proclaims Peter as the rock upon which his church is to be built and there ensues a majestic passage based on the mystic theme. The scene changes to Capernaum and Mary Magdalene makes plain her repentance with the words, “help me, desolate woman”. This is followed by a beautiful passage sung by Mary, the Blessed Virgin. She begins with a short phrase, “Hearken, O daughter” containing Elgar`s three favourite devices used in The Apostles: chromaticism, false relation and pedal note:

[Pianoforte Example 14: Elgar: The Apostles, Part I: Section III: By the Sea of Galilee (In Cæsarea Philippi), Figure 120 - Figure 1201, (beat 1):

(a) chromaticism (melody only) - Figure 120 only
(b) false relation (melody {A natural} and accompaniment {A flat} - Figure 120 only) and
(c) pedal note (bass) - Figure 120 - Figure 120 +1, Beat 1]

“Cheerful, ain`t it!”

Then comes the scene of Mary Magdalene washing Jesus` feet. Elgar in the middle of this episode gives to the women of the chorus words that were originally said by a man. He commented in a letter to Canon Gorton of July 1903: "I have put the words of Simon for the Women (always the hardest on their own sex)." Actually, he put it even more succinctly on a sketch: “Women mocking (brutes!)" Finally, through her repentance, Mary Magdalene is forgiven. “Go in peace”, says Jesus, lingering on the false relation in his own motif.

[Extract 14: Elgar: The Apostles, Part I: Section 3: By The Sea of Galilee (In Cæsarea Philippi), Figure 111 – Figure 128]

Originally Elgar wanted to go straight on to the contrasting portrait of Judas without a break, but, since thmusic he had written already lasts an hour, he condescended to human frailty and allowed an interval! [It might be worthwhile one day to perform The Apostles without interval, as The Dream of Gerontius should be. I have more than once heard The Dream of Gerontius done without more than a small break in the middle to allow the soloist singing the Angel to come on stage; I have never heard The Apostles performed without break. Mind you, performances of The Apostles are not so common, so audiences need to be nurtured more through performances of the work! When it becomes more frequently performed, maybe we could start omitting the interval. After all, who would chop Das Rheingold into separate scenes?]

The next extract contains the first forty bars of Part II. These are by way of an Introduction to this part. I wonder what you think of them. Most of the themes should be recognised by now, apart from the first. This is to play a significant part in the second half of the work:

[Pianoforte Example 15: Elgar: The Apostles, Part II: Introduction, Figure 140-8 – Figure 140-6]

Here is the complete Introduction:

[Extract 15: Elgar: The Apostles, Part II: Introduction, Figure 140-8 – Figure 1447]

So, did you find that interesting? – or totally inept?

[When the talk was given live, there ensued an interesting and not totally brief discussion about the merits of this passage. The general view of people in the audience coincided with the views expressed by Jaeger and myself below.]

That passage was described by Ernest Newman as " . . . the most unsatisfactory piece of work ever put together by Elgar . . . " and he claimed that in it "the musical interest diminishes to vanishing point." Michael Foster, later, agreed that his view "has some force." Jaeger, however, calls it "a short orchestral adagio of almost oppressive solemnity" and "a remarkable study in orchestration of the most modern type." Is it not remarkable how extraordinarily different opinions can be?! For me, it is charged with supreme emotion, beginning with those huge brass chords. Coming after the peaceful ending of Part I and straight after the interval, they are a supreme coup de theâtre. They certainly let us know that in Part II Elgar will be dealing with tragedy – Christ`s crucifixion and Judas` suicide. They are followed by two chromatic themes, encapsulating the personal isolations and tragedies of the two main protagonists and then the music changes mood, becoming heroic and optimistic before finding its way to a third chromatic theme. This collapses into immobility before Jesus` false relation theme re-appears and the music then returns, though much quietened, to the opening tragic mood, ending, literally, with suspense. Unsatisfactory? Far from it!

Section IV is entitled The Betrayal. And here we come to what for many is the emotional crux of the oratorio, namely Judas` despair. The next extract picks up the music after the betrayal. Singers inside the Temple "chant relentlessly the more implacable verses of Psalm 94 while Judas ponders the enormity of his deed." "To my mind", wrote Elgar to Canon Gorton in July 1903, "Judas` crime or sin was despair; not only the betrayal, which was done for a worldly purpose." And I think that he wrote this with some deep sense of personal feeling, since his own character tended towards despair. In this way it could be considered to be a self-portrait. It is an extremely complex piece of writing – for soloist, chorus and orchestra alike – with vivid effects and dynamic contrasts too numerous to mention – a powerful piece of characterisation of life`s darker side.

[Extract 16: Elgar: The Apostles, Part II: Section IV: The Betrayal, Figure 173-4 – Figure 1926]

The despair of Judas is followed by Scene V – the Crucifixion at Golgotha, though the crucifixion itself is decidedly underplayed apart from two bursts of orchestral power. So, Jesus` words are printed in the Violin parts in the score, but not sung. This is because Elgar wanted to concentrate on the characters of the Apostles, rather than on the life of Jesus. After the Chorus has sung the famous words, “Truly this was the Son of God”, there is a poignant dialogue between Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and John.

