Score study for a big work like The Apostles often leads me down research rabbit holes, and I end up in unexpected places.
My workstation, as you see from the photo, includes the full score, the vocal score, Jaeger’s analysis, ‘Letters to Nimrod’ ed. Percy M. Young, the Holy Bible, and coffee. Google, YouTube and iTunes are also frequently consulted.
My goal today was to study Elgar’s system of leitmotifs, which he uses to unify The Apostles but those serendipitous bunny tunnels lead from one discovery to the next, and I learned a bunch of cool stuff instead.
Our performance of The Apostles will be the first in Canada. Today I learned the Canadian connection has been there from the beginning. The 1903 premiere of Apostles, performed under the composer’s direction in Birmingham Town Hall, featured a super star soprano soloist – none other than the celebrated Emma Albani.
She was the first Canadian-born singer to have a really big international career. She was born in Chambly, Quebec, studied in Italy, and made her Covent Garden debut at the tender age of 24. She sang opera all over Europe – even Wagnerian roles. When she sang The Apostles premiere, aged 56, she had pretty much abandoned opera, and was singing oratorio along the English festival circuit.
Elgar was very proud of Apostles and called it ‘the best bit of music I’ve wrote up to the present.’ While working on Apostles his letters to ‘Nimrod’ (his German-born editor, August Jaeger) are hilarious -almost ecstatic- but he inevitably returns to pessimism about the state of the world. Sickness, disappointment in human weakness, and dread of the future return to the pages. The turn of that century must have truly felt like the ‘end of an era’ to him. He viewed the ancient story of the Apostles as a very modern moral tale for his time:
“ the lesson … is needed more at the present day than at any other time. Avarice and unbridled ambition, leading to atheism and despair, sometimes ending in self-destruction, may be found too often in this meeting time of the centuries.”
Not all was doom and gloom. In Elgar’s cheeky letters to his trusted colleague he confides, complains, rejoices, and regularly enthuses about Royal Sunbeam bicycles. He rarely begins his letters with ‘My dear Jaeger’ but addresses his German friend alternatively as Moss, Mosshead, Shylock(Sherlock), Dearie Jag, Jaguar, Jaggernaut, Jaggs, Jagpot and ‘dear old Skittles.’ Elgar signs himself Eddar, Edwd, Edward the Crude,and ‘yours ever, Edward the Elder, King of the Saxons.’ A wonderful, warm relationship unfolds in these letters. I am sure Elgar could not have been the success he was (is) without Jaeger’s diplomatic, coaxing artistic guidance. With sadness I read that Jaeger was too ill to attend the premiere of Apostles, and died in London only a few years later in 1909. Mercifully he never witnessed the unimaginable rift between England and Germany that turned kindred spirits into mortal enemies within 5 years.
When Elgar finally finished the full orchestral score at his house in Malvern, just in the nick of time in August 1903, he scribbled three lines of a poem by William Morris, summing up his fondest wish for a troubled world.
‘To what a heaven the earth might grow
If fear beneath the earth were laid,
If hope failed not, nor love decayed.’