Full program notes:
Born: June 2, 1857, Broadheath, England
Died: February 23, 1934, Worcester, England
The Dream of Gerontius, Opus 38
The Minnesota Orchestra and Minnesota Chorale are making history this weekend. These performances of Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius are the Orchestra’s first in 110 years. It is an astounding gap, considering that Elgar composed Gerontius directly after his triumphant Enigma Variations, when he was at the height of his powers.
There are reasons the work is so rarely mounted. It is long and difficult for both chorus and orchestra. It requires three superb soloists, two of whom must portray different characters over the course of the drama. And the subject matter is challenging: an elderly man’s spiritual journey from his deathbed to the next world, in a profound affirmation of faith. How does one spin a compelling musical narrative from such a tale?
In the hands of a lesser composer, the project would likely have failed; however, Elgar’s genius served him brilliantly in The Dream of Gerontius, resulting in what may be the greatest English oratorio of the Romantic era.
the literary source: a Cardinal’s poem
Elgar began with a remarkable literary text that had fascinated him for nearly 15 years, written by the English cleric and author Cardinal John Henry Newman. Newman, whose life (1801-1890) spanned nearly the entire 19th century, was a prominent figure in the Oxford Movement of the 1830s, which endeavored to restore aspects of Roman Catholic sacraments, practices and doctrines that had been abandoned at the time of the English Reformation in the 1530s. Newman converted to Catholicism in 1845, was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1846 and was elevated to Cardinal in 1879.
Newman published widely and in a range of genres, from essays to autobiographical novels to religious lyrics. His mystic religious poem The Dream of Gerontius was published in 1865 and enjoyed considerable popularity in its day.
In the poem, the elderly Gerontius is on his deathbed, with morbid thoughts of the hereafter, laced with fear and nightmarish imaginings. He rallies to assert his Christian faith before resigning himself to the next world and judgment before God. His Guardian Angel leads him to judgment. En route, he hears the suffering of those eternally damned in hell, and the singing of heavenly angels. At the end, he is consigned to Purgatory. His journey—his dream—has been one of discovery.
Newman’s poem asserted the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and the importance of revelation in an increasingly rational age. He was a violinist as well as a writer, and his verse contains many references to music. Recognizing the musical potential of Gerontius, Newman presented a copy to Antonín Dvořák in 1887, on one of the Bohemian composer’s trips to England, hoping that Dvořák would set it as an oratorio for the Birmingham Festival. Dvořák declined the project, because he had been at work on his oratorio St. Ludmila since 1885. Gerontius would have to wait nearly 15 years for its musical setting—by a native English speaker. Newman had been dead more than a decade when Edward Elgar completed The Dream of Gerontius.
crafting a libretto
Elgar, who was Roman Catholic, had first become acquainted with Newman’s poem in the mid-1880s. When he married Caroline Alice Roberts in 1889, an annotated copy of the book was among their wedding presents. He regarded the poem as solemn and mystic, and the idea of adapting it in a large-scale choral setting percolated inside him for nearly a decade. Opportunity to bring it to fruition occurred when G.H. Johnstone, chairman of the orchestral sub-committee at the Birmingham Festival, proposed that Elgar compose an oratorio for the 1900 season.
One of the monumental tasks he faced was paring down Newman’s text to a manageable length. The complete poem consists of 900 lines organized in seven sections. Elgar trimmed it to a more concise—but still substantial—435 lines. Elgar transformed Newman’s Prologue into his Part I, in which the dying Gerontius, drifting in and out of consciousness, is attended by a Priest and assistants. The Priest’s words at the end of Part I (“Proficiscere”) are from the Latin burial service. Gerontius has expired, and the Priest bids him farewell from this world.
