DREAMING OF GERONTIUS
by David Powys Hughes
Despite the Enigma Variations' wide acclaim, Elgar seemed no better off financially. At the turn of the 19th century, a composer couldn't expect performance or broadcasting rights, sheet-music or CD royalties. His income was often restricted to the outright purchase of a work by a publisher and, where appropriate, a lump sum from a patron or other commissioning body. Of course, there was also conducting, performing, and teaching; but the third of these was anathema to Elgar. (Most of his younger pupils had corresponding feelings and were in perpetual fear of his ill temper.)
However, things were now moving in the right direction with further performances of the Variations as well as the recently orchestrated Sea Pictures (sung by the majestic Clara Butt in a dress said to intimate the appearance of a mermaid). There was also an outstanding commission for a major new work at the 1900 Birmingham Festival. Elgar toyed with the idea of an oratorio about Saint Augustine, but abandoned it as being 'too Catholic' for the predominantly Anglican concertgoers. Next he considered a large-scale vocal and orchestral work about the Apostles; but that would have to wait for another occasion. He settled on something more feasible in view of the approaching October deadline: an oratorio based on the poem, The Dream of Gerontius. This was also a Catholic subject, but the Festival committee gave the go-ahead.
The Gerontius poet, John Henry Newman, was an Oxford-educated Anglican cleric who converted to Catholicism in his mid-forties and was subsequently ordained in Rome. His writings were erudite and controversial but commanded immense respect from the religious community as a whole. (Incidentally, Newman was also an accomplished violinist who adored music.) He died a cardinal in 1890, and his Gerontius poem was treasured by many for its exquisitely sensitive description of a man's confrontation with death and the journey of his newly departed soul toward the face of God where he must receive judgment.
Elgar knew the poem well. He lent his copy of it to Alice during their courtship so that she could transcribe into her own the then widely dispersed annotations which General Charles Gordon had added to the poem shortly before dying famously at the siege of Khartoum. Edward and Alice received a further copy as a wedding present.
Cardinal Newman's poem was a challenge to Elgar not only as a composer but as a profession of his own Catholic faith. The idea of setting The Dream of Gerontius to music had been soaking in his mind (as he put it himself) for many years beforehand. The outcome was an oratorio the like of which had not been created on English soil since Handel's Messiah—one which could compete for greatness with the most esteemed religious music composed anywhere in Europe.
Edward began serious work on the composition barely nine months before the October performance date. During the first half of the year, he virtually ate, slept and perhaps even dreamt Gerontius. One friend said: We talked of little else on our walks and Edward seemed to think of nothing else.
But there was trouble ahead. The performers' parts had to be engraved in Germany, and Elgar's publisher was snowed under. Another major festival (in Hereford) also featured new works requiring preparation, and its date was earlier, in September. It was therefore given priority. This, combined with bad luck (the best man for the job of training the Birmingham choir died suddenly of a heart-attack) and Elgar's own tardiness in starting and completing the project, resulted in the 95-minute work receiving very much less rehearsing than it needed. At the final abysmal rehearsal—almost the only opportunity the soloists, choir and orchestra had to run through the music together—Elgar became so agitated he jumped up and took over from the conductor (his champion, Hans Richter again), roughly berating the members of the choir for their lack of musicality.
In performance terms, the premiere at 11.30 am on 3 October 1900 was disastrous. The choir consisted of dedicated amateurs unable to match the demands. Early on, the choristers slipped out of tune with the soloists and orchestra, and they never fully recovered. The complexity of the exciting Demons' Chorus in the second half lost them entirely; the whole lengthy passage was a mess.
Astoundingly, in spite of the obvious shortcomings of the performance, the audience broke the strict Birmingham Festival rules forbidding applause during matinées. They applauded vigorously and quite refused to give up until Elgar himself appeared on stage to take a bow. Furthermore, most of the professional critics, while decrying the performance, praised the new work highly:
". . . worthy in any way of arrogating to itself the title 'a great work' . . ."
". . . no composition by an Englishman equals it in sheer technique, to say nothing of real poetic feeling . . ."
". . . I will venture to say that, since the death of Wagner, no finer composition has been given to the world . . ."
". . . if this does not belong to the type of works that live and flourish in the full light of day, then I am greatly mistaken . . ."
The writer of that last comment was not at all mistaken. The Dream of Gerontius afterwards received countless successful performances, and remains one of the most popular concert pieces in the English-speaking world.
But what of Edward's own response to his Gerontius premiere? Predictably he fell into a black humour:
I have worked hard for forty years & at last, Providence denies me a decent hearing of my work . . . I always said God was against art & I still believe it . . . I have allowed my heart to open once—it is now shut against every religious feeling & every soft, gentle impulse for ever.
Hyperbole aside, Edward's Catholic faith appeared genuinely shaken. Whether it had already been precarious and his composing of Gerontius (into the score of which he claimed to have written his own heart's blood) was an attempt to shore up his doubts we cannot know.
August 'Nimrod' Jaeger fully recognised his friend's achievement. About the Angel of the Agony section he wrote: I have not seen or heard anything since 'Parsifal' that has stirred me, & spoken to me with the trumpet tongue of genius as has this part of your latest, & by far greatest work.
But there was one passage Jaeger strongly contested during the composition process. It was the moment when Gerontius's soul sees the face of God. Elgar had opted for understatement and was anxious to avoid vulgarity: I can't see how you can ask for the Soul to have a 'dramatic' song here, he complained. To which Jaeger replied: I don't want your 'Soul' to sing a 'dramatic "Song"'. Heavens! But what is your gorgeous orchestra for? & why should you be dull & sentimental at such a supremest moment? Elgar still refused to budge... except Jaeger had one more trick up his sleeve: he wrote with regret that no one except a Wagner or a Richard Strauss would dare face the challenge of such a potentially dramatic moment: No!, as I know now, not even E.E. This, as Jaeger must have hoped, was the last straw. Edward couldn't bear to be found wanting in such illustrious company. He capitulated.
Whether Jaeger's, in a sense, more 'predictable' handling of the Soul's sight of God was superior to Elgar's original intention remains open to debate. But no matter! What we now hear at this critical point in the work dramatically matches Jaeger's request for a few gloriously great & effulgent chords, given out by the whole force of the Orchestra.
Typically, Elgar exaggerated his woes after the Birmingham premiere and claimed: I really wish I were dead over & over again but I dare not, for the sake of my relatives, do it. Nevertheless, he knew in his heart what a masterpiece he had created. Against the concluding double-bar line of the Gerontius manuscript, on the very day of its completion, Elgar had inscribed a quotation from John Ruskin about the power of the printed word to perpetuate human thought: 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.
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