Elgar's masterpiece, The Dream of Gerontius almost didn't happen. Though recognized as a composer on the rise, Elgar had not yet achieved real national or international success; the commission in 1898 from the Birmingham Triennial Festival, England's most prestigious choral event, for its 1900 renewal, marked a major opportunity. The work was planned originally as an oratorio on the subject of St. Augustine, an idea rejected by the festival organizers as being too controversial. Elgar put it aside and moved on to other projects, including his breakthrough orchestral composition now known as the Enigma Variations. Forced late in 1899 to return to the oratorio commission, Elgar hit on the idea of setting the poem, by Cardinal John Henry Newman, that he had known well for a t lest fifteen years. Written in haste, the piece was barely ready in time for the premiere on 3 October 1900. A succession of disasters, including the chorus master's sudden death, led to failure on that occasion. It was not until after triumphant performances in Düsseldorf, Germany in 1901 and 1902 that the work was at last accepted in its homeland, acceptance that by now ranks The Dream of Gerontius with Handel's Messiah, Haydn's The Creation and Mendelssohn's Elijah among the summits of the English choral repertoire.
Newman was one of the more fascinating figures of nineteenth-century England. Established as a leader among Anglican clergy, a founder of the Oxford Movement, his growing dissatisfaction with liberal theological trends led him to leave the Church of England to become a Roman Catholic priest, eventually rising to the rank of Cardinal. The Dream of Gerontius was published in 1865 and became a best-seller. Its fame was magnified by the 'heroic' death of General Charles Gordon at Khartoum in 1885; underlinings and marginalia in Gordon's copy that had sustained him through the siege made their way home and were marked into many personal copies, including Elgar's.
The Dream of Gerontius is divided into two well-balanced haves. In the first, we observe what appear to be the final moments of an ordinary Christian man, aware of his impending death, fearful, but resigned to his fate. He is in pain, he suffers, he reflects, he struggles; his friends comfort and pray for him. His strength abates, he fades away and dies; a priest sends his soul on its journey to the next world. In a series of recitatives and ariosos alternating with choruses, the musical and poetic structure centers around Gerontius' magnificent aria Sanctus fortis, his final confession of faith.
In the second part, the soul of Gerontius encounters a succession of other-worldly beings - his guardian angel, a host of demons, the angelic choir - as it approaches the divine presence. In Part 1 the climax is Gerontius-the-man's personal confession: an action, a song. Its counterpart in Part 2 is his soul's moment of judgement, marked, notably, not by his own utterance but by a frame composed of the Angel of the Agony's plea for mercy on behalf of Gerontius, a distant echo of the prayers of the friends Gerontius left behind, and the eventual joyous praise of his guardian angel. Gerontius himself is uncharacteristically quiet. The ultimate instant is left to the orchestra alone - Elgar writes, 'for one moment must every instrument exert its fullest force' - as if to admit that words are powerless to express such supreme occasions: only music will do. His soul singed by the divine glance, Gerontius goes willingly to Purgatory, happy in the knowledge that, once his term of purgation is complete, he will be accepted into Heaven. Even a cursory reading of the poem will show that this is not typical material for a traditional oratorio, with its discrete arias, ensembles and choruses. It is, rather, a dramatic poem in the style of Goethe, Schiller and Byron, a narrative of the mind rather than the stage, but a narrative nevertheless: imaginary cinema. And so Elgar's interpretation of it dispenses with the usual oratorio structure to achieve something far more seamless. The Dream of Gerontius is not oratorio but quasi-opera, owing much to Wagnerian models, based on 'leading motives', most of which are presented in the orchestral introduction: Judgement, Fear, Prayer, Sleep, Miserere, Despair, Committal. The singers, both soloists and chorus, take roles rather than merely vocal parts. There is little alternation between activity to move the plot along and refection on the events. All is action, but paradoxically it is at the same time static: a series of tableaux, without the opposition between characters, the obstacles to realization, that make for dramatic conflict. The conflict, the drama, is all internal.
For anyone experiencing this piece either by reading the poem or the score, performing it, or participating in a performance through active listening, the question arises: Whose dream are we witnessing? Is the second part -set in the afterlife - a hallucination by the dying Gerontius? Is the first part - on earth - a fantasy, as if to suggest that this life is illusory, and the only real life begins after death? Or is the entire work a dream, not Gerontius' vision but our own, of the death and afterlife of Every(old)man? Even the opening lines of Par 2, 'I went to sleep, and now I am refreshed', do not adequately answer these questions, though it is known that Newman himself held the neo-Platonic view that material life is an illusion, that reality is found only in an ideal, supraexistent world.
Elgar's music, like any great music, avoids answering such questions decisively. Music itself occupies its own reality, one of proportional relationships among acoustic functions. Its descriptive ability is not inherent, but is assigned to it by the listener. Its beauty accomplishes more than simply perpetuating the life of a poem that, however pertinent its philosophical inquiry, now appears a quaint period-piece, with stilted language and decorous portrayals of angels and demos as Victorian as velvet poufs and brocade wallpaper. By its sensuous provocation of our higher consciousness this music elevates and distances us from all immediacy, allowing every listener to experience his or her own dream, free from the intention of poet or composer.
- Jerome Hoberman -