Richard Wagner The Holy Supper of the Apostles



Panoramic picture of Dresden, 1824. In the centre, from a bird’s eye perspective, is the domed roof of the Frauenkirche.
Coloured etching by Carl August Richter (1770-1848)


Richard Wagner – the royal kapellmeister of Dresden


Richard Wagner, shortly before he took up the post of court kapellmeister in Dresden.
Drawing by Ernst Benedikt Kietz, Paris 1840/1842

Richard Wagner too had to wait long for his decisive breakthrough, even though he gained renown at a much earlier age than his admirer Anton Bruckner.
Following the laborious years as kapellmeister in Würzburg, Magdeburg, Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) and Riga and his subsequent “years
of famine” in Paris, he achieved his breakthrough as an operatic composer when, quite to his surprise, his great heroic opera Rienzi was accepted by the Dresden Court Theatre and premiered on October 20, 1842.

Also written in Paris, The Flying Dutchman in its turn was soon premiered in Dresden and on February 2, 1843, one of Wagner’s lifelong dreams was fulfilled: not yet 30 years of age, he was appointed kapellmeister to the royal court of Saxony (his first and only office at a court music establishment); having been relieved of his financial worries, he immediately returned to his home city.

Born in Leipzig on May 22, 1813, Wagner grew up in Dresden from 1814 onwards after his mother married the Dresden court actor Ludwig Geyer.
In Dresden he attended the Kreuzkirche school and, when he was confirmed there, the taking of the bread and wine is said to have triggered an unforgettable “whirl of emotions” within him.
It was during these years that he first came into contact with the theatre; the court kapellmeister Carl Maria von Weber, for instance, was a frequent guest to the household of Wagner’s stepfather.



The first Royal Court Theatre, built by Gottfried Semper between 1838 and 1841, was opened on April 12 with performances of Carl Maria von Weber’s “Jubilee Overture” and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Torquato Tasso.
Semper’s circular building was acknowledged to be the “loveliest theatre in the world”.
Richard Wagner worked there from 1843 to 1849 as Royal Saxon kapellmeister, premiering his operas Rienzi (1842), The Flying Dutchman (1843) and Tannhäuser (1845) during that time.


“I do not wish to be a kaiser or a king, but just to stand there and conduct” – the nine-year-old Wagner is said to have exclaimed these words after a performance under Weber’s direction.
This wish was fulfilled some 20 years later and during the six years of his own tenure as kapellmeister in Dresden Wagner not only had a profound impact on the music establishment but also paved the way for his own artistic development.
In Dresden he composed Tannhäuser and Lohengrin; it was there that he developed his ideas for a fundamental reform of the theatre, and he studied the material for all his later works, as is evident from his library in Dresden, which has been preserved to this day.
Wagner campaigned for Weber’s remains to be transferred from London to Dresden; he helped ensure the lasting success of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which was still a disputed work at the time; he wrote various publications on art theory
including Die Königliche Kapelle betreffend (regarding the royal orchestra) in which, among other demands, he called for a designated concert hall for his orchestra; he kept up contact with Robert Schumann and Gottfried Semper – and, having always been intrigued by the idea of revolution, he took part in the May uprising of 1849 in Dresden, the failure of which marked the end of his time in the city.
After a warrant was issued for his arrest, Wagner fled to safety in Switzerland. He was later saved in his “hour of need” by King Ludwig II of Bavaria and eventually fulfilled his ultimate dream by launching the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876 …

Wagner rarely returned to Dresden, mainly because his ban was not fully lifted until 1862.
Later, however, he would look back fondly on his time in Dresden, particularly his career-defining experiences in collaboration with the court orchestra, which he is said to have called his “miraculous harp”:
“There would be no Lohengrin score without the shimmer of the Dresden violins; there would be no later works without the memories of the touching cantilenas in the woodwind and the resonant splendour of the brass.”



SLIDESHOW: Richard Wagner’s handwritten score «Das Liebesmahls der Apostel».
The 31-page manuscript, which for many years was in private ownership, was purchased in 1996 by the Saxon State Library in Dresden.


„The Holy Supper of the Apostles“

In 1843, not long after his appointment as court kapellmeister, Wagner took charge of the Dresden Liedertafel, at the time the city’s leading male choral society, for a two-year term. While this move may seem surprising, it actually strengthened Wagner’s standing as an eminent composer at a time when male choral music was cherished as an expression of patriotic sentiment. Robert Schumann followed suit in taking over the reins of the Dresden Liedertafel in 1847, while Anton Bruckner was heading the Liedertafel in Linz, Frohsinn, from 1856 until 1868. In connection with this secondary engagement in Dresden Wagner wrote various choral compositions, the most significant and surely the most unorthodox of which is Das Liebesmahl der Apostel.

