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The Dream of Gerontius

The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38
Sir Edward Elgar
b. Broadheath, England / June 2, 1857;
d. Worcester, England / February 23, 1934

Elgar first read The Dream of Gerontius, a poem by John Henry Newman (1801-1890) during the late 1870s. He quickly came to regard it very highly, both as literature and for its spiritual content. Virtually from first acquaintance, he wished to set it to music, but the right opportunity took a long time to present itself.

In November 1898, the Birmingham Festival Committee finally supplied that stimulus. Its members offered Elgar a commission for a sacred choral work, to be performed at their organization’s next gathering, scheduled for the autumn of 1900. He accepted their request gladly, then set about finding a suitable subject. It was only after first considering the life of St. Augustine, and the teachings of Christ’s church, that it became clear that the time for him to work with his beloved Gerontius had at last arrived.

He was aware that ten years earlier, no less a composer than Antonín Dvoƙák had considered setting the same verses, at the invitation of the same organization. The Czech master had been dissuaded from doing so, however because the poem was considered “too Catholic” for English audiences. Elgar’s staunch belief in his Catholic faith may well have increased his determination to make Gerontius his choice.

Newman’s poem had been published in 1865, 24 years after he had become a Roman Catholic priest, and 14 years before he was elevated to the rank of Cardinal. Its subject is the Catholic view of the human soul, its worth and its destiny (including the concept of purgatory). As an upholder of traditional values, the poem was largely out of step with its time. In Elgar, the conservative, Roman Catholic English composer, it found its ideal musical advocate.

He worked on his setting throughout the summer of 1900. At the head of the score he inscribed, as Bach often had, the letters A.M.D.G., standing for Ad maiorem Dei gloriam (To the greater glory of God). Elgar took special pains over Gerontius, considering it his most important creation to date. He completed it on August 3. On the final page he added a quotation from poet John Ruskin: “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.”

The first performance took place two months later, on October 3. For a variety of reasons it proved a disaster. The major problem rested with the chorus. They were given insufficient time to learn and to understand so demanding, so innovative and so emotionally rich a score. To make matters worse, the eminent German conductor Hans Richter, who had directed the triumphant first performances of Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations the year before, had underestimated the new piece’s difficulties. He made considerable efforts during rehearsals, but was unable to save the day.

Julius Buths, Music Director of the German city of Düsseldorf, came to the rescue. He had attended the premiere, and the music so impressed him that he took the full score back home with him. He conducted the second complete reading, on December 19, 1901. Preceded by intense and thorough rehearsals, it scored an enormous success for Elgar, completely reversing the fiasco of the premiere. 

This triumph on the continent spurred English performers to give Gerontius another chance. Hans Richter, wishing strongly to make amends for the shoddy premiere, led the next performance, with the Hallé orchestra and Chorus of Manchester, on March 12, 1902. It came off brilliantly. Within a few short years, Gerontius established itself as a cornerstone of English choral music. 

Elgar was greatly concerned that his piece not be sanctimonious and emotionally remote, as so many sacred compositions had been. He wished it to be an approachable, universally understandable work, representing the culminating drama which is shared by every human soul. He wrote that Gerontius, the principal character (whose name derives from the Latin word for old age), is “a man like us, a sinner, a repentant one of course, but still no end of a worldly man in his life. Therefore I’ve not filled his part with church tunes and rubbish, but a good, healthy, full blooded Romanticism, remembered worldliness, so to speak. It is, I imagine, much more difficult to tear oneself away from a well-to-do world than from a cloister.” 

That element of earthliness helps forge a compelling link between the subject matter and a wide range of listeners. The music itself is quiet and gentle on the whole, a fact which throws its more dramatic moments – such as the chorus of demons and Gerontius’s glimpse of God – into sharp relief. Perhaps it is this understated approach, born of Elgar’s faith, that is the score’s most impressive feature. Those who hold such beliefs know that no grandiose gestures are needed to proclaim it. 

 

Programme Notes © 2017 Don Anderson


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