Elgar based his oratorio The Dream of Gerontius on Cardinal Newman’s visionary poem, written in 1865, which depicts a man’s death and his journey into the next world. Since its first performance in 1900, The Dream of Gerontius has become one of the best-loved and most frequently performed of all Elgar’s works.
The oratorio begins as Gerontius lies on his deathbed, surrounded by his friends and sent forth on his journey by the priest. The second half follows his Soul’s progress in the afterlife, supported by a guardian angel and encountering demons and angelic beings before coming to Judgment and Purgatory.
Elgar’s unique vocal style for the tenor role of Gerontius allows the music to shape itself to the words in a natural and expressive way and the subtle interweaving of the large symphony orchestra with the voices represents a clear break from the traditions of Victorian English choral writing. The whole work is imbued with a passionate intensity of feeling and inspiration: ‘It is music of the heart, and appeals to the heart,…’ as one critic wrote after the first performance. Indeed Elgar himself felt that he had ‘written his own heart’s blood’ into the score. At the end he added a quotation from Ruskin, ‘This is the best of me;…this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.’