The Dream of Gerontius - Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

Cardinal Newman's poem The Dream of Gerontius was a well-known and much-loved work in its own right by the time Elgar came to set it to music in 1900. It had been translated into French and German and was reprinted during Newman's lifetime. It achieved further notoriety when General Gordon died at Khartoum leaving behind a copy with personal annotations that were then copied by admirers. Elgar, who incidentally had wanted to write a 'Gordon' Symphony in 1899 but never embarked seriously on the project, had owned a copy of the poem since 1885 and he was given a further copy as a wedding present in 1889. In early 1900 he set about preparing a libretto for Gerontius, later revealing that the poem had been "soaking in my mind for at least eight years". Newman's poem falls into seven sections: the first is a prologue on earth showing the dying dreamer surrounded by priests and assistants, and the other six parts trace the Soul's progress through Judgement to Purgatory. Newman's poem has a total of 900 lines, and these needed cutting to be manageable for a musical setting. Elgar retained most of the prologue to form his Part I, and he cut down the rest to 300 lines to form his Part II. This formed a balanced libretto in two parts, and was Elgar's shortest libretto to date for a full-scale work. This meant there was a new dramatic contrast between the two states of life and death as presented in the two parts of the work, and also that the words now wouldn't confine the music but gave Elgar a flexible framework on which to develop his musical tapestry.

It is important to remember that in 1900 Elgar had been struggling for recognition for years, and had only recently enjoyed his first major success when the Enigma Variations were premiered and instantly lauded in 1899. He thus came to The Dream of Gerontius with a new assurance and he worked steadily on it through the first half of 1900, finishing the full score on 3rd August. The premiere was to take place in Birmingham in October, and there was consequently very little time for the choral parts to be prepared and the chorus to learn the music. The Birmingham Festival Chorus Master who had prepared the choir for King Olaf a few years earlier and was thus familiar with Elgar's compositional style, had died suddenly in June. Because the choir had a break during the summer months, there was even less time for them to prepare. In addition, the complicated process of proof reading the parts was compounded because the publisher would not go to the expense of having the full score copied: there were just ten days for the conductor Hans Richter to learn the score.

The premiere on 3rd October was therefore under-rehearsed and somewhat chaotic. It was naturally not to Elgar's satisfaction and there was a tepid response from the critics. Shortly afterwards Elgar wrote, "I always said God was against art… I have allowed my heart to open once - it is now shut against every religious feeling and every soft, gentle impulse forever." This was perhaps pessimistic and overdramatic, but it does show how he felt about his work: earlier that year he wrote, "I've written it out of my insidest inside" and at the end of the score he had copied a quotation from Ruskin "this is the best of me": his disappointment was understandable. Elgar shared a constant correspondence with his publisher and great friend Jaeger throughout the conception of the work: Jaeger had written in May "You must not, cannot expect this work of yours to be appreciated by the ordinary amateur (or critic!) after one hearing". It was another German, Julius Buths the Director of the North Rhein Festival, who exceeded Jaeger's expectations: he heard the premiere and organised further performances in Düsseldorf for the following two seasons. Richter conducted the work again in 1903 with the Hallé in Manchester, and the piece's reputation grew gradually from these early outings into the towering status it enjoys today as a cornerstone of the choral repertoire.

For the first performance Jaeger wrote an analysis of the score that contained many insights into the meaning of the musical fabric. With the composer's approval, he labelled Elgar's musical motives, or short melodic ideas, and set about explaining their genesis through the piece. The orchestral prelude begins with hushed strings presenting the 'Judgement' theme. Even more tonally ambiguous is the
'Fear' theme that rises through the hushed strings with each part in a different, unrelated key. This leads into the 'Prayer' theme, closely related in melodic style to chant, and then immediately Elgar transforms the 'Fear' theme into a repetitive figure in the bass, over which he lays 'Sleep' which he characterised as "lying down weary and distressed". As the bass ostinato continues, we hear a descending melody ('Miserere') and then immediately a chromatically aspiring melody which somehow always falls down again: 'Despair'. All of this material is combined and transformed, suggesting Gerontius's loneliness and the challenge of his journey to come, until we reach a sequence ('Commital') in which Elgar uses a broad melody to build to the prelude's climax. After this the music ebbs away leaving the 'Judgement' theme alone again once more, whereupon we hear the first utterance of the mortally ill Gerontius.

As the orchestral prelude ends, it is important to remember that the orchestra is not hereafter relegated to second place after an initial showpiece 'overture' style, but it begins on equal footing with the singers, as expressive partner and dramatic commentator. Further to the achievement of synthesising this orchestral and motivic development style of Wagner with his own harmonic idiom, in The Dream of Gerontius Elgar developed a technique of writing for the soloist that allowed a clear understanding but musically flexible setting of the text. From this moment in the piece, Newman's text at the same time defines and inspires the composer's melody because of the speech rhythms of the poetry. From his sketches, we can deduce that the composer worked tirelessly at capturing the very essence of the verse in his musical notes, and in the resulting arioso recitative music.

The chorus play a variety of roles throughout the piece, initially as Gerontius' friends praying at his bedside, and later as Demons and Angelicals, and these are essential in portraying the universality of Newman's theme. On that matter it is of note that the name 'Gerontius' is never actually sung in the piece (leading to an unresolvable debate as to the name's pronunciation!) This specific omission must also contribute to the universality of the character which Elgar envisaged: "I imagined Gerontius to be a man like us, not a Priest or a Saint, but a sinner, a repentant one of course but still no end of a worldly man in his life, and now brought to book. Therefore I have not filled his part with Church tunes and rubbish but a good, full-blooded romantic, remembered worldliness..."

It is significant that Elgar chose to set the part of the Angel for a woman singer: this would have been justifiable simply as a contrast in tessitura from the other roles, but through her guiding the Soul during Part II, Elgar wrote his greatest love duet which has echoes of maternal guidance and marital tenderness, and would have much less poignancy if it were between two male singers. Briefly preceded by an echo of bedside prayer from Part I, Gerontius's glimpse of God is an unforgettable musical moment for the uninitiated concert-goer. It is perhaps surprising to note that Elgar was persuaded at a very late stage to include it, at the insistence of Jaeger: after initial concerns of it being vulgar, when Elgar was finally convinced he wrote to his friend that "of course, it's biggity-big!". The burial service prayers led by the Priest at Gerontius's passing at the end of Part I are mirrored by the Angel of the Agony towards the end of Part II with the eternal prayers for 'souls which are so dear to thee': both are awesome figures and add a liturgical solemnity to the musical proceedings. The second is followed by the Angel's farewell, during which Elgar pulls together all of his musical material as the Soul passes into Purgatory. We hear the Psalm 'Lord thou hast been our refuge', and then echoes from the earlier hymn 'Praise to the Holiest' and the Angelicals music, before the ambiguous tonality of the very opening of the piece is settled, and the key D major emerges on 'Amen' with a rising, heavenward melody in the strings.


James Burton, May 2003
[Note to other societies: you are welcome to use the whole or parts of this text in your own programmes, but if you do please include an acknowledgement to the Aylesbury Choral Society.]