The Dream of Gerontius, popularly called just Gerontius, is an oratorio (Opus 38) in two parts composed by Edward Elgar in 1900, to text from the poem by Cardinal Newman. It relates the journey of a pious man's soul from his deathbed to his judgment before God and settling into Purgatory. It is widely regarded as Elgar's finest choral work, and by some to be his magnum opus. It was composed for the Birmingham Music Festival of 1900 and the first performance took place on 3 October 1900, in Birmingham Town Hall.
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.
The oratorio 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, but as both parts are short they are usually sung by the same performer. However, 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 includes 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, unlike in most oratorios before the time, the music continues without significant breaks. Part I is approximately 35 minutes long and Part II is approximately 60 minutes.
The work begins with an orchestral prelude which presents the most important motifs. In a detailed analysis, Elgar's friend and editor August Jaeger identified and named these themes, in line with their functions in the work.
Gerontius sings a prayer, knowing that life is leaving him and giving voice to his fear, and asks for his friends to pray with him. For much of the soloist's music, Elgar writes in a style that switches smoothly between exactly notated, fully accompanied recitative, and arioso phrases, lightly accompanied. The chorus adds devotional texts in four-part fugal writing. Gerontius's next utterance is a full-blown aria Sanctus fortis, a long credo that eventually returns to expressions of pain and fear. Again, in a mixture of conventional chorus and recitative, the friends intercede for him. Gerontius, at peace, submits, and the priest recites the blessing Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul! (a translation of the litany Ordo Commendationis Animae). This leads to a long chorus for the combined forces, ending Part I.
In a complete change of mood, Part II begins with a simple four-note phrase for the violas which introduces a gentle, rocking theme for the strings. This section is in triple time, as is much of the second part. The Soul's music expresses wonder at its new surroundings, and when the Angel is heard, she expresses quiet exultation at the climax of her task. They converse in an extended duet, again combining recitative with pure sung sections. Increasingly busy music heralds the appearance of the demons: fallen angels who express intense disdain of men, mere mortals by whom they were supplanted. Initially the men of the chorus sing short phrases in close harmony, but as their rage grows more intense the music shifts to a busy fugue, punctuated by shouts of derisive laughter.
Gerontius cannot see the demons, and asks if he will soon see his God. In a barely accompanied recitative that recalls the very opening of the work, the Angel warns him that the experience will be almost unbearable, and in veiled terms describes the stigmata of St. Francis. Angels can be heard, offering praises over and over again. The intensity gradually grows, and eventually the full chorus gives voice to a thrilling setting of the section that begins with Praise to the Holiest in the Height. After a brief orchestral passage, the Soul hears echoes from the friends he left behind on earth, still praying for him. He encounters the Angel of the Agony, whose intercession is set as an impassioned aria for bass. The Soul's Angel, knowing the long-awaited moment has come, sings an Alleluia.
The Soul now goes before God and, in a huge orchestral outburst, is judged in an instant. At this point in the score, Elgar instructs "for one moment, must every instrument exert its fullest force." This was not originally in Elgar's design, but was inserted at the insistence of Jaeger, and remains as a testament to the positive musical influence of his critical friendship with Elgar. In an anguished aria, the Soul then pleads to be taken away. A chorus of souls sings the first lines of Psalm 90 ("Lord, thou hast been our refuge") and, at last, Gerontius joins them in Purgatory. The final section combines the Angel, chorus, and semichorus in a prolonged song of farewell, and the work ends with overlapping Amens. This rearrangement of the text was devised by Elgar to adhere to the traditional form of the oratorio, which requires the work to end with a final statement by the chorus.
Like Cardinal Newman, Elgar was a Roman Catholic and was intimately familiar with the poem. 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 commission until the autumn of 1899 though, and after considering a different subject decided to tackle the poem that he now knew so well.
Composition proceeded quickly. Thanks to his Victorian habit of daily letter-writing, we have detailed insight into Elgar's interactions with Jaeger, his editor at the publisher Novello. The record shows how Jaeger helped in shaping the work, and in particular the crucial depiction of the moment of judgment. But one result of the haste was that, despite their very considerable experience and the confidence which Elgar reposed in them, the performers and conductor, Hans Richter, were given only a short time in which to come to terms with a complex, demanding and somewhat revolutionary work. The soloists at the Birmingham Festival on 3 October 1900 were Marie Brema, Edward Lloyd and Harry Plunket Greene. The first performance was, famously, a near disaster, but many of the critics could see past the imperfect realisation. The German chorus master Julius Buths made a translation and arranged a successful performance in Düsseldorf on 19 December 1901, and the work became quickly established in both Britain and Germany. In the first decades after its composition the leading performers of the soul were Gervase Elwes and John Coates, and Louise Kirkby Lunn, Elena Gerhardt and Julia Culp were admired as the angel.
Although Gerontius was, indeed, his greatest achievement to date, several major works were to come in the following decade.
The conductor Hans 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."
Until 1899, Elgar was generally regarded by the British musical establishment as a talented but essentially provincial composer and conductor. Most composers were academics. Furthermore, Britain was still looked down on by Continental Europe as having little to offer musically. With the Enigma Variations and Gerontius, Elgar showed Europe that Britain could produce music of great stature, and he showed Britain that it was possible to make a living primarily as a composer, which opened the door for a succession of musicians who were composers first and foremost.
The work itself has remained in the repertoire in both Britain and the U.S., during periods when Elgar's style has fallen in and out of favor, and despite its frank adherence to Catholic dogma. It is challenging, but not overwhelmingly so, for amateur choruses, and its pure narrative of faith usually overcomes sectarian objections. The solo parts have made or cemented the reputations of generations of British singers. This is particularly true of the Angel, whose part has passed from Muriel Foster to Clara Butt, Kathleen Ferrier, and Janet Baker.
As has been noted, Elgar was a Roman Catholic at a time when the Church of England was socially and politically dominant, and the work is Catholic in its dogma. This gave rise to objections in some influential quarters; some clerics expressed the wish that Elgar would modify the text to remove the word "masses" and other Catholic references. Fortunately Elgar was able to resist the suggested bowdlerization. Similarly, Elgar reported that several people had assumed he would use the standard hymn tunes for the sections of the poem that had already been absorbed into Anglican hymn books: Firmly I believe and truly, and Praise to the Holiest in the Height. The idea was presumably that the audience could join in the singing. Again, Elgar had no such intention.
In performance, the semichorus is often composed of a small number of singers embedded in the main chorus. However, Elgar approved of the layout used in the Düsseldorf performance, when the group was placed in front of the orchestra, providing a contrasting tonal quality. Benjamin Britten's recording uses the choir of King's College, Cambridge as semichorus to good effect, with its unique tonal quality of boys and cathedral-trained young men.
Gerontius (ISBN 0-939149-48-6) is the title of a historical novel by James Hamilton-Paterson, which gives an imagined account of a cruise to South America and up the Amazon that Elgar took in 1923, but about which little is known.
The piece was written at Spetchley Park, home of the Berkeley Family. Elgar stayed in Gardeners Cottage and was said to have been inspired by the sound of the wind through the pines there - which can still be heard today.