Edward Elgar's massive oratorio, The Apostles, had a long and complex genesis. Elgar had long been considering what has come to be known as The Apostles Project: a trilogy of oratorios dealing with the history of the Christian Church. The first of these oratorios was to illuminate the lives of the apostles. The second would relate the story of the early church, and the third the events of the apocalypse and the last judgement. Elgar's intent had been to complete the work for the 1900 Birmingham Festival. However, illness forced him to set aside this plan in favor of The Dream of Gerontius. A visit to Beyreuth, where he heard Wagner's Ring Cycle, reinforced Elgar's determination to write his own trilogy, and in 1903, Elgar finally set pen to paper. However, it wasn't long before the enormity of such a monumental trilogy caused Elgar to condense his conception into one large-scale oratorio. The new conception of The Apostles was designed to highlight three contrasting episodes among the apostles and their followers. The first example was to be drawn from the life of Judas, the apostle who lacked faith. The second was to deal with a doubter converted, the obvious choice for which was Mary Magdalene. The final portion was to deal with an apostle whose faith remained consistently strong: Peter. However, the Peter portion in The Apostles was eventually excluded with the intention that it would become a separate work at a later time. It is this material that, three years later, became The Kingdom.
Elgar decided to excerpt his libretto directly from the Bible, arranging the text as he composed the music. This close proximity of the creation of the word to the creation of the music allowed Elgar to achieve a powerful mix where the meaning of the text is closely wed to the meaning of the musical line.
Scored for soprano, contralto and three bass soloists with chorus and orchestra, the work is arranged in two sections--part one containing the prologue and a section dealing with the calling of the apostles before presenting the Mary Magdalene story, and part two dealing with Judas' betrayal of Jesus and the ascension. The Mary Magdalene section is divided into two sections; the first of which shows Mary watching from afar as Peter attempts to walk over the water and Christ calms the storm, the second showing Mary as she makes her journey to Christ so that she can obtain forgiveness by washing his feet with her tears. The familiar story of Judas' betrayal is given a powerful psychological element in that Elgar's Judas was not malicious toward Christ, but wanted to place him in a situation where he would be forced to reveal himself in Glory to the masses. With the gradual realization of the true impact of his actions, heightened by the presence of the singers from the temple singing the psalm "O Lord God, to whom vengeance belongeth,... render a reward to the proud" Judas reconciles himself to suicide.
The Apostles ranks among the best of Elgar's works. It received its premier on 14 October 1903 at the Birmingham Triennial Festival under the direction of the composer. An indication of the pride with which Elgar viewed his creation can be found in the manuscript full score, from which he conducted the premier. The title page bears the signatures of the soloists as well as the officials who where present at the premier, among them Hans Richter. The last pages were reserved for the signatures of those who comprised the chorus and orchestra.