The First Apostle (Oratorio)
Oratorio in 3 Parts
- Libretto by the composer, based on ancient sources, and poems by Karen Holman, Mary Carolyn Davies, J. Pittman McGehee and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle).
- Mezzo-soprano, tenor and baritone solos, mixed chorus, treble chorus, chamber orchestra (fl/picc,ob/Eh,cl/b.cl, hp org 1p string quartet, cb), congregation
- Commissioned by Grace Song, Houston, Texas, Keith Weber, Music Director.
- Premiere—2012, by Natalie Arduino, mezzo-soprano; Dann Coakwell, tenor; David Grogan, bass;
the choirs of Christ Church Cathedral, Houston (Robert Simpson, Canon for Music), Keith Weber, conductor.
“The interesting thing about Mary Magdalene….” The professor paused. I was about to hear what I had come for, an elusive truth shared by a member of the Jesus Seminar, the celebrated think-tank devoted to the study of early Christianity. “The interesting thing,” she said, “is that we know so little about her.” That sentence—that lacuna—provides the context for this musical work, as it does for countless other works of the imagination, from the thirteenth-century Golden Legend to Jesus Christ Superstar and The Da Vinci Code. We know so little about her.
The First Apostle began in the mind of Keith Weber, who wrote to me in August 2010 after reading an article in The New Yorker by Joan Acocella which reviewed the more recent scholarship on Mary Magdalene. I was intrigued, and started exploring the literature. I found a fine oratorio by Massenet and many beautiful poems by George Herbert, Rilke, Pasternak, Tsvetayeva and others. But I couldn’t use any of them, based as they were on the assumptions about Mary Magdalene articulated by Pope Gregory in 594: “that the woman Luke called a sinner and John called Mary was the Mary out of whom Mark declared that seven demons were cast.” The Magdalene has long been an passive object and a silent one, certainly not a source of vision.
More recently-unearthed sources, like the Gospel of Mary, discovered in 1886, and especially the texts found at Nag Hammadi in 1945 (the so-called “Gnostic Gospels”) offer a different view: that Mary Magdalene was a favored disciple of Jesus, a visionary, a link in the prophetic tradition. She deserved the epithet apostola apostolorum: the Apostle to the Apostles.
A reference to Mary Magdalene in the medieval hymn “Victimae paschali laudes” offered a musical starting point. Those words—“Dic nobis, Maria, quid vidisti in via?” (Tell us, Mary, what you saw on the way)—and its fourteen-note melody provides much of the material for Part I. The framing perspective of the Illuminator, seated before his manuscript, is delicately sketched by poet Karen Holman. We are then drawn into what is familiar, accepted and agreed upon: Mary Magdalene’s witness to the Resurrection.
Part II of the oratorio begins with the child’s fresh perspective and Mary’s predicament, tellingly expressed in J. Pittman McGehee’s poem “He Vanished” Through Mary’s vision of Christ and the assurance that “Ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus,” the congregation is invited to participate in the revelation.
Part III considers her many representations in art, before discarding them in favor of H.D.’s image of one who “carries a book.” The final plea for vision resolves to a quodlibet, the three hymns—“Victimae,” “Canonbury” and “Slane”—woven together.