International fame and with it financial security came late for Edward Elgar – he was 42 when his Variations of puzzles and then, The Dream of Geronte earned him international recognition at the turn of the 20th century.
Born and raised in Worcestershire, he forged his early career there and became famous in local musical circles but, as he wrote sadly to a friend in 1884, he was perpetually penniless. Moving to London to improve his prospects in the early 1890s brought only misfortune and little change in fortune, and he and his wife Alice soon returned to his home county.
When did Elgar compose The Dream of Geronte?
In 1900, Edward Elgar was delighted with the success of the Variations of puzzles, created just a year earlier. After years of musical struggle, things were looking up for this provincial violin teacher. Over the previous decade he had produced a series of well-received large-scale choral works, including Characteristic and The light of lifeand when the Birmingham Music Festival approached him to write a new choral work, he had already established himself as one of Britain’s most respected emerging composers. The Dream of Gerontehowever, would propel it to international fame and is now widely regarded as his masterpiece, arguably the greatest work of English choral music ever written.
Like the death of the eponymous Gerontius, the DreamThe birth of was not easy. Elgar owned a copy of Cardinal Newman’s 1865 poem The Dream of Geronte for a number of years and had long toyed with the idea of setting it to music. The poem was a huge hit when first published, but by the time Elgar came to set it up its popularity had waned and its openly Catholic view of the afterlife is said to have ruffled quite a few Anglican feathers.
Elgar quickly composed, largely completing the work on the small cottage he and his wife Alice rented in Birchwood. An idyllic woodland retreat just outside Malvern, Birchwood has surely colored its setting with the famous line in which Gerontius likens the sound of the House of Judgment to the ‘summer wind among tall pines’.
However, he was composing under a tight deadline, and the first performance was plagued with mishaps. Chorus master Charles Swinnerton Heap died shortly after rehearsals began and was replaced by the aging William Stockley, who was not up to the task and who, in any case, did not seek to hide his distaste for the subject. Hans Richter, the conductor, did not receive the complete score until a day before the start of orchestra rehearsals and only one of the soloists was in good voice that day. Although the press generally agreed that a decent work had been presented, it was widely believed that the first performance had been a disaster.
German conductor Julius Buths was in the Birmingham audience and admitted that Gerontius deserved a decent audience. It was Buths’ performances in Düsseldorf in 1901 and 2002 that alerted the British musical world to the fact that Elgar had indeed produced something extraordinary. The occasions were a huge success, Elgar was celebrated as a hero and presented with two huge laurel wreaths which he and Alice managed to take back to Malvern. Richard Strauss wrote “I raise my glass to the well-being and success of England’s foremost progressive, Meister Elgar”. If the Catholic Elgar had not arrived before, the Anglican establishment had no choice but to admit that he certainly had now.
What is the story behind The Dream of Geronte?
First part of The dream depicts the final moments of Gerontius, whom Elgar considered an ordinary man: a devoutly religious man, but a sinner, not a priest. His friends gather and pray for him as he begins to feel the sensation of his soul separating from his body. He realizes that his last hour has come (“Novissima hora est”) and a priest sends him on his journey into the afterlife (“Proficiscere, anima Christiana”).
In Part Two, Gerontius, now simply called the Soul, awakens to find himself in the afterlife and meets his Guardian Angel who leads him to the House of Judgment. They encounter a choir of demons, then a choir of angels sing “Praise to the most holy above.” The Angel of Agony intones a prayer of intercession in the name of the Soul who then sings “I go before my judge”. Accompanied by one of the most emotionally devastating single chords in the entire repertoire, Gerontius sees God and receives his judgment. The Angel takes him to Purgatory, promising to return the next morning to lead him to Heaven (“Gently and gently, soul dearly redeemed”).
Gerontius is not a oratorio in the conventional sense. It is not taken from a biblical text and is intended as one uninterrupted drama instead of being broken up into separate musical numbers. It has more in common with wagner only with Mendelssohn or Handel. It was something quite new, and you have to remember that in 1900 it was modern, even shocking music.
Gerontius established Elgar as the leading British composer of his day, but his Catholic depiction of purgatory and invocations to the Virgin Mary also underscored his status as an outsider. Few, however, would dispute Elgar’s own assessment, appropriating John Ruskin’s famous quote that The Dream of Geronte represented the “best of me”.
