Carson Cooman’s oratorio The Acts of the Apostles; Harvard University Choir with orchestra. Free and open to the public.
The Acts of the Apostles (2009), an oratorio for baritone, chorus, congregation/audience, and chamber orchestra, was commissioned by The Memorial Church of Harvard University. It is dedicated to Edward Elwyn Jones and the Harvard University Choir.
The biblical books of Luke and Acts form a pair of documents from a single author and with a single audience (the likely-metaphorical “Theophilus”), yet they are unusual for being composed in such contrasting genres. Luke’s gospel, using Mark as a primary source throughout, features a comparable literary style to that of the other evangelists. Acts, by contrast, is a historical monograph that charts the birth of the Church with dramatic stories about—and speeches from—the apostles, painting a vivid, if not necessarily chronological, picture of their victories and struggles. As such, it is a book that provides excellent source material for a dramatic choral libretto of this scale.
Acts composer Carson Cooman ’04 and conductor Edward E. Jones talk about the oratorio “Acts of the Apostles,” to be performed in Harvard's Memorial Church, March 3, 2019. Video by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.
Although much of Acts is focused on the ministry of Saul/Paul, this oratorio draws most of its material from the first third of the book, prior to and including the conversion of Saul. In the Prologue, Christ’s ascension is narrated and—following an orchestral Sinfonia—the chorus sings words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Plain in Luke’s gospel that foreshadow many of the trials the apostles go on to face. The astounding account of Pentecost follows: here, words from the book of Ruth, customarily read on the feast of Shavuot (Pentecost), are included, telling the story of a Moabite woman who converted to the Israelite faith—a parallel to the expansion of the Christian message to all nations by the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Prayer for Boldness, quoting Psalm 2, asks God for protection from the threats of persecution that the apostles will now face.
Stephen, regarded as the proto-martyr of the Christian Church, offers one of the most developed speeches in Acts, only a small portion of which is presented here. Full of scriptural references, including the quotation from Isaiah “Heaven is my throne…”, the end of the narrative is remarkable for two reasons: firstly, Stephen’s final words mirror those of Christ on the cross in Luke’s gospel—where Jesus forgives his executioners and prays “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46); secondly, Saul is specifically mentioned as one who approved of Stephen’s stoning, indicative of the redemptive possibilities of the Christian message.
The account of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch here in the oratorio ends with the First Song of Isaiah—while not quoted in Acts, it seems a fitting conclusion to the scene as Philip and the eunuch were reading Isaiah together, and the canticle has often been associated by Christians with the rite of baptism. Similarly, the story of Saul’s Conversion is followed here by a Christological poem found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, though it is likely a quotation from an earlier source. It is often regarded as the earliest extant Christian hymn.
The Acts of the Apostles concludes with Luke’s realistic assessment that in spite of Paul’s energetic evangelism many remained unconvinced by the Christian message. At the heart of both Luke’s gospel and Acts is the tension between the uniquely important role of the Jewish traditions that Jesus himself practiced and the expansion of the gospel to gentiles, of whom Luke himself is one. It is appropriate, therefore, to follow Paul’s message of salvation to the gentiles with the Magnificat: a canticle that emphasizes the promises of God to the people of Israel throughout history.
Three traditional hymn texts are found in the oratorio, each set congregationally to a pre-existing tune. The first, “Spirit of mercy, truth, and love” is an eighteenth century poem that extols the evangelistic implications of the Pentecost event. “O Jesus, I have promised” was written by the author for the Confirmation service of his children; its themes of Christian commitment are reflected in the ultimate sacrifice of Stephen’s martyrdom. The final hymn of the oratorio, “My soul, awake and render”—a translation of a German chorale—offers another perspective on discipleship: one of prayer, thanksgiving, and divine compassion.
— Notes by Matthew F. Burt