The remaining six sections of Newman’s Gerontius became Elgar’s longer Part II, which takes place in the next world. The Soul of Gerontius interacts with demons and angelicals (sung by large and small choruses), an Angel, and the Angel of Agony, who prepares the Soul of Gerontius to go before God. The Angel’s Farewell at the end of Part II balances the Priest’s farewell at the end of Part I.
in the heat of inspiration
Arguably the most significant milestone in Elgar’s remarkable career was the first performance of his Enigma Variations on June 21, 1899, at London’s St. James Hall. Prior to that, Elgar had been a moderately successful composer. Enigma—universally acknowledged as a masterpiece—catapulted him to the forefront of English composition.
He was still basking in its triumphant premiere when the Gerontius commission from Birmingham was confirmed in early January 1900. Riding a wave of confidence after Enigma, he embarked on this most ambitious project yet. Surviving sketchbooks suggest that he may have begun his setting with choruses, and that he re-used some material from prior sketchbooks.
He wrote much of Gerontius at Birchwood Lodge, a summer haven near his permanent home in Malvern. Though he was not always satisfied with his initial efforts at text setting and made multiple attempts with certain lines, work progressed well. By early June 1900, he had completed the vocal score.
Elgar was emotionally and musically invested in Gerontius, whose value he clearly intuited. In the midst of the orchestration process, he wrote to the conductor Nicholas Kilburn:
“I am not suggesting that I have risen to the heights of the poem for one moment—but on our hillside night after night looking across our ‘illimitable’ horizon...I’ve seen in thought the Soul go up & have written my own heart’s blood into the score.”
He put the final touches on the orchestration in early August. By the end of the month, the Birmingham Festival Chorus had begun rehearsals.
a notorious premiere
The Dream of Gerontius made its debut in Birmingham on October 3, 1900. It was a singularly inauspicious premiere: virtually everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The problems began in late spring when the Birmingham chorus master, Swinnerton Heap, died suddenly. He had been a sympathetic and skilled interpreter of Elgar’s music. His replacement, W.C. Stockley, was no fan of Elgar, and disliked new music in general. Further, he was suspicious of the Catholic subject and text.
The problems did not end there. Birmingham’s celebrated festival chorus had barely two months with a score approximately 100 minutes long—and exceedingly difficult for singers and instrumentalists alike. All three soloists were vocally unsuited to the powerful and spiritual characters they were to portray.
The conductor, Hans Richter, had led the premiere of the Enigma Variations and was an enthusiastic advocate of Elgar’s. Unfortunately he was not provided a full score of the new work until a month before the first performance. He had precious little time with the score before the first rehearsal in London on September 24, only a week and a half prior to the premiere on October 3. Rehearsals were woefully inadequate for such a demanding work. Even six hours of extra rehearsal the day before the premiere could not save the first performance, which was beset by problems of intonation and ensemble.
the initial reception
Not surprisingly, that first performance was a dismal failure. Elgar was deeply depressed, and briefly considered giving up composition. Initially he was convinced that the work would never be performed again. His publisher Novello had warned him to anticipate anti-Catholic bias in Victorian England, and initial reception reflected that bias. The composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford famously (or infamously) observed: “It stinks of incense.” Frederick Delius—admittedly an outspoken opponent of organized religion—decried Gerontius as “nauseating” and dismissed it as excessively indebted to Wagner’s Parsifal.
But Elgar was to have his second chance. Hans Richter, the conductor, was steadfast in his loyalty to Elgar and to his belief in the English composer’s genius. He arranged for German translation of the text, and was instrumental in arranging a second performance in Dusseldorf, Germany on December 19, 1901. A third performance followed at the Lower Rhine Festival in 1902, this time conducted by Richard Strauss, who was outspoken in his enthusiastic advocacy of Elgar’s music, heralding him as “a great master.” The English soon followed suit and reassessed their opinion. Further performances took place in Worcester, Chicago, New York and London. Today, Gerontius is regularly performed in the U.K., and is rightly regarded as one of Elgar’s greatest compositions. It is not, however, frequently heard outside Britain.
Wagnerian techniques and seamless segments
Elgar believed that Newman’s poem could best be delivered by adapting Wagnerian techniques, particularly Wagner’s use of leitmotifs. Elgar’s themes are different from Wagner’s, of course, and his methods of thematic transformation vary, but Elgar conformed to Wagnerian ideas in the sense that motives and themes constitute the work’s structure.
