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


The apostles Peter, James and John, had been fishing all night, and they had caught nothing.  Our Lord told them to let down their nets, and this they did.  The catch was  good.  When Simon Peter saw him, he fell at the knees of Jesus, saying,  'Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man'" (Lk 5,8). Peter did not want to be parted from Jesus.  That is why he clung to his knees.  At the same time he recognised his unworthiness.  He felt he could not remain in Our Lord's presence.  He wanted to be close, yet he felt he should keep away.  He was not worthy.  This is perhaps the way it will be for us after death.Death is the way which leads us to the vision of God, the moment when we shall see Him as He really is, and  find our total fulfilment in love's final choice.  The ultimate union with that which is most lovable, union with God, is the moment of ecstasy, the unending 'now' of complete happiness.  That vision will draw from us the response of surprise, wonder and joy which will be forever our prayer of praise.  We are made for that.”


(Cardinal Basil Hume “To be a Pilgrim” © St Paul Publications 1984)

In the Summer of 1898 Elgar was asked if he would write a major new work for the 1900 Birmingham Triennial Festival.  Now in his forties, he had long wanted recognition from the musical establishment, and with the recent success of works such as the Enigma Variations and Sea Pictures, he now felt able to undertake a more ambitious project.  He had been given a copy of Newman's 900-line poem on man's journey into the afterlife as a wedding present in 1889.  In the summer of 1900 he said "The poem has been soaking in my mind for at least eight years."  He started work in January of that year and worked on it for about six months.  He used slightly less than half of the poem, cutting whole sections and shortening others to focus on its central narrative: the story of a man's death and his soul's journey into the next world.  “I imagined Gerontius to be a man like us," he wrote to his friend, August Jaeger of Novello’s the music publisher, "Not a priest or a saint, but a sinner ... no end of a worldly man in his life, & now brought to book. Therefore I've not filled his part with Church tunes & rubbish but a good, healthy, full-blooded romantic, remembered worldliness.”
Combining the composition with other commitments: teaching, rehearsals with the Worcestershire Philharmonic and performances of Sea Pictures and the Enigma Variations, not to mention the odd round of golf and trips to see his beloved Wolverhampton Wanderers play (he composed the first-recorded football anthem for them), Elgar found it to be a daunting task to undertake and often felt a lack of confidence in his own ability to do it justice.  Fortunately Novello, his publisher, whom he had sent the manuscript of the first half of Part One in early March, was most encouraging: “I feel sure you will be equal to it, for … you seem to grow with the task”, Jaeger wrote.
An unfortunate combination of late completion of the vocal score (in early August), the untimely death of the festival choirmaster and the failure of both his replacement and the conductor, Hans Richter, to appreciate the complexity of the work led to an under-rehearsed and poorly received première.  Fortunately, a German choirmaster in the audience (Julius Buths, the Director of the Lower Rhine Festival,) recognised the work's considerable merits and produced subsequent sell-out performances in Düsseldorf in each of the following two years, which set the precedent for its place in the established choral repertory.
The poem and Elgar’s setting are distinctly Catholic in terms of the religious ideas conveyed, specifically the account of the soul’s need to pass through Purgatory before entering Heaven, a concept alien to Anglican and Protestant theology.  For this reason many contemporaries dismissed the work, Charles Villiers Stanford, a celebrated Anglican composer, allegedly saying that the work 'stank of incense'.  The Dream of Gerontius is not, however an exposition of Catholic doctrine, but an allegorical representation of the transition from time to eternity.  A hundred years on and religious sensitivities have given way to a wider appreciation of the work’s greatness and it is now undoubtedly the most popular and among the most frequently performed of all Elgar's choral works
The orchestral Prelude to Part 1, which opens with a dark, pianissimo theme in D-minor, the “Judgement Theme”, presents all of the work's main themes. They are some of Elgar's most fertile melodic ideas, so dovetailed that each flows seamlessly into the next.  As it fades away, we hear Gerontius on his deathbed praying.
Elgar gives him a unique vocal style, which is neither simple recitative nor full singing, but which lets the music shape itself to the words in a natural and expressive way.  We can hear it in the first line, 'Jesu, Maria, I am near to death“.  In his first eighteen opening lines Gerontius goes through feelings of desperation, terror, supplication and then exhausted calm.
