Archives for May 2017

Religion and Music in England at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Apostles, which was performed on May 12, 2017 at Carnegie Hall.

Edward Elgar’s two monumental masterpieces for chorus and orchestra, The Dream of Gerontius and The Apostles, mirror the tensions and contradictions that surrounded religion at the end of the Victorian era.

Elgar, a Catholic, had experienced isolation and prejudice, particularly in his younger years. But he also witnessed a Catholic revival in England, the rise to prominence of John Henry Cardinal Newman as an influential English voice (Newman was the author of the poem that became the text of Gerontius), and the lessening of anti-Catholic sentiment. The Catholic revival and the resurgence of Anglo-Catholic High Church Anglicanism were in part a reaction against a long standing perception of the Anglican faith as spiritually deficient—a sentiment that came into broad public view already in the 1830s.

Adherence to the Church of England appeared to require none of the terrifying internal discipline required of Protestant sects descended from Calvin—evident even in idiosyncratic nineteenth century incarnations such as Seventh Day Adventists. The Lutheran idea of faith alone and the direct connection between the individual and the divine were tempered. The Anglican faith could easily be seen as an unstable and unsatisfactory compromise. It retained the principle of apostolic succession, the indelibility of ordination, and the centrality of communion—replete in some covert Anglican circles with a residual belief in the miracle of transubstantiation. But yet Anglicanism seemed to lack the mystery and authentic aura of Catholicism, in which the church as an institution and community embodied directly the spirit of Christ, and in which the individual was not abandoned to face God alone, but suffered through life until death as part of a sacred community.

But the Church of England was the official church of the nation with the sovereign at its head. That only underscored the national significance of Anglicanism and its support of British imperial ambitions, which were at their height when Elgar composed The Apostles. Elgar may have been a Catholic but he was a patriot and enthusiast of imperialism first. His choral works were written for the great Anglican choral tradition of amateur choral festivals—a central part of English cultural life in the 19th century and the cause for so much great choral repertoire, from Mendelssohn and Dvořák on. It is therefore not surprising that in both Gerontius and The Apostles an unmistakable triumphalist quasi-imperial grandeur (perhaps suggestive of a national conceit of superiority) is audible, which is perhaps why Elgar’s great choral music has travelled so poorly outside of the British Isles.

At the same time, Elgar’s generation—and indeed Elgar himself—were witness to the overwhelming rise in anti-religious sentiment, particularly among the educated elite of Europe and America. Secularism and skepticism were in the ascendency, fueled by the progress of rationality evident in science and technology. Mendel, Darwin, and Maxwell had revealed the mysteries of nature. The urban landscape, weaponry, transport, and even the modes of musical transmission, all had been transformed by new gadgets and devices, each reflective of the progress of science and reason. A retreat into mysticism and miracles seemed unnecessary. If one adds to this the allure of socialism and communism—utopian ideologies based on reason designed to rid humanity of poverty and inequality—it becomes clear why religion, particularly the Anglican Church and Catholicism, was on the defensive as a superstitious remnant of a pre-democratic and even feudal age.

In an age when the material and rational were triumphant, the aesthetic—art—more and more began to satisfy the need for a quasi-religious experience that was not reducible to cold, utilitarian calculation. Art offered an alternative to the ethos of efficiency and sufficient explanation by evidence and argument. In Elgar’s generation it was Wagner that best exemplified the elevation of art into the status of a modern religion. And there is, in The Apostles, the audible influence of the master of Bayreuth, a temple to art, in which a nasty self-indulgent genius was deified.

This context helps explain why Elgar struggled so much with this project. It explains why he chose to write his own text, which allowed him to foreground the humanity of two characters—Mary Magdalene and Judas—and render them sympathetic. In contrast to Bach’s Passions, The Apostles is quite democratic and down to earth, a retelling, designed for mass amateur choral participation as well as mass listening, of a divine mystery. The awe at the mystery of Christ is the Catholic aspect of the work, but the notion that the key servants of Christ were just ordinary, well-intentioned but unremarkable human beings reveals how attuned Elgar was to his ultimately resolutely Protestant and, with regard to religion, increasingly skeptical public.

