Ten inspiring pieces of music 3: Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius

Elgar wrote The Dream of Gerontius in 1899/1900, a setting of the poem by Cardinal (now Saint) Newman. By the time he wrote it, Elgar had gained something of a reputation internationally, especially for his choral works, and this was a commission for the Birmingham Triennial Festival. It was completed only three months before the premiere and, famously, the choir and orchestra found it difficult to master. The conductor, Hans Richter, only got his copy of the score the day before the first rehearsal. Consequently the first performance was a failure. But, unusually, critics heard something audiences did not and after its London premiere three years later it quickly became established as one of the core repertoire items in British choral tradition.

Why do I find it inspirational?

I was raised a Catholic and though it’s all very dormant now, there’s something about Gerontius that gets the incense flowing again. It took me a long time to ‘get’ the work, and Elgar generally. This was the first piece of classical music where I tried the technique of basically just listening to it over and over again and now I can follow every ebb and flow of it. If you’re wanting to give it a go, do what I did and listen to the first half repeatedly. The opening introduction (below) is a masterpiece of orchestral writing, and just about every main theme Elgar uses is in there. (It’s quite Wagnerian in that sense – Elgar had recently discovered Wagner before writing Gerontius, and it shows).

Seriously – just listen to this:

But the subject matter is not what I find particularly inspiring, unlike Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, which was my first choice in this series of posts. It is, simply, the music which is some of the most powerful and sublime you’ll hear.

Most performances tend to play up the drama, particularly the demons’ chorus. My favourite recording is, as with the Mahler, by Simon Rattle and the CBSO and chorus. Gramophone, if I remember correctly, criticised it for its lack of drama and pure focus on the music. That’s why I like it: the drama is inherent in the text and the detached approach to that seems to breathe new life in to a work that can, in the wrong hands, be almost a pantomime.

Click on the image to buy it for the bargain price of £6.99!

The extract at the top of this post is the emotional high point of it all, the ‘Praise to the Holiest’ chorus. I’m really doing a disservice by letting you hear it without the long sustained build up to it, which makes the eventual outburst all the more emotional. But as I said about the Mahler, if you don’t like this there’s something wrong with you…

And here’s the demons’ chorus for you…

Fun fact: I was in the audience for the Proms performance in the top video…

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