The Dream of Gerontius

550px-Edward_ElgarI tend to fight shy of opining about music, since it’s an area where I feel even more fraudulently incompetent than usual, but I am going to make an exception for the wonderful concert I attended last Saturday.

Many, many years ago, I used to sing in the choir of Cambridge University Music Society (established 1843, though I’m not that old). (How I ever got through the audition is one of life’s abiding pieces of incomprehensible luck.) In my six years (with a gap in the middle) CUMS performed Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius twice, first conducted by Sir David Willcocks (who sadly died aged 95 in September last year), and second by Benjamin Britten, with Peter Pears as Gerontius. I’ve sung in it since with other choirs, and have heard recordings and live performances, but it’s safe to say that Saturday night’s performance at Saffron Hall was by far the most electrifying and moving in my experience.

A postcard showing the eventual fame of Elgar and his masterpiece.

A postcard showing the eventual fame of Elgar and his masterpiece.

Fittingly, it was the valedictory concert of Stephen Cleobury, CBE, who has been conductor of CUMS since 1983 (he is possibly better known for his  ‘day job’ as Director of the world-famous Choir of King’s College, Cambridge). I remember him as the rehearsal pianist for the second Gerontius (as well as several other works), and was interested to see in the programme notes that he had been a chorister at Worcester cathedral, and as a result had met people who had known actually Elgar.

Worcester cathedral on the River Severn.

Worcester cathedral above the River Severn.

As I said, the performance was sensational (and you don’t need to take my word for it, read this review). If I had to single out anything for special praise – and it’s really quite invidious – it would be the superb singing of Jennifer Johnston as the Angel. For many people, including myself, Janet Baker’s interpretation of this music is the one against which all others are measured – and usually found wanting: Johnston is now, for me, up there with her.

I’ve been musing since (as well as humming along) about why this particular work makes such an impact. Elgar’s other oratorios simply aren’t in the same league, and wonderful though his orchestral works and songs are, there is something which sets Gerontius apart. It can’t be the ‘libretto’: the recently beatified John Henry Newman’s poem (published in 1865, the year after his Apologia pro vita sua) was hugely influential and Elgar himself had pondered its content for several years.

Portrait of Cardinal Newman (1881), by Millais. (Credit: National Portrait Gallery)

Portrait of Cardinal Newman (1881), by Millais. (Credit: National Portrait Gallery)

But the long poem, with its repeated emphasis on sin, guilt, shame, pain, punishment, repentance and blood, is not inspiring as verse: even ‘Praise to the Holiest’ is, as a hymn, dreary, over-complicated and boring, whichever of the two most familiar tunes you go for. But Elgar transmuted all this (working, it appears, in a state of exaltation, and cutting the text considerably in the process) into a work of absolute and undisputed genius.

And he knew it, too: at the top of the manuscript he wrote ‘A.M.D.G.’ (‘Ad maiorem Dei gloriam’, ‘To the greater glory of God’, the motto of the Society of Jesus, but reminiscent of J.S. Bach’s ‘S.D.G.’ (‘Soli Deo gloria’, ‘Glory to God alone’); and at the end he quoted John Ruskin’s words (on what an author should be trying to achieve) in 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.’

The title page of the score, presented by Elgar to the Birmingham Oratory. By coincidence, there's a programme about the score currently on BBC Radio iplayer:

The title page of the score, presented by Elgar to the Birmingham Oratory. By coincidence, there’s a programme about the score currently on BBC Radio iplayer.

The first performance, at the Birmingham Triennial festival in 1900, was famously a debacle. It was described by W.H. Reed (1875–1942), a violinist and close friend of the composer, in his Elgar in the Oxford ‘Master Musicians’ series (1946). The chorus master died suddenly in the midst of rehearsals, and his hastily found replacement could not cope with the score. At the first orchestral rehearsal, ‘it went so badly that Elgar, who was sitting in the hall listening … became so upset by it that he left his seat … and went forward to address the choir. He told them very plainly what he thought of their treatment of his work and then hurriedly left the hall.’

Moreover, ‘according to accounts, the choir lost their pitch continuously, and a feeling of uncertainty was evident from the very beginning. Even the soloists [in Part I] were apparently ill at ease, and it was not until Part II that Marie Brema, who sang her part of the Angel with complete mastery and understanding, did something to save the situation.’ The conductor Hans Richter’s note alongside his signature on the title page of the score recognised the situation: ‘Let drop the Chorus, let drop everybody – but let not drop the wings of your original genius.’

The mezzo-soprano Marie Brema in 1897.

The mezzo-soprano Marie Brema in 1897.

Hans Richter, the German musician who conducted the premiere.

Hans Richter, the German musician who conducted the premiere.

A leaf from an autograph book with the signatures of Elgar and Sir Hubert Parry. Harry Plunkett Greene, the Irish baritone, sang the Priest/Angel of the Agony at the premiere, but apparently was not on good form.

A leaf from an autograph book with the signatures and photos of Elgar and Sir Hubert Parry. Harry Plunket Greene, the Irish baritone and friend of Elgar, sang the Priest/Angel of the Agony at the premiere, but apparently was not on good form.

Some critics ‘recognised that they had been listening to a masterpiece’, but the work got the reputation of being too difficult to perform, and it was not until several successful performances in Germany, and the pronouncement in the German press that ‘Elgar is one of the leaders of musical art of modern times’, that it re-entered the British repertoire, where it has remained one of the most performed works ever since.

Some would argue forcefully that only the sloppiest thinking imaginable assumes that the art reflects the artist’s life: Marcel in A la recherche du temps perdu is most emphatically NOT Marcel Proust, etc. But since I got to know Worcestershire, and the Malvern Hills, a little bit, I cannot hear Gerontius without seeing the views from British Camp across the plain of Severn, or over to Herefordshire and Wales, or along the ridge towards the Worcestershire Beacon.

The Iron Age hillfort of British Camp.

The Iron Age hillfort of British Camp.

A view from British Camp. (Credit: Malvern Outdoor Elements)

A view from British Camp. (Credit: Malvern Outdoor Elements)

When I first watched Ken Russell’s famous 1962 television film, ‘Elgar’, I thought the scene placing the Crucifixion on the Malvern Hills was a bit overblown: but now I wonder if that was in fact exactly what Elgar had seen and known.

Caroline

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