Edward Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius
Barbican Hall14th September 2012 Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: Edward Gardner
Soloists: Sarah Connolly (Angel) Robert Murray (Gerontius) James Rutherford (Priest/Angel of the Agony)
When Blessed John Henry Newman wrote the poem Dream of Gerontius in the 1860s he already knew about making dangerous spiritual journeys. By then he had abandoned the Anglican Church; the Oxford Movement and many of his friends: he had converted to being a Roman Catholic. He was quite a catch for the only recently legalised Roman Church. He became a priest, an Oratorian and was finally made a cardinal by Leo XIII – and although a cardinal he never held episcopal status.
The poem is a reflection on the passage of (Every)man from Death to Judgement and on to Purgatory. It is filled with the many pieties associated with post-Tridentine Catholicism; it is also deeply influenced by Dante and by styles English epic post-romantic poetry. It has a self conscoius grandiosity which might even be thought Miltonic though its introspections are more deeply personally felt and more akin to say Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam‘.
Dvorak was the first composer to consider setting the poem to music. But he gave up upon it. The cardinal died in 1891 and Elgar stared work upon setting a reduced version of the poem in 1898. It was completed in 1900 almost a decade after Newman’s death.
Gerontius was popular in Catholic schools and angelic Hymn of praise ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’ is taken from the poem and was much sung in schools and parishes when I was a lad. I then first read the poem maybe when I was fifteen. I found it indigestible and difficult. I was nearer seventeen when I first heard a recording of it – Janet Baker as the Angel in my mind, but minds play tricks. To be honest I thought it ponderous.
Elgar, himself a Roman Catholic, wasn’t daunted by the words and ideas of Newman and finds many musical novelties to express them…and the sequence with the Demons leading into the final explosive chorus of Praise to the Holiest is by any standards an extraordinary musical achievement. But we are still at the beginning of the twentieth century and the words themselves and the religious freight they carried prevented performance of Gerontius in the three choirs festival until 1910. Many Anglican cathedrals would not perform it unless the words were changed.
Edward Gardener conducted a staggeringly good account of Elgar’s Oratorio last Saturday. If left all those listening in the hall – deeply, deeply moved. The prelude and some of the beautifully crafted early passages ‘rouse thee my fainting soul’ are remarkable and they come into a wonderful crescendo of feeling as Gerontius sings ‘novissima hora est’ and the priest ‘go forth upon thy journey Christian soul.’ But the recurrent echoes of Gerontius soulful cry from the heart ‘Santus fortis, Santus Deus’ haunt the fading sounds as part one ends. Robert Murray sang wonderfully clearly and James Rutherford’s deep sonorous priest was full of warmth in tone and meaning.
The Second Part leads directly to the Soul (as Gernotius is now dead) and the Angel in a discourse as Gerontius approaches the place of judgement. Some of these passages are wonderfully scored with rich uses of percussions and woodwind and haunting brass. And as ever with Elgar it’s the tugging legato of the sweeping strings which give his orchestrations their unmistakable sound and colour.
Sarah Connolly, particularly towards the end brought out wonderful tonality in her upper and lower register which I’ve never found in her voice before. At times, as warm water on ice, she melted the air with great beauty. She was magnificent. Murray never failed to rise to meet her excellence but surely the palm must go to Edward Gardner. He drew such delicacy and feelings from the hautning quiet and such passion and glorious shouting from the great blasting Praise to the Holiest which then echoes back accross the remainder of the work like some fading Angelic glory, fading, fading, fading, far away into the far distance of Heaven. Yet as Gernotius himself says ‘take me away to the lowest deep, there let me be….lone not forlorn…’ and Newman’s vision of Pugatory has real delicacy;wistful beauty and an embraceable pathos.
It was a night to remember and it won’t be forgotten. A little more grown up these days, I’ve so got to like Elgar more and more….perhaps I should brave returning to the Apostles …hoping that unlike Elijah I find great beauty there. But Gerontius is magnificent and last Saturday I heard Elgar’s easy genius call out over the age.