Elgar The Kingdom concert on 18 June 2011 in Canterbury Cathedral
Sophie Bevan: soprano, Louise Poole: alto, Jamie MacDougall: tenor, Benjamin Bevan: bass
Canterbury Choral Society, Canterbury Choral Society Youth Choir
Canterbury Philharmonic Orchestra (Leader: Beatrice Philips)
Richard Cooke: Conductor
The idea of a composition on the subject of the origins of Christianity first occurred to Elgar during his boyhood, and his interest in and study of the subject extended over many years, longer indeed than the twelve years during which The Dream of Gerontius developed. His first notes appeared in a copy of the New Testament dated 1882, He admitted that he was much influenced by Messiah and his scheme likewise called for three parts, although in this case it was to be three oratorios. The first was to be concerned with the apostles’ relationship with the earthly Jesus (The Apostles) and the second with the period after the crucifixion and particularly with the coming of the Holy Ghost (The Kingdom). The third, which was to be on Judgement and Life Everlasting was destined never to be written.
The title, The Apostles, was first mentioned in Elgar’s diary in January 1903, and during the whole of that year he was involved in its composition, but fragments both of that work and of The Kingdom (known initially as Apostles Part 2) had been written in the preceding two or three years. As they were to form parts of a trilogy, Elgar composed them to some extent concurrently, and allocated the solo parts in the same way: the Virgin Mary – soprano, Mary Magdalene – contralto, St John – tenor and St Peter – baritone. He adopted the Wagnerian technique whereby motifs symbolising particular ideas returned throughout the cycle. The Prelude to The Kingdom, for example, almost immediately introduces a theme from The Apostles (Ex l a), and a series of new ones most prominent among which are “New Faith” (Ex 2) representing return of confidence following the coming of the Holy Spirit, and “Prayer” (Ex 3).
The poem which inspired Gerontius had provided Elgar with a libretto, but the inspiration for these works came directly from the New Testament, and Elgar had set himself the difficult task not only of selecting his own texts, but of doing so concurrently with the process of musical composition rather than planning the layout beforehand. During the period following the first performance of The Apostles in 1903 Elgar had been in poor health both physically and mentally; he had heard of the death of his father and at the beginning of 1906, with The Kingdom expected for the Birmingham Festival in the autumn, was suffering from depression and loss of faith in himself, requiring a great deal of encouragement from his friends. His state of mind must have mirrored that of Jesus’ disciples following the crucifixion, and in the first part of The Kingdom they are in an Upper Room, and are shown reminding each other of Jesus’ message and affirming their solidarity. After the opening choral passage there is heard in the orchestra the plainchant melody symbolic of the Holy Sacrament, “O Sacrum Convivium”, Ex 4 (used later by Vaughan Williams to similar purpose in his Five Mystical Songs).
They found themselves faced with the task of replacing Judas as one of the twelve, and during the choosing of Mathias we hear two relevant themes from The Apostles, Exs l a and l b.
Elgar would have been well acquainted with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a school of poets and artists whose work was characterised by accuracy of naturalistic detail in religious subjects, together with an idealisation of feminine beauty. One of its members, John Everett Millais, had aroused considerable criticism with his painting “Christ in the House of His Parents” (or, “The Carpenter’s Shop”). Elgar was a close friend of the painter’s daughter, Alice. She was married to Charles Stuart-Wortley, a Member of Parliament, and they both saw much of the Elgars, but Alice carried on an extensive correspondence with Edward mainly on musical matters. As the result, however, of her bearing the same name as Elgar’s wife he called her his ‘Windflower’; their relationship became something deeper than mere friendship, and was no doubt responsible for inspiring in him a creative fire, and perhaps even the character of Mary Magdelene. This ‘Pre-Raphelite’ style was very much reflected by Elgar’s own, exemplified by the scene “At the Beautiful Gate”. On the morning of Pentecost Mary and Mary Magdalene come upon a man lame from birth and recall how Jesus healed the infirm. We hear in the orchestral accompaniment a further theme from The Apostles, Ex 5, heard there as watchers greet the dawn.
As the work proceeded Elgar gained in confidence and ideas began to flow; in the third part, “Pentecost”, we hear of the coming of the Holy Spirit, of the gift of tongues to the apostles and of the confusion of the populace in the face of these phenomena. In a substantial aria Peter exhorts the people to follow the way of Jesus. This is Elgar’s most exciting writing for the work and its undoubted climax. As in Gerontius he uses the chorus somewhat like an orchestra, varying the combinations of soloists, male or female choirs producing contrasting tonal colours.
Part four, “The Sign of Healing”, tells of the lame man restored to health, of the imprisoning of Peter and John and a solo from Mary, “The sun goeth down”, which shows us Elgar at his most ‘Pre-Raphaelite’, and at his most lyrically inspired.
In Part five Peter and John have been released from prison, and they rejoin the Disciples in the Upper Room where they initiate the celebration of the Holy Communion and sing the Lord’s Prayer. Elgar had made a setting of this already and found in this final section its rightful place.
Elgar once wrote in a programme note that a “concert . . in England is supposed to begin ‘loud’ and end ‘louder’, whereupon the audience is dismissed with a feeling of satisfaction that they have not met altogether in vain”. Although Gerontius finishes with a great hymn of praise this becomes more distant in the final pages and there is a quiet ending; The Kingdom too ends with a prayer and we hear much of Ex 3. It was, of course, to be followed by an oratorio on Judgement, and so such an ending was therefore dramatically appropriate.
That The Kingdom has never been as high in popular esteem as Gerontius is perhaps due to its lack of overall shape, consisting as it does as a series of separate episodes. Elgar could not match Wagner’s use of the leit-motif; some of his themes, such as Ex 2, have too strong an identity to be integrated into an orchestral texture and failed to provide the unifying element needed. Nevertheless the writing is masterly throughout, many of the episodes are of great beauty, and unity is provided by the text. What Elgar set out to do would have amounted to a setting of the whole of the New Testament with the exception of the book of Revelation. The achievement of such a project was clearly beyond his reach – perhaps beyond the reach of anybody!
© John Andrewes