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Elgar: The Kingdom

Wednesday 31st July, 2019

Three Spires Singers and Orchestra – Saturday 23rd November 2019 at 7.30pm

The Kingdom by Elgar

The Kingdom was a deeply personal work for Elgar and, along with The Apostles, the bringing to fruition of ideas that had been germinating in his mind since he was at school. 

After he ‘arrived’ with his Enigma Variations in 1899 and had The Dream of Gerontius premiered in 1900, Elgar wished to compose a trilogy of large-scale works about the early Christian church, taking text mainly from the Acts of the Apostles. Part I came into being as The Apostles in 1903, and Part II as The Kingdom in 1906. Sadly Part III never came to pass. 

It is an inescapable fact that many more people know The Dream of Gerontius than know The Kingdom. Naturally, a first instinct is to try and listen to The Kingdom in the same way as Gerontius, perhaps hoping that the same emotional buttons will be pressed. But these are apples and oranges. 

The Kingdom is a very human work exploring how the early followers of Jesus - people of no importance from an unimportant province, as W H Auden described them in The Twelve - comprehended the events they had witnessed, and grappled with how to respond to them. Compare this with the other-worldly journey of Gerontius as he dies and travels in the form of a soul towards his creator, and you will get some sense of why Elgar needed to respond so profoundly differently to the two texts. In The Kingdom, Elgar’s soloists are Mary, Mary Magdalene, John and Peter; you will not find the eschatological philosophising of Gerontius and his angels but real human beings trying to make sense of their calling and discern how to live out their faith in challenging, often hostile circumstances. 

There’s a myth that The Kingdom is not dramatic. In fact, it just has a particular kind of drama, perfectly suited to the narrative. Think of the Pentecost section, where Elgar vividly portrays the sound of rushing wind before tongues of fire appear and the Holy Spirit descends on the disciples. Equally stirring is Peter’s response to that passage - the sheer nobility of the writing is remarkable - and the ecstatic ending to the section where Elgar brings all his forces together and unleashes his full emotional power. For me, it is as overwhelming as the Priest giving the last rites at the end of Part I of Gerontius; it cannot fail to move. 

There are too many other highlights in this 90 minute masterpiece to list, but do hold onto your hat for the Prelude which will take you by the scruff of the neck at the opening of the concert.

We have four outstanding soloists, all of whom have performed with us before: soprano Catherine Hamilton, contralto Sarah Pring, tenor David Webb and bass David Stout. 

Christopher Gray


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