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The Dream of Gerontius (1899–1900)

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THE DREAM OF GERONTIUS - Synopsis

The oratorio opens with an orchestral prelude laying out some of the themes that will take on special significance as the story unfolds. The first voice we hear is that of Gerontius himself who tells us that he is dying and that Jesus is calling him home. The choir responds with a gentle chorus beginning with the words ‘Kyrie Eleison’ – ‘Lord have mercy’. After another short solo from Gerontius (Rouse thee my fainting soul) the chorus continues with prayers for the dying man. (Be merciful, be gracious, spare him, Lord.) Gerontius then declares his faith in words which may be familiar from hymn-books. (Firmly I believe and truly, God is three and God is one.

Gerontius then feels a recurrence of his final illness and sees a vision of the demons he will encounter later. The choir intones prayers for Gerontius, asking for him to be rescued as God had rescued some famous figures from the Old Testament – Noah, Job, Moses and David. Gerontius’s life gently slips away as he commends his soul to God (Into thy hands ....). After a brief pause we meet the priest who sends Gerontius’s soul on it’s journey. (Go forth upon thy journey Christian soul.) The choir joins in and Part One ends with a magnificent chorus.

Part two begins in a totally different sound-world. Gentle strings and woodwind play a prelude – we are now in the afterlife, on the journey with Gerontius’s soul. (I went to sleep and now I am refreshed.) He feels that he is not alone on his travels and he meets an angel who, after a brief conversation, tells him what’s in store for the future. He is, in fact, speeding towards the throne of Godwhere he will be judged. But first ‘Hungry and wild, to claim their property, and gather souls for hell’ there are the demons. The choir takes on the role of the dark forces themselves and sings a suitably demonic chorus. (Low- born clods of brute earth.) After they fade from sight the Angel tells Gerontius that when he arrives at the judgement hall he will see God for ‘a brief moment’ and Gerontius is awed by the prospect.

As Gerontius and the Angel arrive close to the judgement hall the first echoes are heard of what eventually builds into the choral climax of the whole work – Praise to the Holiest in the Height. The great chorus ends in a blaze of sound after which the mood darkens. Gerontius and the Angel are now in the presence of God. Distant voices from back on earth are heard and we meet the final character in the drama, the Angel of the Agony. He asks Jesus to spare Gerontius’s soul and Gerontius ‘goes before his judge’. The orchestra produces a shattering, explosive chord - Gerontius is spared, his soul ‘consumed yet quickened by the glance of God’. Gerontius pleads to be taken on to purgatory (Take me away and in the lowest deeps there let me be) and the Angel gently leads him onward. (Softly and gently, dearly ransomed soul, in my most loving arms I now enfold thee). The whole work ends as the Angel and the choir bid Gerontius ‘Farewell, but not forever’. 

Read the programme note on the Dream of Gerontius
 
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