BY JOHN CURRIE
The Dream of Gerontius is a journey, the epic journey of a hero through dangers and lands unknown. The music is continuous, divided only into two major parts and is a dramatic narrative rather than an oratorio. Perhaps the best way a conductor can introduce Gerontius (for audiences who in many cases, and especially in the United States, have not heard the work before) is with description of the resources and characters, before leading the future listener through the "plot".
First, the resources and characters. Gerontius is written for two large choirs, a third very small choir, a large symphony orchestra and solo characters. At the center of the drama is "Gerontius,” a real man ("flesh and blood” to use Elgar's terms). Apart from his warm, passionate nature, Gerontius, like all of us, also shows fear and weakness in face of the terrible journey he must undertake. I find in the music and words a third, endearing characteristic of the man: he is endlessly curious. Listen carefully to his questions, naive and searching, as he travels with the Angel in Part II.
''The Priest,” who appears in Part I only, is a figure of majesty. This is no servant of a great house, murmuring the Last Rites. Rather he reminds of some commanding figure in the old Anglo-Saxon or Norse sagas in which the hero was "sent forth'' on the journey through death. The Priest's role is crucial in the understanding of Gerontius as an epic rather than a conventional oratorio. In Part II there appears ''The Angel,” sung by a mezzo-soprano. A remarkable creature, the Angel guides, teaches, and comforts Gerontius, but never protects. She calls him ''brother dear," and when at the farewell she sings "Softly and gently ... in my loving arms I now enfold thee," we witness a scene which will remind some of the Christian Pieta as depicted by the Renaissance painters. Others will simply be moved by a scene of human love after a time of crisis and terror.
Also in Part II is "The Angel of the Agony'' (sung by the same voice as the Priest), a dark figure who intercedes for Gerontius before the judgment. He is the least human of all the characters.
In both parts of the story, Gerontius is surrounded by many other beings, human and supernatural. In Part I, there are friends, who are turbulently concerned for their hero. "Rescue him!" ''Be merciful,” ''Deliver him!" are their cries. And there are the ritual assistants (the small choir) who pray and support the Priest in the timeless ceremonies of death. In Part II the friends and acolytes are still heard as echoes from another world, but now the chorus takes on new roles: angelical beings and demons. The "Deaths Door" by William Blake, 1805-08. Angelicals are heard in the long celestial scene ''Praise to the Holiest.” These are creatures whose only function is adoration and ecstatic praise - an idea somewhat remote from modem life. The Demons are unusual. They are noble, powerful, super-intelligent creatures, soured by bitterness, exile, and cynicism. To them humans are “low-born clods of brute earth" who "aspire to become gods:' Theirs (they claim) is "the high thought and the glance of fire.” They are "the primal owners of the proud dwelling and the realm of light.” Their intellectual pride and aristocratic arrogance chill the heart.
So much for the characters as they appear to me through the words and music. Now the tale itself.
A substantial orchestral prelude outlines the work's melodies and motifs and leads without a break to the first words of Gerontius, who is dying. He wavers between defiance and fear despite the repeated comfortings of the friends. The scene is interrupted by "Sanctus fortis,” a huge operatic aria, in which Gerontius states his beliefs, while the orchestra ranges between calm passages of assurance and great tragic outbursts. The aria ends as the friends again become disturbed for Gerontius (''Rescue him!"). The small choir chants a litany, the others responding ''Amen.” Gerontius dies, quietly, with the unfinished sentence "Into thy hands ...”
Enter the Priest, to a sonorous brass chord, to launch Gerontius on the second phase of his journey. The chorus takes up the Priest's command "Go forth upon thy journey!" and the first part of the drama ends calmly and serenely. At this point applause is appropriate (and also at the very end of Part II). Elgar constructed his work fully bearing in mind the conventional patterns of applause and intermission.
Part II opens with hushed music for the strings, strangely still sounds which seem to hover around a point. Some listeners describe it as other-wordly or unearthly; to me it is music of the stillness and freshness of early morning. This passage is quintessential Elgar, a man steeped in the sights and sounds of his native countryside. Gerontius, (now re-named The Soul) tries to describe his new state - the timelessness. He hears what may be music, but does not know whether he hears, touches, or tastes it. Quietly, the Angel appears (''My work is done"). This creature intersperses her own words with gentle "alleluias.” Gerontius speaks with her, alive with questions about his new state. A dialogue develops. The Demons are heard, rising to frenzy of pride and bitterness. They fade.
Gerontius now asks if he will see God. "Yes, for one moment" replies the Angel. “. . . that sight of the most fair will gladden thee but it will pierce thee too.” Then follows the long extraordinary celestial scene in which doors seem to open and close as distant angelicals sing. The doors open wide at last to the climactic "Praise to the Holiest in the height.” This extended scene is unique in symphonic choral music.
Gerontius is now to meet his judgment. The Angel of the Agony solemnly utters his dark intercession, echoes of voices are heard from earth. An ecstatic ''Alleluia'' from the Angel leads to a rising orchestral sequence, an instant of silence, and a great orchestral crash. Gerontuis has seen God, and cries ''Take me away and in the lowest deep there let me dwell.” He sings of the sadness which comes after the unrepeatable climax of his existence. The Angel takes Gerontius in her arms and commits him to the dark waters. It is her farewell, deeply sad and touching. The scene is from human life, not from any dream or fantasy. Echoes float from the choirs, and quiet throbbing ''Amens" end the hero's journey.
