Das Liebesmahl der Apostel, Biblical Scene, Op. 69 (1843)
By Christopher Gibbs, Professor of Music, Bard College
Written for the concert Spiritual Romanticism, performed on June 6, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
The triumphant Dresden premiere of Wagner’s Rienzi in October 1842 brought the 29-year-old composer wide public attention. In the same city just ten weeks later he conducted the premiere of his next opera, The Flying Dutchman, and in February was appointed Kapellmeister for the Saxon Royal Court. Among the many duties Wagner assumed was leading an amateur male choral society, the Dresden Liedertafel, a group that he complained was more interested in socializing than in music-making. Wagner was asked to write a half-hour work for a summer choral festival. He had recently completed the libretto of his next opera (then called Venusberg, later Tannhäuser), when he sketched the words for Liebesmahl der Apostel on April 21, 1843. In his memoirs, Wagner recalled, “I decided that the monotony of such choral singing, which the orchestra would only enliven to a slight extent, could be made bearable solely through the introduction of some dramatic elements.” He devised a “Biblical Scene,” depicting the first feast of the Pentecost, when the Holy Ghost appeared to the Apostles.
Wagner conducted the premiere in Dresden’s Frauenkirche on July 6, 1843 at the opening of a two-day festival that brought together male singing societies from all over Saxony. He recounted years later his disappointment with the “comparatively feeble effect” produced by the large orchestra and chorus of “so-called singers.” He had been more enthusiastic, however, in a letter written just after the event: “Picture to yourself a choir of 1200 men’s voices, all perfectly rehearsed, on a platform occupying almost the entire nave of the church and behind them an orchestra of 100 musicians, and you can imagine the impression it had! There has never been anything like it in any other church.”
Wagner’s dramatic sensibilities are clear from the presentation and structure of the piece, which foreshadows ideas he would develop in later operas. For the premiere, the orchestra was concealed behind the immense chorus, which was divided into three groups of tenors and basses in two parts to depict the Disciples. In addition, 12 basses represented the Apostles and another 40 singers were placed above in the cupola. Wagner deployed antiphonal effects between the Disciples and Apostles during the first two-thirds of the piece, which is sung entirely a capella (voices alone). A particularly effective moment comes when the “Voices from Above” intone the words: “Be consoled! I am near you.” Wagner wrote to his half-sister that this “passage depicting the descent of the Holy Ghost held everyone spellbound.”
At this point, some fifteen minutes into the composition, the pace speeds up and the orchestra enters for the first time, starting with a rumble in the drums and string tremolos. The Disciples exclaim: “What roaring fills the air! What sounds! What ringing!” The initial effect is of a giant crescendo that leads to moments reminiscent of Berlioz (whose music Wagner much admired) and anticipatory of his own impending Tannhäuser. Wagner would later return to other ideas first explored in this work, such as the hidden orchestra for the theater he designed in Bayreuth. And some 35 years later, in his last opera, Parsifal, he employed not only voices from on high, but also reused some melodic passages from this obscure early composition.