In the annals of disastrous musical premieres, that of Edward Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, which took place on this date in 1900, wasn’t a complete fiasco in the manner of, say, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or Bruckner’s Third Symphony. It did not, however, go well—not by any measure. So poor was the performance, so distant the musicians’ execution from Elgar’s most vivid and hopeful imagining, that the experience left the composer despondent. A devout Catholic, he even briefly lost his faith.
Elgar first encountered John Henry Newman’s sprawling poem “The Dream of Gerontius” in 1889, the year he got married. The wedding ceremony was held in St. George’s Church in the English city of Worcester, where Elgar, like his father, had been the organist. The priest at St. George’s marked the occasion by presenting him with a copy of the poem, which Newman had published in 1865—two decades after his conversion from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism and 14 years before he would become a cardinal. It describes the death of a man named Gerontius, whose soul, accompanied by his guardian angel, passes through the afterlife toward judgment before God. Although its message is compelling, it is at times a clunky piece of writing, inelegant and metaphorically dull. Whatever its shortcomings, however, it made an impression on Elgar, who for several years contemplated setting it to music.
This he finally did beginning in the autumn of 1899, following the splendid success of his Enigma Variations. Accepting a commission to write a large-scale work for the Triennial Music Festival in Birmingham, Elgar set about cutting and editing Newman’s poem, and by early June 1900, he had completed the massive work, scored for vocal soloists, chorus, and large orchestra—not an opera, not a mass, not quite an oratorio or a cantata, but something incorporating elements from all four. Elgar knew that The Dream of Gerontius was a supreme achievement, but the rehearsals presaged trouble.
For one thing, the festival’s chorus master, Charles Swinnerton Heap, a patron and early supporter of Elgar’s who knew his music intimately, died. A replacement was found, but without Heap’s leadership, the chorus of amateur singers floundered. To make matters worse, the conductor Hans Richter, an eminent figure who had led the triumphant first performance of the Enigma Variations, did not get a copy of the score until the day before rehearsals commenced. At the first rehearsal, Richter realized how woefully unprepared the singers were, and he implored Elgar to address them. What resulted was not a motivational speech but a first-class dressing down, with the composer barely able to hold his temper. Out of desperation, Richter tried—and failed—to secure more rehearsal time. Is it any surprise, then, that the premiere was itself a failure? The chorus was unable to sing together or in tune. Moreover, two of the vocal soloists had off nights. The response from both the critics and the public was harsh, leading Elgar to write to his dear friend and adviser August Jaeger:
I have worked hard for forty years and at the last, Providence denies me a decent hearing of my work: so I submit—I always said God was against art and I still believe it. Anything obscene or trivial is blessed in this world and has a reward—I ask for no reward—only to live and to hear my work. I still hear it in my heart and in my head so I must be content. Still it is curious to be treated by the old-fashioned people as a criminal because my thoughts and ways are beyond them. … I have allowed my heart to open once—it is now shut against every religious feeling & every soft, gentle impulse for ever.
The mood would pass, Elgar would soon regain his faith, and with time, The Dream of Gerontius would come to be loved in England, respected as the towering work that it is, championed by such conductors as Malcolm Sargent, Benjamin Britten, and John Barbirolli. For Barbirolli, especially, the piece was an essential expression of his own Catholic faith, and his 1965 recording—with the Hallé Orchestra of Manchester and soloists Richard Lewis and Janet Baker—is inexpressibly heartfelt. Given how intimately Barbirolli was associated with The Dream (as he always referred to the piece), it is only fitting that the work was performed at his memorial concert in 1970. Baker, once again singing the role of the Angel, was so overcome by emotion by the end that she began to cry and could only whisper her final words. Elgar himself had experienced something similar when conducting the work in 1902; having recently lost his mother, he too wept at the Angel’s final solo.