Elgar’s The Apostles

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert The Apostles, which was performed on May 12, 2017 at Carnegie Hall.

In the usual narrative of Edward Elgar’s career, the composer sprang overnight from provincial obscurity to international fame with the 1899 premiere of his Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36, now known as the Enigma Variations. Unsurprisingly, the truth is more complicated: Elgar was already becoming well known through a series of acclaimed choral works, such as The Black Knight, Op. 25 (1892), Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf, Op. 30 (1896), and Caractacus, Op. 35 (1898). All of these scores were successful at their first performances, and British choral societies took them up rapidly. Singers delighted in the challenges posed by these scores; both audiences and critics relished Elgar’s brilliant orchestration.

Despite its inadequate rehearsed premiere at the 1900 Birmingham Festival, Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38, assumed an honored place in the British choral repertory by the autumn of 1902, thanks to a carefully prepared German performance at Dusseldorf in May of that year. Even before this important performance of The Dream of Gerontius, the Birmingham Festival had commissioned an extended choral work on a sacred theme from Elgar for their 1903 festival. Elgar proposed as his subject the calling of the apostles. This idea had engaged him since his childhood when a schoolmaster had characterized the apostles as “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.”

Elgar conceived a grandiose design of which The Apostles would be just the first part: a trilogy of oratorios that would span the calling of the Apostles through the founding of the Early Church and conclude with the Last Judgment. The ambitious scope of this project clearly emulated Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Elgar made a pilgrimage to Bayreuth in 1902 seeking inspiration for The Apostles. There he heard the first three music dramas of Der Ring as well as Parsifal, the music of which would exert a discernable influence upon The Apostles. On July 2, 1902, Elgar wrote exuberantly to a friend, “I am now plotting GIGANTIC WORK.”

Elgar decided to follow Wagner’s example and create his own text for the trilogy. Lacking Wagner’s literary expertise, however, he wisely chose to construct his libretto from selected biblical passages. After choosing episodes from the Gospels, Elgar filled in this frame with various Scriptural verses, sometimes wrenching lines from their original context for his own purposes. Unfortunately, he miscalculated the time that it would take to complete such a massive project. Facing deadlines from the Birmingham Festival, Elgar severely truncated his original plan. In the end, only two oratorios of the projected three were completed: The Apostles and its relatively concise successor, The Kingdom. (The final oratorio, provisionally titled The Last Judgment, was never written; Elgar made only a few jottings for it.)

In The Apostles, Elgar places less emphasis on the sufferings of Christ than on the experiences of His followers. Elgar lavished special attention on the two outcasts, Mary Magdalene and Judas. Both characters are assigned extended scenes during which they express their shame and guilt. The Pre-Raphaelite luxuriousness of Mary Magdalene’s music repelled some high-minded critics. E.A. Baughan, for example, carped that the “repentance of Mary Magdalene, which really has nothing to do with the Apostles . . . is an unessential detail.” Elgar’s compassionate treatment of Judas seemed equally puzzling. Elgar was prone to periods of depression and he clearly particularly identified with Judas to some degree. During the composition of The Apostles, he wrote to a friend: “To my mind, Judas’ crime or sin was despair; not only the betrayal, which was done for a worldly purpose.”

The premiere of The Apostles in Birmingham on October 14, 1903, was greeted with acclaim, despite critical reservations about the flamboyance of the orchestration. In spite of the success of The Apostles, Elgar’s enthusiasm for his Wagnerian project had begun to wane by the time he began to compose the second oratorio, The Kingdom. In addition, his excursions into biblical exegesis had caused his Christian faith to waver and his inspiration to falter. For whatever reason, Elgar’s “gigantic work” was destined to remain a vast torso forever incomplete.

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.