Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius is frequently regarded as his masterpiece—a towering oratorio noted for its complex score and profound religious message. In the autograph score, Elgar wrote the work represented “the best of me,” and countless listeners have agreed with him.
It is, quite simply, one of the greatest spiritual dramas ever written.
Gerontius is based on Cardinal Henry John Newman’s epic poem of the same name, which traces the journey of the soul from death to its arrival before the Throne of God in a vivid dramatization of Catholic theology. Along the way it explores some of the greatest questions of the human experience: what is our purpose? What is a good life? And what is the nature of God? But the score is so vividly drawn, and filled with such fascinating incidents and memorable characterizations that it never feels like a religious lesson or a string of platitudes.
Unfortunately, the work is still something of a concert rarity in the US—quite a contrast to the situation in Britain, where it generally considered a national treasure, and performed almost with the same regularly as Handel’s Messiah is here. For listeners coming to a performance on this side of the pond, this represent a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they will be able to experience this lush, late-Romantic score completely fresh and without preconceptions. The danger is that because it is such a dense, many-layered score that some of its complexities will be lost.
I have the pleasure of performing Gerontius this spring with the Minnesota Orchestra, Minnesota Chorale and a crack team of soloists under the direction of Edo De Waart, and it has been a thrill getting to know this sublime score. Allow me to share some insights to help new listeners understand it better.
The text itself is most unusual. It was written by Cardinal John Henry Newman, who as a young man served as a vicar in the Anglican Church. After years of scholarship and reflection he reconciled with Roman Catholicism—he converted in 1843 and went to Rome to be ordained as a priest. The Dream of Gerontius was published in 1865, designed in part to present a clear case for Catholic beliefs surrounding life, death, and the afterlife. As part of his conception, the poem was a dense tapestry interweaving symbolism, mysticism and Catholic doctrine.
Cardinal Newman’s work made a powerful impression on Victorian England, even outside of Catholic circles. In particular, it gained national stature in the 1880s after the defeat General Gordon in Sudan. General Gordon was commander of British forces stationed in Khartoum, where he was besieged and ultimately overwhelmed by forces of the Mahdi (Muhammad Ahmad) in 1885. He kept a copy of the poem with him during the siege, and turned to it often as solace. Shortly before the end, he smuggled his hand-marked copy of the poem out of the city with a journalist, with instructions that it be given to his family as a means of consolation in light of his inevitable death. When news of this spread, the poem became widely read across all levels of society. It was hailed as a monument to perseverance and Divine Grace… and was inextricably tied to how the British viewed their essential, national character.
Elgar and his wife, who were devout Catholics, loved the work, going so far as to note the verses that Gordon had underlined into their own copy of the text. Almost at once, he began considering how to set the poem to music.
A few years later, Elgar had an opportunity to do so… and the results were disastrous.
A Catastrophic Premiere
The first performance of Gerontius—and really, the entire process of its creation—was an absolute train wreck. In fact, one of the most miraculous aspects of Gerontius is that it ever received a second performance.
The problems began early on. In 1898, Elgar had been invited to premiere a new work at the prestigious Birmingham Festival—a festival that also saw the premieres of Dvořák’s The Spectre’s Bride and Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Elgar’s new composition was to appear on the 1900 program, a tight timetable for him in that he was not a particularly fast composer. Elgar first considered creating a work on the life of St. Augustine, and then on the lives of the Apostles, before deciding both these projects were far too ambitious to complete on time. Plus, they were too closely associated with the Roman Catholic Church, which was still viewed with suspicion in late Victorian England.
With these concerns in mind, it’s… well, stunning that he ultimately landed setting The Dream of Gerontius. Cardinal Newman’s poem is long, dense, and filled with extensive meditative passages, meaning it needed significant pruning to put it into a dramatic framework. Moreover, with its references to Purgatory, intercessions of saints, and prayers to Mary, it was inextricably tied to Catholic theology and sure to raise hackles in the fiercely Protestant country. Against the his own concerns and significant pushback from his publisher, Elgar finally settled on Gerontius as his text—but his final decision came New Year’s Day 1900, giving him less than a year to edit the text, compose the music, and get it to the performers.
As it turned out, conductor Hans Richter only received the full score 10 days before the first performance. This was completely insufficient to rehearse such a dense, complex score.
Alas, the problems were just beginning.
Birmingham’s brilliant chorus master died suddenly, and the orchestra’s former conductor W.C. Stockley was called out of retirement in desperation. Stockley was a competent choir director, but it must be admitted he was past his prime. Worse, he well and truly hated “modern” composers such as Wagner, whose influence permeates Elgar’s score. The most catastrophic blow, however, was that he absolutely despised Catholicism in any form. His reaction to the work on all counts was disgust.
While Stockley didn’t specifically set out to undermine the premiere, his preparation of the chorus was, shall we say, indifferent. Upon hearing them at the dress rehearsal, Elgar famously bellowed that they were singing “no better than a drawing-room ballad!” At the performance, they made their first entrance notably out of tune and never recovered… the entire “Go Forth!” chorus that concludes Part I was sung a half-step below the orchestra.
The soloists added to the difficulties. To be clear, they were all skilled performers with successful careers, but their voices were completely inappropriate for the work. The premiere’s Gerontius was Edward Lloyd, who specialized in vocal elegance rather than acting, which made him incapable of giving the part the depth it needed. Lieder specialist Harry Plunket Greene had a light voice that was incapable of conveying the gravity of The Priest… let alone the command necessary for the Angel of Agony. In contrast, Marie Brema was a Wagner specialist; writers noted that instead of providing a song of consolation as the Guardian Angel, she gave a blazing war-cry of a Valkyrie defending Valhalla from legions of the dead.
Elgar was devastated. Richter tried to console him, writing a hand-scrawled note in the score that read, “Let drop the Chorus, let drop everybody—but let not drop the wings of your original Genius.” Even so, Elgar fumed: “I have worked hard for forty years & 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.”
Still, a number of people saw past the disasters of the premiere and became advocates of the work. German conductor Julius Buths was inspired enough to make a German translation of the text, which he premiered in Düsseldorf in 1901, with Elgar present. It was a smashing success, and led to subsequent performances on the Continent. Richard Strauss heard the work and complimented Elgar mightily. Richter conducted the work again in 1903 with the Hallé in Manchester, and this time the power of the work came through. Additional performances soon rippled across Britain, using a revised text that downplayed the explicitly Catholic elements and made it more amenable to protestant houses of worship. By 1910 it had been performed around the world, from Vienna and Paris to Toronto and Sydney. In 1907 it had its first—and only—performance by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, now the Minnesota Orchestra.
Within a few years the work was comfortably established throughout Europe as an essential work of the canon.
The work begins with an orchestra-only prelude, which helps guide the listener from the activity and bustle of the real world into the mystical dream-world of the oratorio. It does this in part by laying out the various musical themes that underlie work—short motifs that represent ideas such as prayer, fear, sleep, Divine Judgment, and so forth. This musical layout, inspired by Wagner, helps provide greater structure to the work and subtly reinforces its ideas. Elgar helpfully laid these themes out in program notes, and the curious can certainly seek out these lists and charge them to memory, but this is not strictly necessary; in a way, these motifs are more effective when they subtly slide into the subconscious.
The prelude gives way to Part I proper, which covers the final moments of an Everyman named Gerontius, whose name vaguely translates to “Old Man.” He lies in his bed, surrounded by friends and attended by a priest. Roused from sleeping, he cries out “Jesu, Maria, I am near to death.” It is a solemn moment, but in a way detached and understated. He has led a rich, full life; we know that as the end nears he is ready, seeing the journey ahead as natural and unavoidable. He relates a new feeling that comes over him, almost with a sense of wonder:
‘Tis this new feeling, never felt before,
That I am going, that I am no more,
‘Tis this strange innermost abandonment,
This emptying out of each constituent
And natural force, by which I come to be.
Still, despite his faith and acceptance, Gerontius is human after all. Suddenly fearful, he begs his gathered companions to pray for him. The assembly does so at once, in music that captures the full range of emotions—a desire to comfort, sadness in the coming separation, but also fervent hope of Divine Grace.
It is a moment of shared unity, but it also marks a turning point. As the music continues, there is a sense that Gerontius is moving away from this earthly community. His thoughts and the words he speaks are more visionary, more forward looking. He feels “That masterful negation and collapse/ Of all that makes me man.”
But as Gerontius feels the end approaching, he cries out again in terror in a particularly dramatic swell of music. Unlike before, he does not call out to those gathered around him, but directly to Heaven, pleading for Jesus, Mary, an angel… anyone to rescue him in his dark hour. The chorus of his friends takes up his call with an urgent, powerful prayer: “Rescue him, O Lord, in this his evil hour!”
Gerontius breaks the tension with simple words:
Novissima hora est; and I fain would sleep,
The pain has wearied me. . . . Into Thy hands,
O Lord, into Thy hands. . . .
They are his final words.
But what happens next is not sadness, not rage, not bitterness… it is a statement of hope.
Far from becoming mournful, the music becomes luminous… ecstatic. Priest speaks words of release, providing a benediction for a good and goodly man. In a section of gorgeous music, the assembled clasp hands and send their dearly departed to his final rest with the words “Go forth!” There is no longer sadness, but conviction that God in his mercy will take up their friend and welcome him to his Final Home. It is breathtaking. It is sublime.
Part II of the work begins in, almost literally, a completely different universe of sound. Gerontius (now referred to as The Soul) awakens into a new and unfamiliar world, and all his former pain is nothing but a half-remembered dream. The sound-world Elgar creates is delicate and undefined… full of atmosphere but not entirely grounded.
As the Soul takes stock of his surroundings, he is greeted by a Guardian Angel who introduces herself in a glorious aria of jubilation—her long work watching over him is finished and she is now ready to bring him before God. In a particularly significant exchange, the Soul wonders if it should be afraid… all his life he feared God’s Judgment. The Angel responds:
It is because
Then thou didst fear; that now thou dost not fear.
Thou hast forestalled the agony, and so
For thee bitterness of death is passed.
The Angel begins leading the Soul to the House of Judgment… and to the most dramatic section of the work.
The Soul hears a hellish hubbub, and the Angel explains that around the place of Judgment are gathered a crowd of demons who despise humans, and are bitterly jealous of the favor God has shown them. They furiously decry that they have been dispossessed… cast down from Paradise, only to have their place in Heaven taken up by unworthy “low-born clods of brute earth.” As their fury rises, the demons mock humankind, and greedily reach out for the souls so that they may vent their fury on them. The Demons’ Chorus is a musical tour de force, where the snarling text is set to wild, chromatic music. It builds up to a terrifying fugue that rips by at light speed. The Angel sweeps The Soul past the throng and their diabolical laughter slowly dies away into the distance.
A new section begins—that explores the nature of God’s power. A recurring theme of Newman’s vision is that the presence of God is hard for humans to conceptualize. It is not a thing of rosy-faced Cherubs and gentle doves, but a light of glory so overwhelming that it simultaneously illuminates and sears. The Angel warns that the experience of meeting God will be beyond anything the Soul can fathom, explaining, “Learn that the flame of the Everlasting Love/ Doth burn ere it transform….” The Soul doesn’t quite hesitate, but contemplates what lies ahead.
The Angel ushers the Soul forward again, where he is greeted by a chorus of Angelicals—an elder race of childlike beings created from the thought of God. At first scored for women’s voices alone, this section shimmers in a song of Divine welcome, which draws the Soul forward and fills him with expectation. When the Soul finally crosses the threshold and enters the place of Judgment, the music is transformed into a joyous hymn of praise… rich and full from the assembled Heavenly Host. The jubilation ripples forward, as if a much-anticipated Divine plan, laid ages ago, is finally on the cusp of fulfillment.
At this point, the Soul is met by the Angel of Agony standing at the foot of the Throne. It is a stark, but powerful moment. The Angel of Agony cries out for God to grant the Soul mercy, in a voice that is paradoxically authoritative, yet beseeching. In a particularly effective touch, Elgar then brings to the fore a musical echo from Part I. It is a hushed, far-off prayer for mercy… the same prayer that Gerontius’s friends sang as he lay dying. While their prayer is distant, it is so strong and righteous that is has echoed through time and space to serve as a final testimonial for Gerontious as he prepares to face Divine Judgment.
And so the work’s climax… and a moment that tormented Elgar greatly. So… how do you depict the moment of Judgment? How do you literally depict the Face of God as it inclines toward you? Elgar wrote to his publisher that he felt the actual moment of Judgment shouldn’t be portrayed at all: “Please remember that none of the ‘action’ takes place in the presence of God. I would not have tried that neither did Newman. The Soul says ‘I go before my God’—but we don’t—we stand outside.”
Elgar’s publisher wasn’t having it. He summoned up some tough words of advice, bluntly dismissing Elgar’s concerns as “whining” that was “not at all impressive.” To not do anything would be hugely anticlimactic and undermine the whole piece. He demanded a rewrite of that critical moment.
Elgar acquiesced, creating the most original moment of the entire score. He builds the orchestra, along with organ and a battery of percussion, to a thunderous crescendo… but only for a single moment (the marking is fffz–p). It is like a flash of lightning that almost physically throws the listeners back before having them snap forward again. It continues to inspire awe no matter how often you hear the piece.
At that critical moment, having seen God unmasked in all his Glory, the Soul realizes that it is not yet ready; only through purification will he be worthy of Heaven. Chastened and staggered by the experience, the Soul turns back to the Angel demands, “Take me away.” It is a complicated moment that makes great musical demands on the soloist—the singer must convey the ecstasy, awe… even the pain of the moment without going over the top. In many ways, it is as challenging to express the Soul’s emotional reaction to Divine Judgment as it is to express the Judgment itself.
And for all that, the key to this section is to remember that it is not a disappointment, nor a failure. In terms of text and music, it is a moment of humility, yes, but also of profound expectation and hard-earned wisdom. Elgar’s music conveys that beyond a sense of either hopelessness or hope, there is an underlying sense of certainty… the understanding that the Soul will be made ready.
The journey has reached its end. Assured of eventual salvation, the Angel brings the Soul to Purgatory, which is envisioned as a vast and placid lake. In imitation of the ritual of baptism, she lowers him into the deep waters that will wash away all sin and imperfection. In doing so, she sings a desperately beautiful lullaby while the waiting souls sing praises and call for God’s mercy in hushed tones. Do not fear, says the Angel: “Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here/ And I will come and wake thee on the morrow.”
The work concludes with a serene, yet confident amen
* * *
It is tempting to write off Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius as old-fashioned, especially for such a secular modern age as ours. But nothing could be further from the truth. Beyond the stunning music, the questions the work raises remain strikingly important even today. In taking the esoteric ideas of faith, hope and morality and having them play out on a human-sized stage, Elgar made them personal… even dramatic.
It is no wonder the work has risen above its disastrous premiere to become a revered classic.