(Opus 38)

For Tenor, Mezzo Soprano, Bass, Chorus, Semi-chorus and Orchestra 

from the poem by Cardinal Newman

The Poet

John Henry Newman, the celebrated Catholic convert and Cardinal, wrote his poem ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ in 1865, “… I really cannot tell how… ”. It is about a man’s death and his soul’s journey through the afterlife. He wrote in the belief that “men are not as good as they should be but better than they might be.” This exploration of such weighty theological issues as the nature of God, of death, of angelic and demonic existence, Divine Judgment and purgatory is in the form not of a detached or sermonising tract but of a dramatic telling of an old man experiencing all the thoughts and emotions surrounding his death and passing.

Abandoning his usual Protestant antagonism, Charles Kingsley commented “I read the Dream with awe and admiration … the central idea is as true as it is noble … the longing of
the soul to behold Deity, converted, by the mere act of sight, into a self-abasement so utter that the soul is ready, even glad to be hurled back to any depth, to endure any
pain, from the moment it becomes aware of God’s actual perfection and its own utter
impurity and meanness. 

Newman’s words found their way into ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’ (Praise to the Holiest) and the poem inspired many, including General Gordon who made notes in the margins of his
copy before his final battle at Khartoum in 1882. Seven years later, this very copy passed into the hands of a couple marrying – much against the will of the bride’s family – at Brompton Oratory: Caroline Alice Roberts and her piano teacher, the little-known composer Edward Elgar.

The Composer

Like Newman, Elgar was a Catholic in a staunchly Protestant era, struggling with his own inner demons and aspirations. The image of Elgar as some stiff, moustachioed upholder of Empire is very far from the man – particularly at this stage when he was still struggling for recognition. Contemporary sources point to his high sensitivity and bouts of moody fatalism, so perhaps it is not surprising that he was strongly drawn to Newman’s poem: “I have been soaking my mind (with this poem) for at least eight years, while I have been gradually assimilating the work of the author in my own musical promptings.” His chance to set Gerontius to music came at the age of forty-two with a commission for the 1900 Birmingham Triennial Festival. It had been offered to Dvorak a few years earlier but declined. The name ‘Gerontius’ derives from the Greek ‘geron’ or ‘old man’ but also represents ‘every man’, which appealed greatly to Elgar: “I imagine Gerontius to be a man like us …not a priest or a saint but a sinner … a worldly man in his life and now brought to book … therefore I have not filled his part with Church tunes but a good, healthy, full-blooded, romantic, remembered worldliness.”

Elgar’s editor and friend August Jaeger (portrayed as Nimrod in Elgar’s best known work Enigma Variations), was demanding and critical of early drafts, to a point where Elgar protested that he felt “persecuted.” He insisted that the composer push himself further to achieve some of the most impactful moments of the work. The conflict was worth it. Jaeger marvelled at the technical and musical brilliance of the finished piece. “It is wonderful. I have not seen or heard anything since Parsifal that has stirred me with the trumpet tongue of genius as has your latest and by far greatest work.” His reference to Wagner’s Parsifal was by no means co-incidental. Elgar was largely self-taught and studied avidly, therefore, the Great Composers of the time, who were predominantly German. He visited Bayreuth as much as he could and admired Wagner’s ‘modern’ and ‘difficult’ music dramas. Elgar refused to allow Gerontius to be labelled as an Oratorio; rather, it is a Concert Music Drama, and although the work is entirely Elgar’s own voice, it owes much to Wagner’s style of symphonic scale, chromatic unfolding of melody and use of leitmotifs (musical themes). 

The First Performance

The Dream of Gerontius followed hard on the heels of Enigma Variations, Elgar’s first major success. However, the fate of its premiere did not bode well for its future. Inadequate rehearsal, lacklustre soloists, an overworked chorus and the sudden death of their choirmaster, along with little sympathy for a Catholic text or experience of such demanding writing, saw to it that the performance was deemed an outright failure that led a furious Elgar to comment, “I have worked for forty years and, at the end, Providence denies me a decent hearing of my work.” 

Fortunately, its rightful place was established with a highly successful German premiere in Düsseldorf in 1901 and Gerontius has since become a much loved triumph of the
English choral repertoire.

