In Literature and Music
“The most significant point about the Dream of Gerontius, which explains why the circumstances of its first performance have become part of the folklore of English music, is that Elgar instinctively knew he was writing something very special. When he finished it, he quoted Ruskin on the manuscript score: “This is the best of me… this, if anything of mine, is worth of memory”. It was written “from my insides inside”, he confided to a friend, and to another he wrote that “you will find Gerontius far beyond anything I’ve yet done ……….I’ve written my own heart ’s blood into the score”.
The Dream of Gerontius, popularly called just Gerontius, is a work for voices and orchestra (Op. 38) in two parts composed by Edward Elgar in 1900, to text from the poem by John Henry Newman. It relates the journey of a pious man’s soul from his deathbed to his judgment before God and settling into Purgatory. Although Elgar himself disapproved of the term «oratorio» being applied to this work, it was consistently referred to as an oratorio throughout Elgar’s lifetime, and is usually called such in studies of the work today. It is widely regarded as Elgar’s finest choral work, and some consider it his masterpiece.The work was composed for the Birmingham Music Festival of 1900 and the first performance took place on 3 October 1900, in Birmingham Town Hall. It was badly performed at the premiere, but later performances in Germany revealed its stature. In the first decade after its premiere, the Roman Catholic dogma in Newman’s poem caused difficulties in getting the work performed in Anglican cathedrals, and a revised text was used for performances at the Three Choirs Festival until 1910.
Elgar was not the first composer to consider setting John Henry Newman’s poem «The Dream of Gerontius». Dvořák had considered it fifteen years earlier, and had discussions with Newman, before abandoning the idea. Elgar knew the poem well. He had owned a copy since at least 1885, and in 1889 he was given another copy as a wedding present. This contained handwritten copies of extensive notes that had been made by General Gordon, and Elgar is known to have considered the text in musical terms for several years. Throughout the 1890s, Elgar had composed several large-scale works for the regular festivals that were a key part of Britain’s musical life. In 1898, based on his growing reputation, he was asked to write a major work for the 1900 Birmingham Triennial Music Festival. He was unable to start work on the poem that he knew so well until the autumn of 1899, and did so only after first considering a different subject.
Cardinal Newman’s poem tells of the journey of a man’s soul after death – Gerontius may be translated roughly as old man. Elgar was given a copy of the poem in 1889 as a wedding present. But, while he undoubtedly toyed with the idea of setting it to music intermittently over the intervening period, the decision to do so for the 1900 Birmingham festival appears to have been taken somewhat at the last minute – his earlier ideas for the festival describe a work which eventually emerged as The Apostles.
The first performance was not a success. Neither W C Stockley, the chorus master, nor Hans Richter, the conductor, had grasped the complexity of the work and allowed insufficient time for rehearsals. But the more perceptive members of the audience recognised the work’s merit. These included Julius Buths, director of the Lower Rhine Festival, who staged the work in Dusseldorf in 1901. The performance, to a packed audience of 2500, was an unqualified success and was followed in March 1903 by further acclaimed performances on successive nights – the first by the Halle Orchestra, under Richter in Manchester, the second in Hanley with Elgar himself conducting.Today, the work is undoubtedly the most popular of all Elgar’s choral works, and indeed among the most frequently performed of all his works. Surely no-one can remain unmoved by the priest’s invocation to Gerontius – as part 1 ends – to ‘go forth’ (‘Proficiscere, anima Christiana’); nor, in part 2, by the chorus of ‘Praise to the Holiest’, the words of which were also taken to form the well-known hymn.
Newman’s poem tells the story of a soul’s journey through death, and provides a meditation on the unseen world of Roman Catholic theology. Gerontius (a name derived from the Greek word geron, «old man») is a devout Everyman. Elgar’s setting uses most of the text of the first part of the poem, which takes place on Earth, but omits many of the more meditative sections of the much longer, otherworldly second part, tightening the narrative flow.In the first part, we hear Gerontius as a dying man of faith, by turns fearful and hopeful, but always confident. A group of friends (also called «assistants» in the text) joins him in prayer and meditation. He passes in peace, and a priest, with the assistants, sends him on his way with a valediction. In the second part, Gerontius, now referred to as «The Soul», awakes in a place apparently without space or time, and becomes aware of the presence of his guardian angel, who expresses joy at the culmination of her task (Newman conceived the Angel as male, but Elgar gives the part to a female singer). After a long dialogue, they journey towards the judgment throne.They safely pass a group of demons, and encounter choirs of angels, eternally praising God for His grace and forgiveness. The Angel of the Agony pleads with Jesus to spare the souls of the faithful. Finally Gerontius glimpses God and is judged in a single moment. The Guardian Angel lowers Gerontius into the soothing lake of Purgatory, with a final benediction and promise of a re-awakening to glory.