This work was written for the second General Male Choral Festival in Dresden, an event co-hosted by the Liedertafel in July 1843 and attended by male choirs from all over Saxony.


The Dresden Frauenkirche as it was, c. 1900

The highlight of the festival was without doubt the premiere of the
Liebesmahl to round off the opening concert, which on July 6, 1843, was given in the Frauenkirche before the royal family and the court of Saxony.

Wagner reported on the event in a letter to his sister Cecilie:

“… the festival was great in the true sense of the word, particularly the performance in the Frauenkirche … Picture to yourself a choir of 1200 men, all perfectly rehearsed, on a platform occupying almost the entire nave of the church and behind them an orchestra of 100 instruments, and you can imagine the effect it had! There has never been anything like it in any other church … my composition entitled Das Liebesmahl der Apostel contained a genuine out- pouring of the Holy Spirit and was thoroughly enthralling.”

Wagner based the work on the events of Pentecost recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and, as always, wrote his own text before staging the entire work to full effect:
the immense male chorus, divided into three groups, was positioned on a great platform in the nave together with the apostles (twelve powerful basses); a further chorus was placed above in the great cupola of the Frauenkirche, while the augmented court orchestra sat behind the platform in the chancel, virtually out of sight of the audience.
In the subheading Wagner called his work a “biblical scene”, with emphasis certainly due on the word “scene”:
the work gives the impression of an awesome opera finale written only for male voices in a church, the architectonics of which are part of the composition.

From a musicological perspective the work comprises two main sections: a first, long section is sung by the vocalists on their own (a cappella).
The second section, which portrays the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, introduces the orchestra and brings the work to a resounding close in a massed tutti. Both sections can in turn be split into three sub-sections, thus giving the full work a six-part structure:

1. The disciples gather for supper and reflect on the fears and hostility they face in spreading the gospel.
This dialogue is framed by a simple Eucharistic chorale
(“Ye who hunger, ye who thirst, come hither”).

2. The twelve apostles join in and warn of hatred and increased persecution.
The disciples react by offering a prayer and pleading for the succour of the Holy Spirit.

3. From the cupola the “voices from above” promise the succour of the Holy Spirit, after which

4. there is a mighty roar that leaves the disciples in astonishment and joyous anticipation.
This vision is depicted through the use of the orchestra – a dramaturgical idea of breathtaking effect. “Having literally been left to their own devices, the voices are now borne by the sound of the orchestra as if by the Holy Spirit itself”, were the words of Egon Voss in the programme notes to the special Wagner concert given by the Staatskapelle in 2013.

5. The apostles once again affirm their missionary mandate and urge the disciples to unite.
The disciples enthusiastically agree and profess

6. their willingness to proclaim the gospel even in the most adverse circumstances (“to every nation will we preach”), drawing on the doxology from the Lord’s Prayer to reaffirm this commitment. Wagner made this section into an enthralling finale with a double stretta.




The Frauenkirche is crowned by a circular dome with a stone lantern. This dome is distinctive on many counts. Built totally of sandstone, it weighs in at more than 12,000 t. It is said to be the largest stone dome north of the Alps thanks to its height of 24 m and diameter of 26 m. The dome’s shape is also unique with the curved base giving it a bell-like look, which is why the Frauenkirche was also nicknamed the ‘Stone Bell’.
On top of the dome you find the so-called “lantern” to which all visitors climb up to who want to enjoy the spectacular views from the viewing platform. Because of the open structure they can look into all four cardinal directions.
Even further up is the lantern cover on top of which the new tower cross found its place. Donated in the spirit of reconciliation by the British people calls this replica of the old tower cross still displayed in the nave for peace. The inner dome arches centrally above the nave to give this part of the church an artistic ceiling-type feature. The figures in Bähr’s church were painted by the Italian theatre painter Johann Baptist Grone. The four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and allegories of the Christian virtues of belief, love, hope and mercy with their associated symbols are depicted in the vivid style typical of baroque painting.
© Photo: Matthias Creutziger



Richard Wagner: Liebsmahl der Apostel
Teil 4: Die “Stimmen aus der Höhe” von der Kuppel der Frauenkirche
Herren des Dresdner Kammerchores


The composer must have been very pleased with the result, most notably the voices emanating from the cupola.
Over three decades later, during the 1870s, Wagner used this effect once again in the grail scene of his final opera, Parsifal. Although the Grail Hall in this work was, by Wagner’s own admission, based on the interior of Siena Cathedral, the Dresden Frauenkirche no doubt emulated the same vision.

