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The Dream of Gerontius (1899–1900)

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Today, Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius is a national monument. But at its first performance in Birmingham, 105 years ago, the music was thought daring, even difficult, while the subject matter was viewed in some quarters with intense suspicion. One of Elgar’s problems is neatly, if unintentionally, illustrated on the reverse side of some of the Bank of England's £20 note.

The composer is portrayed against a background that includes the cathedral of his native city, Worcester. But Worcester Cathedral is Anglican, Protestant; Elgar was a Roman Catholic.

The text of The Dream of Gerontius – by the Victorian Catholic convert, Cardinal John Henry Newman – is rich in doctrine that had been emphatically rejected by the Protestant church since the time of the Reformation. The central character, Gerontius (the name derives from the Ancient Greek gero¯n, meaning simply ‘old man’), prays for assistance to the Blessed Virgin Mary and to other saints, and after his soul-searing first sight of God, he doesn’t go straight to Heaven, but is committed to Purgatory for purification. For some Protestants in Elgar’s day, all this would have been pure heresy. When a performance of Gerontius was proposed for the 1902 Three Choirs Festival, the Bishop of Worcester objected. Performance in the Cathedral was only permitted once the text had been modified: the words ‘Jesus’, ‘Lord’ or ‘Saviour’ were substituted for ‘Mary’; ‘souls’ for ‘souls in Purgatory’; ‘prayers’ for ‘Masses’; and so on. It may seem petty now, but in early 20th-century England these were acutely sensitive issues.

As for the music, let us not forget that Elgar was a Wagnerian, and that for many English music-lovers in 1900, Wagner was still very difficult modern music. The modernity of Elgar’s writing was too much even for the experienced Birmingham Festival Choir: the Demons’ Chorus and much of the semi-chorus writing came over poorly at the Birmingham premiere.

Elgar’s debt to Wagner was recognised at an early stage of the work’s composition by his close friend August Jaeger (the ‘Nimrod’ of the ‘Enigma’ Variations): ‘Since Parsifal nothing of this mystic, religious kind of music has appeared to my knowledge that displays the same power and beauty as yours. Like Wagner you seem to grow with your greater, more difficult subject and I am now most curious and anxious to know how you will deal with that part of the poem where the Soul goes within the presence of the Almighty. There is a subject for you!’ But it was at that very point in the story that Elgar’s Wagnerian nerve temporarily failed him. ‘Please remember that none of the “action” takes place in the presence of God,’ he replied to Jaeger. ‘I would not have tried that, neither did Newman. The Soul says “I go before my God” – but we don’t – we stand outside.’

Fortunately for us, Jaeger was underwhelmed by Elgar’s first, over-cautious musical setting of this passage and bullied the composer repeatedly: ‘I have tried and tried and tried, but it seems to me the weakest page of the work! Do re-write it! … It seems mere whining to me and not at all impressive.’ Eventually Elgar gave in and complied – and the result is possibly the most original moment in the whole score. As Gerontius goes to be ‘consumed, yet quicken’d, by the glance of God’, there is an awe-inspiring crescendo; then the full orchestra, with organ and four percussionists, delivers a lacerating Parsifal-like discord – but only for a split second:

Elgar marks it fffz-p. The effect is like a blinding flash of light, infinitesimally brief, but one which leaves the eyes and brain reeling. Even the supremely egotistic Wagner would have had to acknowledge Elgar’s mastery here.

There was something else Elgar learnt from Wagner – though, as with every influence on Gerontius, he digested it so thoroughly that the listener hears only authentic Elgar. Before Wagner, operas and oratorios tended to be arranged in numbers: arias, duets, ensembles, choruses – all more or less detachable from the larger dramatic argument. In his music dramas Wagner found a way of making dramatic works evolve continuously, seamlessly, like huge symphonies. Elgar achieves something very similar in The Dream of Gerontius. Some sections – like the Angel’s beautiful lullaby ‘Softly and gently’ from the end of Part 2 – can be extracted, with the help of a little surgery; but even then there are details (recollections of earlier themes, for instance) which only make sense if heard in context. And the sense of symphonic current – steadily, if at times slowly, unfolding – is essential to the work’s message. Early in Part 2, Gerontius’s disembodied soul describes how ‘a uniform and gentle pressure tells me that I am not self-moving, but borne forward on my way’. Elgar’s music registers the sense of that ‘uniform and gentle pressure’ with subtle power. In a good performance, we can feel that we too are ‘borne forward’, through the Demons’ Chorus, through the angelic hymn ‘Praise to the Holiest in the height’, to the final, agonising yet transfiguring encounter with God.

The sense of symphonic current is audible right from the start. Clarinets, bassoons and violas introduce a quiet, lamenting theme, at first unaccompanied, then continuing against a slow, heavy tread from double basses and low woodwind. Slow as it is, it moves; there is a sense – as in all great symphonies – that something could grow from this. The theme doesn’t merely provide the impetus; it is also a melodic seed. The shape created by the first four notes (A–G sharp– A–G natural) has an influence on almost all the important motifs in Gerontius. These thematic inter-relations are so ingenious and far-reaching that one can imagine Elgar spending hours of concentrated mental effort on them. But Elgar insisted that it all came about by instinct – none of it was consciously contrived.

The orchestral Prelude leads without a break into Gerontius’s first words, ‘Jesu, Maria’. The music keenly registers the dying man’s hope and dread. Other voices join with him: souls on Earth and in Heaven, praying for his deliverance. There is a magnificent, impassioned declaration of faith (‘Sanctus fortis’), more choral prayers, then the moment of death (‘and I fain would sleep, the pain has wearied me’). The almost heart-breaking sadness of this passage may derive, not so much from Elgar’s faith, as from his doubts, and from the dark, depressive side of his character. The critic Ernest Newman remembered an occasion, not long after the premiere of Gerontius, when Elgar’s wife ‘tactfully steered the conversation away from the topic of suicide that had suddenly arisen; she whispered to me that Edward was always talking of making an end of himself’.

But this is not the end of Gerontius’s adventures. The words of the Priest (‘Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul’) send him on his way to the next world.

Then in Part 2 comes the meeting with the Angel, the encounter with demons, the angelic hymn, and the spiritual thunderbolt when Gerontius glimpses God for the first time. Elgar reserves one of the most beautiful of all the melodies in Gerontius for the end: the Angel’s consoling ‘Softly and gently’. Nearly a century after Gerontius was almost denied entry to Worcester Cathedral, this music is now cherished by believers of many denominations, as well as by countless agnostic music-lovers. It is no longer the doctrine that matters, but the heartfelt expression of loss and hope in the face of death: ‘Farewell, but not for ever!’

Programme note by Stephen Johnson © BBC

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