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A thrilling performance

Canterbury Choral Society's 'The Apostles'


Canterbury Choral Society is one of those substantial choruses in Britain that can tackle the biggest works in the repertory with absolute confidence. Dvorak's Stabat Mater, Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, Mussorgsky's brazen choruses, Brahms's Requiem (which will feature in their Canterbury Cathedral concert on 12 March 2005), Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius: from Canterbury Choral Society under Richard Cooke you can count on a performance as good as -- if not better than -- the Three Choirs Festival.

It was Elgar's next major choral work which brought alive Canterbury Choral Society's most recent concert. This was The Apostles, the first of Elgar's planned trilogy that continued with The Kingdom and should have culminated with The Last Judgment -- except that Elgar found the composition hard going, was by then more involved with symphonic writing, and gradually lost interest. Some of the themes he reserved for the much later Third Symphony, which never got beyond the sketches.

Elgar wrote The Apostles in the wake of the death of his mother (a committed Catholic) in 1902, and of Gerontius's growing success at home and abroad.

Canterbury Cathedral. Photo © Keith Bramich
Canterbury Cathedral. Photo © Keith Bramich

Although at the first performance, in Birmingham on 14 October 1903, they had to turn hundreds of people away without tickets, up until the 1970s, when Peter Dennison -- an Australian -- performed it in Glasgow and Cambridge, The Apostles (like Elgar's 1990s choral works) became virtually neglected in favour of the more popular Gerontius and occasionally revived Kingdom.

In the search for a text, Elgar lit upon his mother's favourite poet, Longfellow. As the Elgar scholar Jerrold Northrop Moore pointed out in his superb little book Elgar, Child of Dreams (Faber and Faber, 2004) and in his substantial Edward Elgar: A Creative Life (Oxford University Press, now available in paperback), both the oratorio's overall shape and the prominence given to Mary Magdalene (here, Louise Poole) owe something to Longfellow's poem The Divine Tragedy. By adding the Magdalen as a contralto, Elgar acquired an important additional female role.

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Copyright © 3 March 2005 Rosie and Nick Evelegh, Kent UK


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