Elgar followed the practice of Johann Sebastian Bach in dedicating his work «A.M.D.G.» (Ad maiorem Dei gloriam, or «To the greater glory of God»). Underneath this he wrote a line from Virgil: «Quae lucis miseris tam dira cupido?» together with Florio’s English translation of Montaigne’s adaptation of Virgil’s line: «Whence so dyre desire of Light on wretches grow?»At the end of the manuscript score, Elgar wrote this 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.Richter signed the autograph copy of the score with the inscription: «Let drop the Chorus, let drop everybody—but let not drop the wings of your original genius.»
The work calls for a large orchestra of typical late Romantic proportions, double chorus with semichorus, and usually three soloists. Gerontius is sung by a tenor, and the Angel is a mezzo-soprano. The Priest’s part is written for a baritone, while the Angel of the Agony is more suited to a bass; as both parts are short they are usually sung by the same performer, although some performances assign different singers for the two parts.The choir plays several roles: attendants and friends, demons, Angelicals (women only) and Angels, and souls in Purgatory. They are employed at different times as a single chorus in four parts, or as a double chorus in eight parts or antiphonally. The semichorus is used for music of a lighter texture; usually in performance they are composed of a few members of the main chorus; however, Elgar himself preferred to have the semi-chorus placed near the front of the stage.The required instrumentation comprises two flutes (II doubling piccolo), two oboes and cor anglais, two clarinets in A and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani plus three percussion parts, harp, organ, and strings. Elgar called for an additional harp if possible, plus three additional trumpets (and any available percussionists) to reinforce the climax in Part II, just before Gerontius’s vision of God.
Each of the two parts is divided into distinct sections but, differs from the traditional oratorio in that the music continues without significant breaks. Elgar did not call the work an oratorio, and disapproved when other people used the term for it. Part I is approximately 35 minutes long and Part II is approximately 60 minutes.
Part I: Prelude
Jesu, Maria – I am near to death
Rouse thee, my fainting soul
Sanctus fortis, sanctus Deus
Proficiscere, anima Christiana
I went to sleepIt is a member of that family
But hark! upon my sense comes a fierce hubbub
I see not those false spirits
But hark! a grand mysterious harmony
Thy judgment now is nearI go before my judge
Softly and gently, dearly-ransomed soul
The Dream of Gerontius is a poem written by John Henry Newman (February 21, 1801 – August 11, 1890) consisting of the prayer of a dying man, and angelic and demonic responses.Newman said that the poem «was written by accident – and it was published by accident.» He wrote it up in fair copy from fifty-two scraps of paper between 17 January and 7 February 1865 and published it in May and June of the same year, in two parts in the Jesuit periodical The Month. The poem inspired a choral work of the same name by Edward Elgar in 1900.
O στίχος του John Henry Newman, «I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch,» εμφανίζεται και στο Gerontion του T. S. Eliot.
Gerontion by T. S. Eliot
Thou hast nor youth nor age
But as it were an after dinner sleep
Dreaming of both.
HERE I am, an old man in a dry month,
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.
I was neither at the hot gates
Nor fought in the warm rain
Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,
Bitten by flies, fought.
My house is a decayed house,
And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner,
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.
The goat coughs at night in the field overhead;
Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds.
The woman keeps the kitchen, makes tea,
Sneezes at evening, poking the peevish gutter.I an old man,
A dull head among windy spaces.
Signs are taken for wonders. “We would see a sign!
”The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger
In depraved May, dogwood and chestnut, flowering judas,
To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk
Among whispers; by Mr. Silvero
With caressing hands, at Limoges
Who walked all night in the next room;
By Hakagawa, bowing among the Titians;
By Madame de Tornquist, in the dark room
Shifting the candles; Fräulein von Kulp
Who turned in the hall, one hand on the door. Vacant shuttles
Weave the wind. I have no ghosts,
An old man in a draughty house
Under a windy knob.
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
What’s not believed in, or if still believed,
In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with
Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think
Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.
The tiger springs in the new year. Us he devours. Think at last
We have not reached conclusion, when I
Stiffen in a rented house. Think at last
I have not made this show purposelessly
And it is not by any concitation
Of the backward devilsI would meet you upon this honestly.
I that was near your heart was removed therefrom
To lose beauty in terror, terror in inquisition.
I have lost my passion: why should I need to keep it
Since what is kept must be adulterated?
I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch:
How should I use them for your closer contact?
These with a thousand small deliberations
Protract the profit of their chilled delirium,
Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled,
With pungent sauces, multiply variety
In a wilderness of mirrors. What will the spider do,
Suspend its operations, will the weevil
Delay? De Bailhache, Fresca, Mrs. Cammel, whirled
Beyond the circuit of the shuddering Bear
In fractured atoms. Gull against the wind, in the windy straits
Of Belle Isle, or running on the Horn,
White feathers in the snow, the Gulf claims,
And an old man driven by the Trades
To a sleepy corner.
Tenants of the house,Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.