Elgar and “The Dream of Gerontius”

Courtney Lewis, Conducting ElectricityLeave a Comment

The season is underway, and we’re getting ready for a weekend of concerts that feature a piece especially close to my heart. I doubt many of you know it since it’s rarely played outside the British Isles, yet it contains music that offers some of the concert hall’s deepest spiritual experiences. I’d like to spend this column telling you a little about Elgar’s masterpiece, The Dream of Gerontius.

Edward Elgar was the first great English composer since Henry Purcell. Almost two hundred years elapsed between their births, causing Germans to refer to England as “The Land Without Music.” Born in 1857, we often associate Elgar with his Pomp and Circumstances marches and all things imperial. Yet he was anything but the quintessential Edwardian gentleman. He was born in the provinces, near Worcester in Gloucestershire, the son of a humble shopkeeper. In a brutally class-conscience society, this made him an outsider. Worst of all, he was a Catholic in a fastidiously devout Episcopalian country.

Elgar’s rise to fame was slow. He was 42 when his “Variations on an Original Theme” (usually referred to as the Enigma Variations) catapulted him to international attention. By then he had spent years teaching unpromising students and even conducting the band of the local lunatic asylum. Most astonishingly, and I think uniquely in music history, he was entirely self-taught in composition, studying scores as a boy at the back of his father’s music shop.

Immediately after the success of the Enigma Variations, Elgar was commissioned to write an oratorio by the Birmingham Three Choirs Festival. Handel’s influence on British musical culture had been so great that the oratorio was seen as the most prestigious vehicle for composition, and the festival’s prestige offered Elgar a great opportunity. A few years before he had been married, and at his wedding the priest had given him a copy of a poem by Cardinal Newman. To understand the significance of this, we need to wade into a little history.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Oxford Movement sought to reincorporate some of the mystical and liturgical elements of Catholicism that had been stripped from the Church of England during the Reformation. John Henry Newman was an Episcopal priest who converted to Catholicism, later becoming a Cardinal. He wrote a poem entitled “The Dream of Gerontius”, and it was a copy of this that Elgar was given at his wedding.

“The Dream of Gerontius” tells the story of a devout believer and his journey through death into the afterlife, his judgement by God, and his descent into Purgatory where he will prepare and atone before entering heaven. “Gerontius” just means an old man, and in the poem, he represents all of us – he’s an Everyman.

Elgar’s composition is in two parts. In part one, we meet Gerontius on his deathbed. His friends are standing around the bed praying; this is a drama of life and death. The prelude sets up a faltering mood in the orchestra, as if we can imagine Gerontius’s heartbeat ceasing to pulse. We hear music from his life, from the church. His friends sing a Kyrie, the beginning of the mass. As he lies dying, Gerontius reminds himself of his faith. He’s encouraged by the songs of those around him, and he steels himself for the journey ahead.

By part two, Gerontius has moved into the afterlife. On hearing an utterly timeless music containing no pulse, he realizes he has entered a realm in which time has eased to tick. Almost immediately he meets his guardian angel who explains she will guide him to the judgement court, where he will see God for one brief moment.

Gerontius travels through a terrifying throng of demons who try to drag him down into hell. He arrives at the holiest place, where choirs of angels sing “Praise to the Holiest in the heights, and in the depths be praise”. Even writing those lines gives me goosebumps as I imagine the music that accompanies them.

After a terrifying walk into the court of judgement, Gerontius sees God for one brief moment. Elgar asks every instrument in the orchestra to play “with the greatest possible force” – a terrifying effect. Chastened by God’s majesty and his own wretchedness, the archangel takes Gerontius down into Purgatory, where he will remain until his soul is purified and ready for heaven.

Elgar paints this astonishing journey in music of incredible psychological nuance. The score is full of leitmotifs: fragments of melody that act as specific memories of previous thoughts and fears. The Dream of Gerontius is unlike anything else in music. It’s not an opera, yet it is highly dramatic, featuring three soloists, three choruses and an enormous orchestra. Because its construction is highly symphonic, the label ‘oratorio’ seems equally unsuitable. The mystical atmosphere, the shifting chromaticism of the harmony – which makes us feel unsteady and unsafe – the heartfelt Romanticism, and the symphonic nature of its composition have drawn many to compare it to Wagner’s music drama Parsifal. There’s much to say for that, although Elgar’s statement is much more personal.

So what does this arcane subject have to say to us today, shrouded as it is in theology that seems almost irrelevant at the remove of a century? From his first word, we identify with Gerontius. We understand his fear of the unknown, his uncertainty, and his desire to comprehend both the meaning of his own life and what might come next. We experience all this even if we don’t believe the story. The music creates another world, far from the familiarity and tawdriness of earthly life. Elgar’s orchestration is perhaps the greatest of any Romantic composer, astonishing in its lushness and clarity. From the first to last moment we are swept away by its seductive and terrifying strength.

I think every musician has a composer with whom he especially identifies. I don’t mean Mozart, Beethoven or Haydn – they are at the centre of everything we do. But another composer, perhaps off the beaten track, who seems to speak our particular accent and touch our innermost being. For me, that composer is Elgar. No other Romantic seems to be speaking to me quite as directly. His music makes one want to be a better person, while reminding one that someone else has experienced every doubt, every joy, and every moment of nostalgia. This is one of the greatest comforts music can offer us.

Of all Elgar’s masterpieces, perhaps Gerontius is his greatest. This is music that makes the spirit soar, while imparting a grave humility. Elgar felt this too, inscribing the final page of the score with a quotation from John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies:

“This is the best of me;

for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another:

my life was as the vapour and is not;

but this I saw and knew;

this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.”

The classical repertoire is full of inspiring, life-changing music. But personally, few works have haunted and enriched my life as much as Gerontius. It’s a piece that refuses to let you go, challenging you to ask yourself the deepest questions about life and death. I’m delighted to introduce it to Jacksonville for the first time, and I hope you’ll consider joining us on November 11 and 12.

Reprinted with the kind permission of the Florida Times-Union.

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