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Heavenly Music

Thursday 2nd February, 2012 @ 2:09 pm

by Ed Mills | tags: , , , , ,

Today, Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius is a national monument. But at its first performance in Birmingham, 105 years ago, the music was thought daring and difficult, while the subject matter was viewed in some quarters with intense suspicion. The text of The Dream of Gerontius – by the Victorian Catholic convert, Cardinal John Henry Newman – is rich in doctrine that had been emphatically rejected by the Protestant church since the time of the Reformation. The central character, Gerontius (the name derives from the Ancient Greek gero¯n, meaning simply ‘old man’), prays for assistance to the Blessed Virgin Mary and to other saints, and after his soulsearing first sight of God, he doesn’t go straight to Heaven, but is committed to Purgatory for purification. For some Protestants in Elgar’s day, all this would have been pure heresy. However, one could argue that this is an essay in the transition from time to eternity viewed through the doctrine of the Roman Church.

Elgar’s debt to Wagner was recognised at an early stage of the work’s composition by his close friend August Jaeger (the ‘Nimrod’ of the ‘Enigma’ Variations): ‘Since Parsifal nothing of this mystic, religious kind of music has appeared to my knowledge that displays the same power and beauty as yours.'

There was something else Elgar learnt from Wagner – though, as with every influence on Gerontius, he digested it so thoroughly that the listener hears only authentic Elgar. Before Wagner, operas and oratorios tended to be arranged in numbers: arias, duets, ensembles, choruses – all more or less detachable from the larger dramatic argument. In his music dramas Wagner found a way of making dramatic works evolve continuously, seamlessly, like huge symphonies. Elgar achieves something very similar in The Dream of Gerontius. Some sections – like the Angel’s beautiful lullaby ‘Softly and gently’ from the end of Part 2 – can be extracted, with the help of a little surgery; but even then there are details (recollections of earlier themes, for instance) which only make sense if heard in context. And the sense of symphonic current – steadily, if at times slowly, unfolding – is essential to the work’s message. Early in Part 2, Gerontius’s disembodied soul describes how ‘a uniform and gentle pressure tells me that I am not selfmoving, but borne forward on my way’ Elgar’s music registers the sense of that ‘uniform and gentle pressure’ with subtle power. In a good performance, we can feel that we too are ‘borne forward’, through the Demons’ Chorus, through the angelic hymn ‘Praise to the Holiest in the height’, to the final, agonising yet transfiguring encounter with God.

On February 25 the Orchestra of the Restoration, the choirs of St Barnabas Cathedral and St Mary's join forces to perform this iconic work at 7.30 p.m.. Soloists are Keith Halliday (tenor), William Burn and Matthew Jordan sing the two baritone roles and Elisabeth Meister makes a welcome return having spent two years on the Jette Parker Young Artists' Scheme at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and, most recently, from singing major roles in both north and South America.

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