Elgar’s Best Recordings Dream of Geronte
Andrew Davis (driver)
Stuart Skelton (tenor), Sarah Connolly (mezzo), David Soar (bass); BBC Chorus and Symphony Orchestra
Andrew Davis heard for the first time The Dream of Geronte when he was 14, and this 2014 recording is an eloquent testament to a lifetime spent absorbing and processing this musically and emotionally complex work. Every nuance of Elgar’s score is respected, the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s playing is impeccable, and Davis demonstrates as good an understanding as possible of the work’s inner drama.
Elgar made substantial cuts to the poem, and his libretto focuses more on the human experience of Gerontius than on the theological aspects of Newman’s original text. In this respect, Stuart Skelton is the ideal protagonist, perfectly capturing the psychological drama that leads Gerontius from his deathbed to Judgment and Purgatory. Where others might approach the part the same way they would a more traditional oratorio, Skelton delivers a searing, almost verism portrait of a man sometimes frail, sometimes defiant, confused, intimidated, frightened or at peace. His “Sanctus fortis” is a serious profession of faith, its ‘Novissima hora est’ is imbued with apprehension and wonder, and after ‘Take me away’ we witness a man hollowed out by the judgment of God. He is one of the few to have the extraordinary tonal range necessary for this role.
Mezzo Sarah Connolly is preeminent as an angel. Its ruby red bass and limpid, warm highs are used with intelligence and understanding throughout the work. Like Skelton, she gives meaning to the evolving nature of her role: authoritative, reassuring, amazed, loving. It is truly a journey undertaken by two beings, not one. David Soar is an authoritative priest/angel of agony and the BBC Symphony Chorus does a resoundingly light-hearted job of Elgar’s fiendish choral writing.
The unsung heroes of this recording, however, are the sound engineers. Elgar’s score is huge and complex, and however fine the performances of previous recordings, most suffer, by today’s standards, from inadequate engineering. This recording is one of the few in which Elgar’s orchestration and vocal writing are given the acoustic space and clarity to be heard properly and, combined with Davis’ unhurried performance that allows the drama to unfold on its own terms, gives as good a record of this work as it is now available.
MArk Elder (conductor)
halled CDHLD 7520
Another remarkable account from another distinguished Elgarian: Mark Elder. The Hallé Choir and the Hallé Youth Choir in this 2008 recording creates a colourful, virtuosic and secure structure around which the vocal drama unfolds and, again, the beautiful sound engineering allows every detail of Elgar’s score to breathe. However, this recording should only be heard for Bryn Terfel’s Priest/Angel of the Agony. It is by far the best performance available on record and he is the only singer who strikes that perfect balance between thunderous authority and loving compassion.
John Barbirolli (conductor)
Warner Classics 573 5792
Considered for decades to be the ultimate Gerontius, Barbirolli’s 1965 release should be on any list of recommended recordings. For many, the role of the Angel is virtually synonymous with Janet Baker’s rich and moving performance on this recording, which has become a benchmark for all subsequent performances. The recorded quality is reasonable but modern audiences are spoiled with a choice of technically superior alternatives and, dare I say it, Barbirolli’s reading of the score is simply not as accurate as the others listed here. (Warner Classics 573 5792)
Simon Rattle (conductor)
Warner Classics 749 5492
Janet Baker’s second recording as The Angel conveys all the maturity and depth of someone who lived and breathed the role for another two decades. His the vocals of this great 1986 version have a darker, warmer tinge to them and it’s a terrific alternate reading. Elgar’s skill as an orchestrator is often overlooked, but Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra bring out all the colors and textures of the score as careful attention is paid to the smallest detail.
And one to avoid…
There is a lot to recommend Daniel Barenboimfrom the 2017 recording. The Staatskapelle Berlin is as virtuoso and warm as one would expect and Catherine Wyn-Rogers is a superb Angel, distinctly human. But while Barenboim deftly guides us through the score, the performance lacks the breadth and breathiness of other recordings and it’s all too easy to lose sight of the fact that it is primarily a vocal work. Not so much to avoid, perhaps, as not to listen to first.