Egon Voss commented in the aforementioned essay that “due to the detachment of the stage from the audience area of a theatre, the ‘voices from above’ in Das Liebesmahl der Apostel are not nearly so impressive when heard in a theatre as when heard in the Frauenkirche, where the sound really did come directly ‘from above’.”

After the premiere the royal court orchestra, later to become the Staatskapelle, performed the Liebesmahl, which appeared
in print as early as 1844 and found wide circulation, four more times in the original Frauenkirche, with the final performance taking place in 1913 under the direction of Ernst von Schuch to mark the centenary of Wagner’s birth.
Further performances were given at the Dresden Gewerbehaus and the exhibition centre on Stübelplatz (both destroyed during the Second World War) and subsequently – in the absence of a suitable concert hall – in the Dresden Palace of Culture in 1983.

The Liebesmahl is nowadays hardly ever performed by the Staatskapelle, or by any other ensemble for that matter.
Yet, the effect of the “biblical scene” remains awesome – as was impressively demonstrated in 2008 during the first performance in the restored Frauenkirche, conducted by Marc Minkowski.

Five years later, on May 18, 2013, Christian Thielemann conducted the work at the same venue during a special concert marking the second centenary of Wagner’s birth.
His inaugural season thus reached a further apogee even though the massed choir on that occasion was far smaller than the one that premiered the work in the original Frauenkirche (but still comprised around 200 members out of a total of seven choirs based in Dresden, Brno, Prague and Leipzig).
Thielemann vividly remembers this performance and acknowledges how important the Frauenkirche is to the work:
“This venue is really the only place where the work can be conducted – it belongs in the Dresden Frauenkirche and is intrinsically linked to the building’s wonderful architec- ture. I am pleased and grateful that, in the year of Wagner’s second centenary, we had such a fitting opportunity to perform this work.”

Tobias Niederschlag




Authentic sound design:
Christian Thielemann conducting Wagner’s Das Liebesmahl der Apostel in the Frauenkirche (May 18, 2013)



The Holy Supper of the Apostles

A biblical scene WWV 69
Verse: Richard Wagner
(Set with a number of variations to the German text)



First page of Wagner’s own handwritten score of Das Liebesmahl der Apostel.
The manuscript is kept by the Saxon State Library in the State and University Library in Dresden.

Full chorus of the disciples
Be greeted, Brethren, in the name of the Lord,
who hath gathered us together for the meal
that we his memory may cherish,

who went from us –
whom every heart bewails.
Ye who hunger, ye who thirst, come hither;
to strengthen you

he offered up his flesh and blood.
Why should we quail and languish,
when heavenly nurture so refresheth us?

First, second and third chorus of the disciples:

Second chorus of the disciples
We are oppressed,
the hatred of the mighty threateneth.
Heavy with storm,

a leaden cloud is low’ring o’er us.
We who today have gathered here,
who knoweth where tomorrow
we shall pine in mournful parting?

Third chorus of disciples
O pluck up heart!
is the number of the faithful and believers not increasing daily?

Second chorus of the disciples
The more of us, the more we rouse the hatred of the envious!
If unity can make us strong, so can it be our ruin.

Third chorus of the disciples
And should we part? –
go wanting of the solace, after each day’s toil,
to be at Supper but one heart, one soul?

Second chorus of the disciples
Let each man bear the Saviour in his heart;
then, what though scattered, shall we be one flock.
Truly the times press hard on us!
The spies of the mighty follow us everywhere!

First chorus of the disciples
Ye who hunger, ye who thirst, come hither;
to strengthen you he offered up his flesh and blood.
Why should we quail and languish,
when heavenly nurture so refresheth us?

The apostles
Our greetings to you, loved Brethren!
Are ye assembled in the name of Jesus Christ?

Full chorus of the disciples
We are assembled in the name of Jesus Christ!

The apostles
Blessed be all assembled in the name of Jesus Christ!

Chorus of the disciples
Praise his name!
For you have we tarried in fear and trembling.

The apostles
Ye men, dear Brothers,
be ye one in heart and faith,
for persecution lifteth up its head;
at hand are all the sufferings ye must bear for the sake of his high name.

Chorus of the disciples
Say, what new danger hath befallen you?