A significant difference is that Elgar maintained separation of individual arias, choruses, and arioso passages that function like accompanied recitatives. The distinction is subtle, however: Elgar does observe clear cadences, but he does not pause. Instead, he proceeds seamlessly from one segment to the next. His fluid use of modulation helps the sections to cohere, leading smoothly in the next direction.
the music: Gerontius’ journey
In essence, Part I portrays the elderly Gerontius on his deathbed. In Part II, we shift from this world to the next with solos for the Soul of Gerontius, the Angel and the Angel of the Agony; three dialogues between the Angel and the Soul; and regular commentary from the chorus.
Elgar’s score specifies both a full chorus and a smaller semi-chorus. The two groups fulfill varying roles. In Part I, the small chorus are the Priest’s assistants, singing a Kyrie eleison at Gerontius’ deathbed, while the larger vocal ensemble prays for deliverance of his soul. In Part II, the choruses represent both demons and angelicals, then voices on earth, souls in Purgatory and celestial beings.
part I. The ten-minute instrumental Prelude that opens Gerontius contains many of the important motives from which Elgar constructs his music. August Jaeger, Elgar’s principal advocate at the publishing house of Novello (and the subject of the beloved Nimrod Variation in Enigma), prepared an analysis for the premiere that identified 14 principal motives. They symbolize concepts like despair, committal, sleep, fear and judgment; one is a Miserere chant. Those that are not introduced in the Prelude occur in Gerontius’ first solo.
The Prelude’s quiet, funereal opening aptly establishes the somber atmosphere of the deathbed chamber. Chromatic Wagnerian harmonies gradually emerge, punctuated by glorious orchestral touches: a harp glissando here, an English horn solo there, and nearly always, the lush sonority of divisi strings, sometimes in as many as 16 parts. At climaxes, in the Prelude and throughout the work, Elgar employs full brass, timpani and organ to thrilling effect.
part II. The Soul of Gerontius, now refreshed, attempts to understand his circumstances. He meets up with an Angel who guides him on his journey toward judgment. After passing an angry, menacing group of souls condemned to eternal suffering, the Angel and the Soul of Gerontius encounter the Angel of the Agony, who attended Jesus at the Crucifixion. The Angel of the Agony is empowered to guide worthy souls to redemption and eternal salvation.
Frequent metrical changes in Newman’s verse gave Elgar considerable musical latitude, and Gerontius is an exceptional example of the English language skillfully set to music. He struggled to merge music with the natural accents of Newman’s poem, succeeding particularly well in the solo arioso passages.
The Angel of Agony anticipates the discomfort and pain, both emotional and physical, that Gerontius will experience in the presence of God. That moment of judgment is the work’s most climactic moment. The Soul of Gerontius then begins his time in Purgatory. A final benediction—a chorus of Amens—closes the work.
the final analysis
Elgar viewed Gerontius as a repentant sinner brought to face consequences of his actions: an Everyman. His music makes Gerontius a more universal suffering human. By focusing on his humanity and the struggle to surmount fear, Elgar kept the action more spiritual than physical. Paradoxically, his music is so intensely expressive that the drama feels heightened. Regardless of one’s individual beliefs, at the end, we are persuaded that God’s spirit is present in us all, even, and perhaps especially, here on this earth.
From a musical standpoint, all the essential elements—harmony, melody, Elgar’s gift for instrumentation—came together in the pursuit of drama. Elgar disliked the term oratorio; nor did he wish for Dream of Gerontius to be classified as a sacred cantata. Nevertheless, one suspects that, 117 years after its premiere, he would not have objected to Gerontius being heralded as the greatest English oratorio of the Romantic era.
Instrumentation: solo mezzo, tenor and bass, mixed large chorus and semi-chorus with orchestra comprising 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 6 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, sleigh bells, tamtam, triangle, glockenspiel, 2 harps, organ and strings
Program note © 2017 by Laurie Shulman. First North American serial rights only.