Music with Ease > Classical Music > Concert Guide: Turn of the 20th Century > The Apostles - Elgar
"The Apostles" was first performed at the Birmingham (England) Festival of 1903. Like "The Dream of Gerontius," it is constructed upon a series of motives, though upon a much more extensive scale, as it embodies no less than eighty distinct themes. The orchestra is unusually large, and includes a shofar, or ancient Hebrew trumpet. The characters are the Blessed Virgin and the Angel, soprano; Mary Magdalene, alto; Saint John, tenor, who is also the Narrator; Jesus, Saint Peter, and Judas, bassos.
The orchestral prelude is an epitome of the epitome of the whole oratorio. The choral part is majestic in character, and the instrumental accompaniment gives out the typical themes. The first scene is the calling of the Apostles, following Jesus' night of prayer on the mountain, and introduces angelic voices declaring hope for the world, with gentle pastoral accompaniment. This leads to "The Dawn" and the chorus of the watchers on the temple roof ("It shines"), followed by the chorus within the temple ("It is a good Thing to give Thanks") accompanied by the shofar and orchestra sounding the calls which are so familiar to the Jewish synagogue. The song of the watchers is also based upon an old Hebrew melody. The scene concludes with the calling of the Apostles, introduced with the recitative ("And when it was Day"), leading into an ensemble of Apostles' themes.
The second scene is "By the Wayside," in which the Beatitudes are expressed with the simplicity and impressiveness betting their character. The third scene, "By the Sea of Galilee," introduces Mary Magdalene in the most powerful and descriptive passage of the whole work ("O Lord Almighty, God of Israel"). Then follows a bright, tripping choral fantasy describing her past life; and lastly she sees the storm and the stilling of the sea from the tower of Magdala and describes it to a characteristic storm accompaniment. In a later passage her conversion is announced, and a solo quartet and chorus ("Turn you to the Stronghold") with an independent accompaniment bring Part I to a close.
Part II deals principally with Christ's Passion, and opens with a solemn instrumental prelude. The betrayal scene is developed at considerable length, the most beautiful feature of it being the choral passage ("And the Lord turned and looked upon Peter and he went out and wept bitterly"). Judas' remorse is impressively described in the soliloquy ("Our Life is short and tedious"), changing to a wailing farewell to life as he hears the shouts of the rabble ("Crucify him"). In the crucifixion scene ("Golgotha") the tragedy is only briefly but solemnly indicated in the instrumentation which gives expression to the cry "Eli, Eli lama sabachthani," the only vocal part being a short dialogue between Mary and John. The sixth scene, "At the Sepulchre," is in striking contrast with the last. The music describes the early morning. The song of the watchers is heard again and the first jubilant Alleluia of the angels ("Why seek ye the Living among the Dead?"). "The Ascension" closes the oratorio. It is given to a semi-chorus of female voices, to whom the mystic chorus is assigned; a chorus of female voices in four parts; four soloists; a chorus of male voices and orchestra and organ, all uniting at the end in a mighty "Alleluia."