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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.
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