The apostles
As we were teaching in the Temple, and working miracles through belief in the Lord,
we woke the envy of our foes – as ne’er before.
When we had sore confounded them, and charged them with the evil deed they wrought on Mary’s son –
their wrath flamed up,
and with fierce threats they bade us never more to teach or even converse in the name of Jesus of Nazareth,
on penalty of death!

Chorus of the disciples
On penalty of death!

Chorus [prayer]
Almighty Father, thou who madest the Heaven and the Earth and all therein!
Thou promisedst to shield us by sending your dear Son down to us;
now look thou down upon the threats wherewith they terrify thy people!
Send us thy holy Spirit, that we may preach thy word with gladness.

Voice from above
Be comforted, for I am near you and my Spirit is with you.
Go hence and joyfully proclaim the Word that never to eternity shall pass away.


The orchestra’s first entry in Das Liebesmahl der Apostel:
With a tremolo on the kettle drums and lowregister strings the orchestra, until this point silent, enters into the action, followed by the reaction of the disciples to what has happened (last bar on this page: “What rushing filleth all the air!”).
The 31-page manuscript, which for many years was in private ownership, was purchased in 1996 by the Saxon State Library in Dresden.

Chorus of the disciples
What rushing filleth all the air!
What sounds!
What voices!
And stirreth not the very ground whereon we stand?
Be greeted by us, Spirit of the Lord;
we beseech thee, holy Spirit!
thy breath we feel around our heads,
and mightily thou fillest all our souls.

The apostles
Ye of faint heart,
give ear to what the Spirit biddeth us proclaim!
Let men accuse you, let them accuse you!
With the Word shall ye vanquish them. Hark!
Ye who but now would part in cowardice,
go scatter ye to take each man his path with heart of victory!
Is then Jerusalem the world?
Look round you!
Lo the peoples above measure who await the tidings of the Word!
Lo the proud mistress of the world!
Lo Rome!
There shall the Word have power to prevail throughout the world!

Chorus of the disciples
So be it! God’s will be done!

The apostles
Unite where’er ye meet;
in common be your goods!
Be glad and joyful,
and witness to all the world of the Saviour’s wonder-works!

Chorus of the disciples
Who taught to us the Word, the powerful,
now giveth us the courage joyfully and of good cheer to publish it to all the world,
ready are we to journey forth to the
whole world, to brave all want and ignominy!
To every nation will we preach,

that so the praises of the Lord may sound in every tongue;
thus willeth God,
who offered up his Son for us,
who sent to us his holy Spirit!
For to him is the power and the glory for ever and ever.



“View of Dresden at Full Moon”
Oil painting by Johann Christian Clausen Dahl, 1839


On the premiere of the „Liebesmahl“ (1843)

«… As the month ended, the days of the choral festival drew near, as did the end of Wagner’s first busy six months in his new office.
From all directions the enthusiastic choirs from the upper and lower Elbe, Lusatia, the Ore Mountains and the valleys of the Mulde flocked to the Saxon capital with flying colours and in good voice.
After the rehearsals the festival began in the afternoon of July 6 with a performance of sacred music in a place that was wholly fit for purpose: the Frauenkirche.
The programme concluded with Das Liebesmahl der Apostel.
A choir of 1200 men on a platform occupying almost the entire nave; behind them (out of sight) an orchestra of 100 instruments – there has never been anything like it in Dresden or anywhere else in Germany.
The greater the massed choir, the more inevitable it is that the pitch will gradually drop.
During the rehearsals he had therefore taken the precautionary measure of having two harps intermittently restate the key after certain sections of the composition and he continued to apply this measure during the performance too.
In order to elevate the dramatic illusion of the scene to a first-hand, spiritual experience for the listener, he had the divine covenants (“Voices from Above”)
“Be comforted, for I am near you and my Spirit is with you” sung by a male chorus of around forty selected singers in the lofty cupola of the dome, a daring stroke of genius that was further enhanced by the sudden entry of the concealed orchestra upon the disciples’ words:
“What rushing filleth all the air! What sounds! What voices!”
After the performance, whenever the young master showed his face among the host of singers who had flocked from every part of the land, he was greeted with rousing cries of ‘Vivat!’ and ‘Hurrah!’ and the jubilation had no end. …»

From: Carl Friedrich Glasenapp,
The life of Richard Wagner, volume 2 (1910)



Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony
Wagner’s “The Holy Supper of the Apostles”
PDF  Programme notes to Staatskapelle Dresden Wagner’s Birthday Concert
Content  CD-Box Vol. 38

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