The Work: 

Part One

In the orchestral prelude, Elgar introduces us to a series of interwoven motifs which represent the poem’s main themes. They were named by Jaeger and appear in the following sequence: Judgment (simply set out here as hushed strings but developed throughout the work); Fear (jagged and angular uneasiness) alternating with Prayer (steady and reverent woodwind chords); Sleep (a fitful 3/4 lullaby-like theme); Miserere (a theme of descending notes, an impassioned plea for mercy); awe-striking chords with a melody that rises but always falls back – Despair – resolving into a passage reminiscent of a ticking clock; Committal (the theme for the Priest’s ‘Go forth in the name of Angels and Archangels’); finally, a return of the Judgment motif as the music ebbs and we draw nearer to hear Gerontius’ first utterance.

The prelude has led us seamlessly to the bedside of a dying man intoning Jesu, Maria, at once fearful and hopeful. His friends (Newman calls them Assistants) gather about him to join in his prayers for mercy and grace. Elgar urged the original choir to sing not in a “churchy” style but with “tears in their voice”. Gerontius declares his faith, Sanctus Fortis, but also his deepest apprehension, That sense of ruin which is worse than pain, before approaching the threshold of death itself: And I fain would sleep, the pain has wearied me

As Gerontius leaves this world, the Priest commands Go forth upon thy journey Christian soul. This litany is taken up by his friends, the music conveying the enormity and solemnity of this moment and the courage required. 

Part Two

The orchestra’s woodwind and strings show us, in calm and almost directionless music, a timeless landscape of the afterlife where Gerontius’ Soul is in a state of pensive wonder:
I went to sleep and now I am refreshed. He thinks he is alone but becomes aware that he is moving as if borne in the hands of another and drawn forward by music – O what a heart subduing melody. A Guardian Angel greets him, All hail my child and brother. Gerontius eagerly responds, expecting to be led directly to God. In contrast to the 4/4 common time of Part 1, much of Part 2 is written in waltz-like triple time, conveying the “inexpressive lightness” of Gerontius’ Soul. The Angel seems reassuring – Gerontius has led a life fearful of judgment and therefore deserving of mercy. He declares I can forward look with serenest joy.

This reverie is rudely interrupted – But hark upon my sense comes a fierce hubbub. They encounter demons waiting to drag souls down to hell. The music here, with its roots in the Fear theme, is restless, primitive and dissonant (highly challenging for an audience of the 1900s), conveying the seething, scorn and vehemence of the demons who assemble there, hungry and wild to claim their property… having themselves been dispossessed, aside thrust, chucked down. Elgar was later to use some of this music, fittingly, in a song cycle about the Great War.

The demons’ taunting fades and, restored to calm, Gerontius resumes his wish to see his Lord. The Angel and orchestral undertow warn him that this is no simple request – That sight of the Most Fair will gladden thee but it will pierce thee too and tells of another soul’s experience (that of St. Francis), as they approach the Chamber of Judgment. Their entrance is greeted by trombones and angelic beings singing Praise to the Holiest. Gerontius surrenders – My soul is in my hand; I have no fear. Elgar’s musical vision of this scene ebbs, flows and builds with layer upon layer of melodic themes to an urgent, impassioned and almost frenzied ecstasy of worship. The final chord – “the Great Blaze” as Elgar referred to it – is in C major, a key associated with a Wagnerian sense of purity and new beginnings. This could be the triumphant end of the journey. But the actual Judgment and encounter with God are yet to come… 

Gerontius hears the distant prayers of those still gathered around his deathbed as he is ushered before the Angel of the Agony who reminds him vividly and viscerally of the suffering of Christ – Jesu! By that shuddering dread which fell on Thee and who pleads on behalf of the waiting souls. We hear the apprehensive advance of Gerontius as he enters the Chamber but Elgar stressed that we remain at the door: “none of the action takes place in the presence of God; I would not have tried that, neither did Newman … we stand outside.” This culminates in a loud, shattering and reverberant chord from the orchestra marked in the score as fffz the loudest each instrument can summon. Gerontius has looked into the Face of God. This brief moment is enough for him instantly to perceive his Soul’s impure and unready state. He declares Take me away. Other souls intone Lord thou hast been our refuge in every generation and Gerontius flees to join them. Elgar has saved his most tender and moving music for the Angel’s great song of compassion, an unending melody, as Gerontius’ Soul is now entrusted to purgatory – a place, as suggested by the music returning to the key of D major, of consolation and hope: Softly and gently, dearly ransomed soul, in my most loving arms I now enfold thee… Farewell, but not for ever, brother dear… Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here and I will come and wake thee on the morrow.

Quotation from John Ruskin written by Elgar on the final page of the original manuscript:

‘This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another: my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.’

Composer:  Elgar Wiki Link:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dream_of_Gerontius Title of Musical Work:  The Dream of Gerontius

London Concert Choir concerts featuring this musical work: