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. Continue reading