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Reflections on the Dream of Gerontius

Music / No Comment / June 1, 2015

I was fortunate enough to learn and sing The Dream of Gerontius with the Somerset Chamber Choir last summer in Wells Cathedral. It’s a piece I’ve know and loved since hearing it at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral over 20 years ago. Last night I attended a performance by the Royal Choral Society and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in Winchester Cathedral. Here are some thoughts about the piece that might inform your appreciation.

The Prelude to Gerontius is pure Parsifal, from its mysterious, yearning opening theme on lower woodwind and strings through to its awe-inspiring climax underpinned by the cathedral organ – evocative in this acoustic of rolling thunder – and back to a concentrated hush for the anguished entry of the tenor soloist as Gerontius. Willingly or not, Wagner was a powerful influence on a range of composers at the turn of the Twentieth Century, not least Bruckner, Mahler, Richard Strauss and even Debussy.

The Kyrie, with which the semi-chorus enters a capella, is a clear nod to the ancients of polyphony – Palestrina, Byrd and Tallis. Verdi pays similar homage in the Kyrie of his Requiem; Rossini does likewise in his Petite messe solennelle. With its invocation to All holy Angels, Apostles, Holy Disciples, Innocents, Martyrs, Hermits and Saints to pray for him, this chorus is really a litany in the High Catholic tradition, continued in the section Be merciful after the soliloquy by Gerontius, Rouse thee, my fainting soul.

His next entry ‘Sanctus fortis, Sanctus Deus’ could easily pass muster as an aria on the operatic stage. A personal creed, it stands in direct opposition to Iago’s expression of nihilism and malice by  in Verdi’s Otello. As in Wagner, leitmotifs knit the work together and in the latter half of this solo, we hear the orchestra foreshadowing the the Demons’ Chorus from Part Two.

Rescue him, the next choral entry, returns us to the chantry chapel for more responses lightly accompanied by organ. Cardinal Newman wrote 13 verses in his poem but, in order not to lose all dramatic momentum, Elgar set only three of them.

Upon the death of Gerontius, the Priest his soul upon its journey in a sonorous bass declamation ‘Proficiscere, anima Christiana’. The way Elgar builds the orchestral crescendo until the entry of the choir and beyond is masterful – a real emotional release. Yet the movement ends quietly, after a slightly curious, oscillating choral figure, And my thy dwelling place be the Holy Mount of Sion, in a warm, sunset glow of orchestral colour beneath the choir and bass soloist.

The brief prelude for strings that opens Part Two evokes the music of the Tudor era; it certainly occupies the same sound world as the Tallis Fantasia by  Vaughan Williams. After the agitation and anguish of Part One, we are audibly in a different dimension: of inexpressible lightness and freedom, as Gerontius describes it.

The Angel who shortly appears turns out to have been his no less than Gerontius’s own guardian angel, watching over him throughout his life.  Their dialogue is accompanied by luminous orchestral writing dominated by woodwind; the scene hints at what a love duet in an Elgar opera might have sounded like.

Rapture is shattered by the entry of the Demon’s chorus. This shows Elgar at his most progressive in terms of musical style, with harsh dissonances, vigorous counterpoint and sneering brass making the most of this tirade of atheistic abuse: ‘Virtue and vice, / A knoves pretence / ‘Tis all the same, Ha! Ha!’ I wonder whether Britten drew on it in some way when writing the storm music in Peter Grimes.

After their wild music dies uneasily away and another brief dialogue between Gerontius and the Angel, the music of the Choir of Angelicals steals in. Sopranos and contraltos have to be on their mettle in this section, which splits into multiple parts. Elgar again builds tension with rising string figures, a long organ pedal note and other musical devices towards the great choral peroration Praise to the holiest in the height. Like the Demon’s Chorus, it sets off in a vigorous fugue, albeit one with a completely different mood. I wonder whether the one-in-a-bar conclusion to this thrilling section, however, inspired Walton to any degree when he wrote the concluding chorus ‘Then sing aloud’ to Belshazzar’s Feast?

Next follows what I think is the biggest textual coup-de théâtre in the whole piece, as Gerontius tells the Angel that he hears the voices of those left on Earth and learns, to the strains of the Dismissal theme, that they those of his friends praying just after his death. Thus all of the  celestial drama we have heard over the past half-hour has actually occupied but a second of temporal time.

After the Angel of the Agony weighs in with a sonorous plea for the soul of Gerontius, he goes before his Judge to the strains of a couple of heartbeats from the orchestra: a real cinematic device and, from the relief expressed by the Angel, ‘Praise to his name! / O happy suffering soul! for it is safe, Consumed, yet quickened, by the glance of God.’

The final tenor solo, in which Gerontius readies himself for Purgatory, is again highly Wagnerian, drawing on themes from the Sanctis fortis section in Part One. It is followed by a chorus of Souls in Purgatory singing verses from Psalm 90, Lord, Thou has been our refuge, before the Angel enters with her farewell. There is one small detail I especially love in this final aria: a gorgeous woodwind counter-melody at the words ‘Sinking deep, deeper, into the dim distance’. The chorus resumes its chant beneath the Angel for the final pages and the work concludes with a deeply satisfying rising and falling string figure evocative of a great, flowing river. For Wagner in the Ring Cycle it was the Rhine; for Elgar in The Dream of Gerontius perhaps it is the Severn?

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