At the end of his manuscript Elgar wrote some words of John Ruskin: ''This is the best of me; for the rest I ate and drank, and slept and loved and hated, like another; my life was as the vapour and is not: but this I saw and knew: this, of anything of mine is worth your memory:'
HISTORICAL NOTES BY
RICHARD H. TRAME, S.J. Ph.D.
Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) completed his Dream of Gerontius during the winter of 1899-1900 in immediate preparation for its performance in October, 1900, at the Birmingham Triennial Festival. He told his great and lifelong friend, Sir lvor Atkins, however, that he had been thinking about its composition for the previous ten years and had by 1899 already prepared a large number of sketches.
Elgar had initially intended to submit his oratorio The Apostles for that Festival's performance. He realized that its magnitude precluded his completing The Apostles on time. Hence he offered The Dream of Gerontius which was accepted. Gerontius (Opus 38) is bracketed among Elgar's creations by Opus 36, the famed Enigma Variations, and by Opus 39, the familiar Pomp and Circumstance Marches.
Elgar related to Atkins in 1925 how he had long considered setting John Henry Newman's outstanding poem on death. He, the English Catholic composer, had for many years possessed a copy of Newman's, the English Catholic convert's mystical work, The Dream of Gerontius. Another copy of it given Elgar by a priest of Worcester as a wedding present in 1889 contained annotations made by that curiously unorthodox, mystical Christian, General "Chinese" Gordon of Khartoum. Gordon had treasured Newman's poem along with his Bible as a source of spiritual uplift.
It is also interesting to note that Elgar, as so many Englishmen of the time enamored of Gordon's exploits, had contemplated around 1898 the composition of a "Gordon Symphony" honoring the late revered general. He did not pursue it since he felt at the time insufficiently prepared to write a symphony.
By Elgar's day Newman's poem had attained, as William Ewart Gladstone observed in 1888, a firm position in Nineteenth Century Victorian literature. Elgar carefully chose most though not all of the poem for his composition.
John-Henry Newman's (1801-90) spiritual odyssey led him through a youthful orientation toward Calvinism and Fundamentalism to ordination in 1825 at Oxford as an Anglican priest. Then as a result of his deep involvement in the Tractarian or Oxford Movement to make the Church of England more catholic (High Church) he converted in 1845 to Roman Catholicism. Not without serious thought and meditation had he taken this momentous and wrenching step. It would involve him, especially after his ordination as a Roman Catholic priest in 1847, in an extraordinarily active life of controversy. These battles he fought with his highly theological sermons and his incisive journalism as he defended Catholicism in England. Parliament had only in 1829 restored civil status to Roman Catholics, and in 1850 had permitted the restoration of the Roman hierarchy, an event Newman hailed as a "Second Spring" for Catholicism in England.
Thus by 1865 after his failure to secure the founding of a Catholic university in Ireland and after a particularly sharp controversy waged against the well-known Charles Kingsley in defense of the Roman clergy, Newman averred that up to that point his life seemed to him a "do-nothing" affair. Were it not for our knowledge of the great impact he exerted on the Church's life for the next 20 years, we might consider Newman's judgment as indicative of burn-out. Being near 64 and thinking himself an old man, his thoughts gravitated strongly toward impending death and his Last End. The Dream of Gerontius (Gerontius being a Greek derivative for "old man”) gave immortal, fervently sonorous and exquisite expression to the Catholic theology of death and judgment. The old man serenely dies, his soul led by an angel enters the next life, confronts eternity, his own inborn evil propensities, the animosity of Satan's cohorts for mankind, and the redemptive love of the Crucified. As the California Franciscan, Fr. Julius Gliebe, in 1916 noted: 'The Soul is judged and with the intemperate energy of love it flies to the feet of Emmanuel; but before it reaches them it is seized and scorched by the flame of Everlasting Love, consumed but quickened by the glance of God.” Before it can stand in God's sight it realizes its need of utter purgation as the Angel departs with the words:
Farewell, but not for ever!
Brother dear, be brave and
patient on thy bed of sorrow
Swiftly shall pass thy night of
trial here and I will come and
wake thee on the morrow.
Elgar's significantly different English masterpiece has come to be considered among his three or four finest works. He was loath to call it by that "dreadful term" a Sacred Oratorio.
On October 3, 1900 in Birmingham (Newman's own permanent home where he had died but ten years previously) Gerontius struck a rock which seemed seriously to jeopardize its future survival. In addition to the fact that the choirmaster died during preparations, leaving the choir with exhausting and insufficient rehearsals and apprehensive of pitch accuracy coupled with three miscast leads, Elgar's frenetic tactlessness engendered failure. Charles Stanford's caustic remark after the work's conclusion to the effect that it exuded too much incense gave expression to the offense some Protestants took at its overtly Catholic character, particularly with respect to Purgatory. Stanford's comment appeared to reflect the more popular reaction to Newman's words than to Elgar's music. Nevertheless the high quality of Newman's poetry wedded to Elgar's obviously inventive music insured its future. The Elgar scholar, Diana McVeagh (The New Grove Dictionary, Vol 6) observes that Gerontius "is the first English work in which the orchestra is as expressive as the voices, the choral writing almost as much in advance, and the subtlely complicated integration of chorus and orchestra insured its revival and subsequent preeminent place in English music."
McVeagh notes too the impact which Richard Wagner's operas, especially "the dedicated seriousness" of Parsifal made on Elgar. She draws several interesting comparisons between Gerontius and these Wagnerian works. However, "The triumph of Gerontius,” she asserts “lies in how Elgar took what he wanted from his own past and from his predecessors to form a work conditioned by his country's festival demands at that moment when his religious and romantic fervor were perfectly matched, thereby creating music of such vigour, generosity, and startling candor.”