It says a great deal about Elgar’s skill as a dramatist and maker of melodies that a poem so prosaic and workmanlike could be rendered into music of such majesty, pathos, power, and beauty. The prelude opens with a solemn line akin to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal and unfolds episodically, with each of the work’s major themes invoked. This visionary music—conveying beatitude, anguish, terror, bewilderment, resignation, and uncertainty—is a staggering orchestral work on its own, and it leads without break to Gerontius’s first solo. Breathless and feverish, the hero acknowledges his impending death and sings:
Pray for me, O my friends; a visitant
Is knocking his dire summons at my door,
The like of whom, to scare me and to daunt,
Has never, never come to me before …
The plush string accompaniment to the lines beginning with “’Tis this strange innermost abandonment” is particularly magical, with its hushed organ-like sonority.
This first part consists largely of Gerontius praying for his soul’s salvation, with the chorus of priests and friends imploring God to be merciful and gracious. Once, when Elgar was rehearsing the work, he urged the tenors in those delicate passages to sing with “more tears in [their] voices,” to imagine themselves “assisting at the death of a friend.” There’s an elegiac contrast here between the simple plainsong style of the sung English text (“I can no more; for now it comes again, / That sense of ruin, which is worse than pain, / That masterful negation and collapse / Of all that makes me man”) and the grandiose musical sweep of the Latin (“Sanctus fortis, Sanctus Deus, / De profundis oro te”). As Gerontius dies, the music swells in waves, tumultuous and fearful, then mystical and incantatory. And though the depiction of the hero’s passing is tranquil, when his soul is sent upon its journey from the earthly realm, the music overwhelms the listener with its power and heft.
In the work’s second part, following an ethereal passage in the strings, Gerontius’s soul is roused, refreshed as if from a slumber, singing of its freedom and the easing of its pain. Here the guardian Angel appears, and the lengthy duet that follows, conceived in both the arioso and recitative styles, is one of the highlights of the piece. The Angel escorts Gerontius’s soul toward its judgment, but all is not luminous and calm: they must pass among a horde of demons, depicted by suitably tempestuous, occasionally dissonant music, with a great roiling fugue in the middle of it all—as viscerally frightening as the Wolf’s Glen scene in Weber’s Der Freischütz or the most harrowing passages in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. There’s a story about an unhappy Barbirolli rehearsing this particular section: “You’re not bank clerks on a Sunday outing,” he said to his singers. “You’re souls sizzling in hell.”
Gerontius’s own soul emerges from this brief terror undeterred (“I see not those false spirits; shall I see / My dearest Master, when I reach His throne?”) and is eventually borne upward, with the Choir of Angelicals grandly declaiming, “Praise to the Holiest in the height, / And in the depth be praise.” As the soul approaches God, the haunting music suggests loneliness and acceptance, and the theme associated with judgment, first heard in the prelude, sounds again, the orchestral lines swirling dramatically, all the musical forces combining to a magnificent climax, with the Angel telling Gerontius’s soul, “Yes, for one moment thou shalt see thy Lord.” The soul learns its fate: it must descend briefly into purgatory. But solace comes from the Angel, who sings the most tender, most moving lines in the entire work:
Softly and gently, dearly ransomed soul,
In my most loving arms I now enfold thee,
And o’er the penal waters, as they roll,
I poise thee, and I lower thee, and hold thee …
Farewell but not for ever! Brother dear,
Be brave and patient on thy bed of sorrow;
Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here,
And I will come and wake thee on the morrow.
It was upon those final lines that both Elgar and Janet Baker faltered, remembering loved ones recently passed.
I can think of few other musical works that assert and affirm so thoroughly a composer’s faith. Indeed, for Barbirolli, only an ensemble of Catholic singers could really do justice to Elgar’s vision. A pronouncement like that seems reductive, implying similar restrictions for the performance and appreciation of great stretches of Bach, Handel, Haydn, and Bruckner—and underestimating the formidable ways in which religious music can move the unreligious. Ernest Newman, the most distinguished of early-20th-century English critics (and one of the work’s earliest advocates) wrote, “The dying Gerontius beholds in a trance the mysteries of the unseen world.” So it can be for even the stoniest nonbeliever, glimpsing glorious visions in Elgar’s dream, gazing into a vast expanse that sounds and seems like heaven.
Listen to John Barbirolli conduct the Hallé Orchestra in the prelude to Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius:
And listen to Janet Baker sing the Angel’s farewell, “Softly and gently,” from that same 1965 recording:
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