After his international success with the Enigma Variations (1899) and The Dream of Gerontius (1900), Elgar was commissioned by the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival, which had also produced Gerontius, to write a new choral work. This encouraged Elgar to start composing a large-scale work on a subject he had been contemplating, according to the composer, since boyhood when he had even started selecting the words. The Apostles, like its successor The Kingdom, depicts the disciples of Jesus and their reactions to the extraordinary events they witness.
Despite arranging the commission in December 1901, Elgar paid little attention to The Apostles until July 1902, when he had finished composing and rehearsing his Coronation Ode, op. 44. Elgar’s planning of the libretto included a long immersion in theological writings, as well as Wagner’s sketch for “Jesus von Nazareth”, and Henry F. Longfellow’s poem “The Divine Tragedy”. He assembled his libretto from verses of scripture, as had been the pattern for many of the most influential oratorios, including Handel’s Messiah (1741) and Mendelssohn’s Elijah (1836). After many delays, Elgar finally started formal composition of the music in mid-December 1902. Composition of the work in vocal-score format was complete by the end of June 1903, with scoring complete on 17 August.
The Apostles is a narrative work, dealing with the calling of the Apostles and their experiences of Jesus’ preaching, miracles, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. The Kingdom would carry the story onward. Elgar was more interested in human motivations than philosophical underpinnings, and two of the most prominent characters in the work are the two sinners Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot.
Elgar's conception outgrew the confines of a single work: The Kingdom was first conceived as the last part of The Apostles, but later Elgar considered them as the first two parts of a trilogy. In any case, the projected third part, The Last Judgement, never got further than a few sketches which Elgar produced sporadically until 1920.
The German translation and the German premiere were both the work of the conductor Julius Buths.