Surround Yourself in Song


The Dream of Gerontius


MICHELLE DeYOUNG mezzo-soprano
The May Festival Chorus is endowed by the Betsy & Alex C. Young Chair


The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38

Part I
Part II




The Dream of Gerontius

Composed in 1899–1900. Premiered on October 3, 1900 in Birmingham, England, conducted by Hans Richter.

Cardinal John Henry Newman was one of the shaping forces of England’s religious life in the 19th century. Newman was born into a devout Anglican family in London in 1801, studied at Trinity College, Oxford, became a fellow of Oxford’s Oriel College in 1822 and vice principal of Alban Hall in the university’s Merton College in 1825, and was made vicar of St. Mary’s, Oxford in 1828. In 1833, with the theologians John Keble, Richard Hurrell Froude and Edward Pusey, Newman founded the “Oxford Movement,” which sought to deliver Anglicanism from the growing Protestant influence that began with the Reformation and return it to the “High Church” ideals and practices of Roman Catholicism, to which they traced its origin. They codified their views in the 90 Tracts for the Times, 24 authored by Newman, that eventually led to such Anglican reforms as increased use of ceremony and ritual in services, establishment of monastic communities, and better educating a clergy that was devoted to the pastoral care of its parishioners. So committed to the re-unification of the divided branches of Christianity was Newman that in 1845, hoping to promote a truly “catholic”—a “universal”—faith, he converted to Roman Catholicism, and the following year was ordained as a priest in Rome. In 1848 in Birmingham, he founded an “Oratory” (an independent Catholic community of secular priests, i.e., obedient to the Church but not formally ordained, who are dedicated to prayer, preaching and the sacraments) and served as rector of the newly founded Catholic University of Ireland (now University College, Dublin) in the early 1850s. Though they excited considerable doctrinal dispute, Newman’s incisive, lucid, tightly reasoned and elegantly expressed writings exerted a profound influence on both of his religions, and helped to reduce the ancient enmities between Protestants and Catholics in England; in 1879 Pope Leo XIII named him Cardinal-Deacon of the basilica church of San Giorgio al Velabro in Rome. Ill health during the 1880s largely confined Newman to the Oratory at Birmingham, where he died in 1890.

Newman wrote The Dream of Gerontius in 1865 as a belated memorial to his fellow Oratorian John Joseph Gordon, who had died at the age of 41 in 1853. The poem describes the last moments of a man’s life, the vision of the heaven into which he is transported for his judgment, and his being ushered into Purgatory by angels. Though there are obscure Cornish and Italian saints and a 5th-century king of Devon all called Gerontius, Newman seems to have derived the name for his titular character from, simply, the Greek for “old man.” (Compare our modern word “gerontology,” i.e., the study of aging and its effects.) Gerontius was published in the Catholic periodical The Month II and gained an immediate and enduring popularity. (It was the subject of a conference at the University of Illinois as recently as 2000.) Edward Elgar described the character of Gerontius to his publisher, August Jaeger at Novello, as “a man like us, not a Priest or a Saint, but a sinner, a repentant one of course but still no end of a worldly man in his life.” Elgar had been born into a Catholic family near Worcester, just 25 miles south of Birmingham and Newman’s Oratory, and he first read Gerontius while still a teenager. He had come to value the poem so highly by 1887 that he presented a copy of it to his fiancée, Alice Roberts, to console her on the death of her mother. Father Thomas Knight, who presided at their wedding in May 1889, made the rather curious gift of another copy of this poem about death to the newlyweds at the beginning of their married life.

In November 1898, Elgar was invited to compose a sacred choral work for the October 1900 Triennial Festival in Birmingham, a musical event of sufficient renown that the internationally celebrated Antonín Dvořák had been lured to compose for it both The Specter’s Bride (1885) and a Requiem (1891). (Dvořák was offered Gerontius by the festival’s directors in 1885 as a subject for another project, but he declined it.) Elgar first thought he might do something concerning St. Augustine, but that suggestion was rejected by the organizing committee as “too controversial” (i.e., “too Catholic”). He then considered Judas Iscariot and the Apostles as subjects but laid both aside (the latter idea provided the basis for an oratorio for Birmingham in 1903), so by December 1899, with the premiere only ten months away, he was still without a libretto. He wrote to the directors to resign from the commission, but his new work was to be the centerpiece of the festival and they were loath to give up on it. (There is a strong competitive spirit among the big English choral festivals, and Birmingham did not want to lose face over a canceled premiere.)