Gerontius's friends pray at his bedside with a 'Kyrie eleison' ('Lord have mercy') that begins in the a cappella semi-chorus.  At the rehearsals for the first performance, Elgar urged the chorus not to sing as though they were in church, but with “more tears in their voices,” as though they were at the side of a dying friend.  The friends' prayers rouse Gerontius to a more spirited solo, followed by a second choral section in the form of a subdued fugue, ‘Be merciful, be gracious’.  Gerontius's emotional and passionate statement of faith, ‘Sanctus fortis' follows, its final bars marked piangendo ('wailingly')."
'Rescue him, O Lord,' sing his friends and Gerontius utters his dying words, 'Novissima hora est,' ('It is the final hour'). After a brief pause, the Priest pronounces the final blessing: 'Proficiscere, anima Christiana, de hoc mundo' ('Go forth from this world, Christian soul').  Elgar here conveys faith, sorrow and wonder, all at once, in one of the work's most inspired passages, in which at the words 'Go in the name of Angels and Archangels,' the chorus joins in, building to a triple forte on the words 'go forth', expressing an affirmative trust in the dying man’s new life beyond the grave.  The Priest again gives a blessing, the accompaniment softens to a single melody for the first violins, and with one last, gentle swell of orchestra the first part closes on the words 'through Christ our Lord'.
Part 2 opens with a new, delicate melody marked dolce e legato whose light 3/4 time, displaying none of the rhythmic pulse that permeates Part 1, tells us that time no longer exists, ‘I hear no more the busy beat of time … nor does one moment differ from the next’.  His soul begins to sing 'I went to sleep; and now I am refreshed’.  The discrete physical senses that informed his earthly body are gone, but he is aware of being carried forward and of his Guardian Angel singing, ‘I hear a singing; yet in sooth I cannot of that music rightly say whether I touch or taste the tones’.  There follows one of the work's most memorable passages: the dialogue between the Soul and the Angel which the musical setting interprets with great imagination.  The Soul is hesitant, but curious to know 'a maze of things' about his new condition. The Angel's response is understanding and compassionate: 'You cannot now Cherish a wish which ought not to be wished.'  Gerontius wonders why he has not already seen God and the Angel explaining that they are fast approaching the place of Judgement, reassures the Soul and the Soul sings of his new-found joy.
Close by the Court of Judgement Gerontius's soul hears the demons singing a fierce, mocking fugue, intensified by cries of sarcastic laughter, complaining at their expulsion from Heaven and expressing cynical disdain for the Saints who have inherited it.  As the demons pass, the Soul notices that he has only heard them, not seen them. Will he be able to see God?  The Angel says he will, but warns that 'the flame of the Everlasting Love Doth burn ere it transform.'
There is distant music, angelical beings singing 'Praise to the Holiest in the height.'  There is a great, expectant moment as the Angel sings, ecstatically, 'And now the threshold, as we traverse it, Utters aloud its glad responsive chant'  when all the voices join together triple-forte, singing 'Praise to the Holiest' with thrilling support from the orchestra. This is the beginning of one of the most elaborate and stirring passages in choral music: Elgar called it 'the great Blaze.' The music swings into a second subject in 6/4 time on the words 'O loving wisdom of our God!' and the two subjects blossom and intertwine in soaring four- and eight-part harmonies. (As a boy, Elgar had taken advantage of living close to Worcester Cathedral by spending much time listening to the music there.  He subsequently developed a familiarity with the choral works of Bach, Handel, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Dvořák as a violinist in the Festival orchestras.  The knowledge of cathedral acoustics and of choral writing that these experiences gave him are apparent throughout this powerful song of praise.
A brief orchestral passage leads to the Judgement scene. The Angel of the Agony, a second part for the bass, pleads with Jesus to 'spare these souls which are do dear to Thee.' We then hear the voices on earth praying at Gerontius's bedside, indicating that all the events of Part 2 have happened in an instant of time. The Angel sings a last 'Alleluia,' and the Judgement theme builds up throughout the orchestra, as the Soul crosses the threshold and enters the Presence of God.  Elgar marks this point tutta forza, 'For one moment, must every instrument exert its fullest force.'

The sight of God is so overwhelming that, aware of his unworthiness to be there, the Soul sings 'Take me away,' he needs to join the Souls in Purgatory, who are heard singing the psalm, 'Lord, Thou has been our refuge'.  Now comes the great song of compassion that crowns the work, 'Softly and gently, dearly-ransomed soul,' as the Angel leads the Soul to Purgatory.  The work draws to a close with the simultaneous singing of 'Praise to the Holiest' by the chorus of Angelicals and the psalm by the Souls, coming together on a repeated 'Amen' to bring this wonderful work softly and serenely to a close.


Peter Carey

Royal Free Singers, Windsor

[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 Royal Free Singers.]