[Extract 17: Elgar: The Apostles, Part II: Section VI: Golgotha, Figure 193-6 – Figure 1985]

To my total mortification, I shall not include in this talk any extracts from Scene VI: At the Sepulchre. This is a totally enchanting section, whose freshness is a sheer delight. Elgar makes much use of female voices, for which he always writes so well. I shall pass on, therefore, to the final section, The Ascension. Extract 1 furnished the last six and a half minutes of this, but they are included again at the end of the next extract, prefaced by the earlier part of the section. The extract, therefore, lasts 11 minutes. This is the culmination of the work, combining all the vocal and instrumental forces and using most of the important themes of the work.

[Extract 18: Elgar: The Apostles, Part II: Section VII: The Ascension, Figure 2153 – The end]

I think that ending is worthy of – and very reminiscent of – the ending of Wagner`s Götterdämmerung. It has the same sense of scale and fulfilment. Far from being “a glorious failure”, I consider The Apostles to be a glorious success. Its melodic style is beautiful, its harmonic style modernistic and adventurous, its vocal and orchestral writing superb, and its overall structure totally satisfying – it is worth far more, even, than the princely amount of £1000 Elgar received as commission ( – a nice tidy sum in those days!)

A few postscripts …

Elgar was writing all this exactly 100 years ago. If you download the February 1903 timeline from The Elgar Society web site you will see what he was doing in the next few months, leading up to the première in October 1903. After the première, of course, he went to Italy, to Alassio, which was the inspiration for his Overture, “In the South” – a piece dear to your [Southern Branch] hearts, no doubt!

As I said, Elgar was now at the height of his fame. The first performance in Birmingham on 14 October 1903 was packed out. Every place in the Town Hall had been sold. Many extra seats had been fitted in and a ballot instituted for people wishing to occupy them, but, even so, 700 people were unable to get tickets. The Worcester Herald reported that "At the conclusion of the work the audience remained for a few moments as if spell-bound, and unwilling to mar the devotional effect of such a masterpiece by applause. It was, however, only for a few moments, and then the enthusiasm was not to be restrained . . . " The Mail reported that Elgar – who, wisely, considering the première of The Dream of Gerontius, conducted the work himself – was recalled three times and that there was "a perfect storm of applause and cheering". Hans Richter claimed that "This is the greatest work since Beethoven`s Mass in D." The Daily Telegraph said "It has never happened that the whole musical world, not only in this country but also abroad, has gathered more or less closely around the production of an Englishman . . . Perhaps the most remarkable work of the present century." And it is no good surmising that the journalist had forgotten that "the present century" was in fact only three years old – I am sure he had, as many people have in the first three years of this twenty-first century – forgotten that the century had turned; I am sure he meant it as a sincere compliment.

Well, there is much more that I could talk about, much that I have omitted. I wanted to concentrate on the music, however. You can research Elgar`s working methods – they are copiously dealt with in the Elgar studies – and all the other flotsam and jetsam surrounding the composition of this "most remarkable work" – though don`t believe everything you read!

Lastly: in gratitude for the inspiration of Francis Reeve, Elgar sent him, in 1903, a copy of the completed Apostles vocal score. In 1904, soon after being knighted, he also sent a copy of Canon Gorton`s analysis of the libretto with a note saying " . . . Some of your boys try to follow out your good advice and training, although I can answer only for one who falls only too far short of your ideal." - a touching tribute from Reeve`s 47-year-old `boy` at the height of his powers and of his fame.

© Paul Adrian Rooke 20.ii.2003

[The original talk, together with musical extracts, was designed to last two hours.]

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Instrumental and vocal forces required for The Apostles

The Blessed Virgin (Soprano)
The Angel (Soprano)
Mary Magdalene (Contralto)
St. John (Tenor)
St. Peter (Bass)
Judas (Bass)
Jesus (Bass)
"The parts of the Blessed Virgin and the Angel may be sung by the same singer."


The Semi-Chorus "should consist of 24 voices, six to each part:
Sopranos I, II
Contraltos I, II"

The Orchestra
2 Flutes, Piccolo, 2 Oboes, Cor Anglais, 2 Clarinets, Bass Clarinet, 2 Bassoons and Double Bassoon
4 Horns, 3 Trumpets, 3 Trombones, Tuba and an extra Trumpet representing the Shofar;
"for this part the straight Trumpet should preferably be employed"
3 Timpani, Bass Drum, Cymbals, Side Drum, Triangle, Tambourine, Tam-Tam, small Gong in E flat, antique Cymbals, Glockenspiel
2 Harps (2nd ad lib.)
Violins I, Violins II, Violas, `Cellos and Double Basses

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The Structural Plan of The Apostles

[The structural plan is yet to be uploaded. Your patience would be appreciated.]

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