George H. Johnstone, chairman of the committee (and a Roman Catholic), was dispatched on New Year’s Day 1900 to remedy the situation. Johnstone learned that Elgar had, indeed, been sketching a large choral work during the preceding months, but that the composer considered its subject—The Dream of Gerontius—inappropriately sectarian for Birmingham. Johnstone, considering the press of time, did not. Elgar telegrammed Birmingham the next day to re-accept the commission and agree to the financial terms, and a week later he met with Father William Neville, Cardinal Newman’s friend and executor at the Birmingham Oratory, to obtain rights for a musical setting of Gerontius. Neville granted permission to abridge the text but not to alter any of the remaining lines. Elgar excised about half of Newman’s original 900 lines, and the libretto was ready by early February. Composition thereafter proceeded at a furious pace. Sections of the score were sent to Novello beginning in March, and Elgar’s copious correspondence with Jaeger during the following months provides one of the most revealing glimpses into the creation of a musical masterwork that we possess. The complete draft was finished on June 6th (“Deo gratias”—“Thanks be to God”—Elgar inscribed in his diary that day) and the score was proofed and revised and the performance parts printed by late August. The composer, who turned 43 that summer, knew that what he had done was good—at the end of the manuscript he placed a quotation from John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies: “This is the best of me … this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.”

The first performance of The Dream of Gerontius was set for 11:30 on the morning of Wednesday, October 3rd; Hans Richter, who had led the sensational premiere of the Enigma Variations in London the year before, would conduct. Rehearsals, however, did not begin in earnest until September 12th, when the chorus was still unsettled by the unexpected death four months earlier of its regular director, Swinnerton Heap, and his replacement with the septuagenarian William Stockley, a Birmingham veteran (Elgar had played violin under his direction there in the 1880s) but by then out of touch with current musical trends. The new work, difficult of execution and more Wagnerian than Handelian in its through-composed structure, was more than chorus and orchestra, burdened by the festival’s myriad performing obligations, could master. The soloists were hardly any better. The young Ralph Vaughan Williams, who came to Birmingham expecting a success to equal that of the Enigma Variations in London, found that Edward Lloyd sang the title role “like a church anthem, in the correct tenor manner with one foot slightly withdrawn,” that the bass, Plunket Greene, had “lost his voice,” and that the contralto, Marie Brema, “had none to lose.” Not even Richter, one of the finest conductors of his day, could pull things together, and the performance went badly. “Providence denies me a decent hearing of my work,” Elgar, deeply disappointed that both his creative work and his Catholic faith had been so poorly represented, lamented to Jaeger. “So I submit—I always said God was against art and I still believe it. Anything obscene or trivial is blessed in this world and has a reward…. I have allowed my heart to open once—it is now shut against every religious feeling and every soft, gentle impulse for ever.” He never completely regained his earlier beliefs, but he did continue to compose, writing the Cockaigne Overture, a jovial tonal portrait of London, the following year.

The audience, however, heard something profound in Gerontius despite the botched performance, and broke a festival rule against applauding at morning performances by repeatedly calling the composer to the stage. The critics concurred: “I can honestly say that no composition by an Englishman equals it in sheer technique, to say nothing of real poetic feeling” (Edward Baughan, The Morning Leader); “I will venture to say that, since the death of Wagner [in 1883], no finer composition has been given to the world” (Vernon Blackburn, The Pall Mall Gazette); “The Dream of Gerontius advances its composer’s claim to rank amongst the musicians of whom the country should be proudest” (Joseph Bennett, The Daily Telegraph). Among the other auditors in Birmingham that morning was Julius Buths, conductor of the Lower Rhine Festival in Düsseldorf, who was impressed enough to schedule Gerontius for a performance there on December 19, 1901; the response was so positive that he offered it again the following year, when Elgar was called to the stage 20 times and Richard Strauss praised him as “a modern master” at a post-concert banquet. Extended excerpts from Gerontius were heard in Worcester, Hanley and Manchester in 1902, the complete work was given in London, Chicago and New York the following year, and it has since resided, with Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah (an 1846 Birmingham Festival commission), on the loftiest plane of the English choral–orchestral repertory.

The Dream of Gerontius is remarkable for the mastery of its orchestration, the euphony and complexity of its choral writing, the flow and dramatic impact of its structure, the sophisticated use of germinal motives throughout the score, and the profound insight with which it treats Cardinal Newman’s visionary text. Part I, taken largely intact from the original poem, shows Gerontius at the hour of his death, the prayers of his friends (called “Assistants” in the score), and the consignment of Gerontius’ soul to the afterlife by the Priest. Part II, which exists in a different, more luminous sound world, encompasses the arrival of Gerontius’ soul into the place of judgment, the Angel’s preparing him to stand before God, the demons of hell laying in wait for the unworthy, the praises of God by the choir of Angelicals, the echoes of the voices of Gerontius’ earthly friends praying for mercy for him, the blinding moment before the Holy Throne, the song of the Souls in Purgatory and Gerontius being escorted by an Angel to join them until his sins are expiated and he can enter heaven. “I have not seen or heard anything since [Wagner’s 1882] Parsifal,” wrote Jaeger to Elgar on May 29, 1900, after receiving the close of Part I, “that has stirred me, & stirred me, & spoken to me with the trumpet tongue of genius as has your latest & by far greatest work.”

Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Translation available in the Program