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8.553885-86 - ELGAR: The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38
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Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38

 

Edward Elgar's position as one of the great composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries took some time to consolidate. Born in 1857 in Broadheath, England, Elgar's first successes came around the turn of the century with the Enigma Variations (1899) and The Dream of Gerontius, and in the true manner of prophets not without honour, recognition came first in Germany, mainly thanks to the championship of the conductor, Hans Richter. As a composer, Elgar was largely self-taught and although his music is regarded as quintessentially English, there is no influence of the nationalist folk-song school that was beginning to flourish at the same time, Indeed in the public mind, Elgar is still chiefly associated with the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, although he in no way shared the jingoism or patriotism with which these works have become associated.

Elgar's early years were spent in Worcester, where his father and uncle ran a music business. His marriage to Caroline Alice Roberts was opposed by both families - the Robertses were loath to acquaint themselves with shopkeepers and the Elgars cannot have viewed the arrival of this older, socially superior woman, who was moreover from a strong Protestant family, with much cheer. It was Alice though, who provided the secure background for Elgar's hard fought battle to gain recognition. Their early married years were characterized by relative poverty, and although there were always rumours of other romantic attachments, these have never been proven and it is significant that after his wife's death, Elgar wrote nothing of merit.

The Dream of Gerontius is in two parts, the first dealing with the death of Gerontius, the Priest discharging his Soul into the next life and the second, The Soul's progression from Limbo through to his meeting with God, guided by an Angel.

"This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another; my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew: this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory". This extract from Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies appears at the end of the manuscript score of The Dream of Gerontius. The ecstasy and agony of Cardinal Newman's depiction of man's meeting with God after death, in some ways mirrors Elgar's response to its creation. The ecstasy was the almost religious fervour with which Elgar approached its composition and the agony, the perceived failure due to the inadequately rehearsed first performance on 3 October 1900 at the Birmingham Festival.

Other factors contributed to this disastrous première. The degree to which Elgar looked to his friend and publisher Jaeger for re-assurance was perhaps one. This was generously forthcoming, but took time. In particular, when Jaeger saw a dramatic opportunity missed in Elgar's interpretation of the Soul's meeting with the Almighty, the lengthy correspondence that ensued reached a raw intensity. Finally, Elgar relented and wrote the crescendo of bars based on the Judgement theme, culminating in a chord with the orchestral instruction 'for one moment must every instrument exert its fullest force'. Then the Soul, which Elgar had originally envisaged as being devoid of energy and emotion at the meeting, shouts in anguish "Take me away" before the Souls in Purgatory sing "Lord, Thou hast been our refuge" and the incandescent beauty of the Angel's Farewell.

Elgar finished Gerontius on 3 August 1900, but it was already late for submission to the printers and the choral copies were not ready for the first rehearsal. The death of the Festival Chorus-Master, Swinnerton Heap and the subsequent appointment of W. C. Stockley, a retired figure with little energy for the task, heaped further odds against its success. But perhaps the biggest reason was that The Dream of Gerontius shattered the comfortable view of the English Festival Cantata. The choral writing, divided into chorus and semi-chorus and requiring the most secure individual lines for the many fugato sections, went beyond the amateur standards of the day. The lengthy Prelude, in which Elgar was unable to suppress his orchestral impulses, is no mere introduction. Technically, the various leitmotifs are laid out and developed, but the dramatic musical structure takes the listener through an experience which leads to the inevitability of the first words of Newman's poem - "Jesu Maria, I am near to death".

Jaeger saw something of this when he wrote "You must not, cannot expect this work of yours to be appreciated by the ordinary amateur (or critic!) after once hearing. You will have to rest content, as other great men had to before you, if a few friends and enthusiasts hail it as a work of genius, and become devoted to its creator". Ironic then, that in spite of the legendary first performance, both audience and critics hailed Gerontius as a masterpiece.

Elgar's depression however, was extreme. On 9 October he wrote "I always said that God was against art and I still believe it… I have allowed my heart to open once - it is now shut against every religious feeling and every soft, gentle impulse for ever". Whilst being typical of his heightened sensitivity to failure, this sentiment does question the assumption that The Dream of Gerontius was a fitting expression of Elgar's Catholicism. His faith, always in the balance, deteriorated throughout his life and finally crumbled when he admitted that he had no belief in an after-life and that "there is nothing but oblivion".

Andrew Walton

---

The Dream of Gerontius

PART I

Gerontius (tenor)
Assistants (chorus)
The Priest (baritone)

[CD 1 / Track 1] Prelude

[1/2]
Gerontius

Jesu, Maria - I am near to death,
     And Thou art calling me; I know it now.
Not by the token of this faltering breath,
     This chill at heart, this dampness on my brow, -
(Jesu have mercy! Mary, pray for me!)
     'Tis this new feeling, never felt before,
(Be with me, Lord, in my extremity!)
     That I am going, that I am no more,
'Tis this strange innermost abandonment,
     (Lover of souls! great God! I look to Thee,)
This emptying out of each constituent
     And natural force, by which I come to be.
Pray for me, O my friends; a visitant
     Is knocking his dire summons at my door,
The like of whom, to scare me and to daunt,
     Has never, never come to me before;
     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·    
So pray for me, my friends, who have not strength to pray.

Assistants
Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison
Holy Mary, pray for him.
All holy Angels, pray for him.
Choirs of the righteous, pray for him.
     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·    
All Apostles, all Evangelists, pray for him.
All holy Disciples of the Lord, pray for him.
All holy Innocents, pray for him.
All holy Martyrs, all holy Confessors,
All holy Hermits, all holy Virgins,
All ye Saints of God, pray for him.

[1/3]
Gerontius
Rouse thee, my fainting soul, and play the man;
     And through each waning span
Of life and thought as still has to be trod,
     Prepare to meet thy God.
And while the storm of that bewilderment
     Is for a season spent,
And ere afresh the ruin on me fall,
     Use well the interval.

Assistants
Be merciful, be gracious; spare him, Lord.
Be merciful, be gracious; Lord, deliver him.
     From the sins that are past;
          From Thy frown and Thine ire;
               From the perils of dying;
               From any complying
               With sin, or denying
               His God, or relying
     On self, at the last;
          From the nethermost fire;
     From all that is evil;
     From power of the devil;
     Thy servant deliver,
     For once and for ever.

     By Thy birth, and by Thy Cross,
     Rescue him from endless loss;
     By Thy death and burial,
     Save him from a final fall;
     By Thy rising from the tomb,
          By Thy mounting up above,
          By the Spirit's gracious love
     Save him in the day of doom.

[1/4]
Gerontius
Sanctus fortis, Sanctus Deus,
     De profundis oro te,
Miserere, Judex meus,
     Parce mihi, Domine.
Firmly I believe and truly
     God is Three, and God is One;
And I next acknowledge duly
     Manhood taken by the Son.
And I trust and hope most fully
     In that Manhood crucified;
And each thought and deed unruly
     Do to death, as He has died.
Simply to His grace and wholly
     Light and life and strength belong.
And I love, supremely, solely,
     Him the holy, Him the strong.
Sanctus fortis, Sanctus Deus,
     De profundis oro te,
Miserere, Judex meus,
     Parce mihi, Domine.
And I hold in veneration,
     For the love of Him alone,
Holy Church, as His creation,
     And her teachings, as His own.
And I take with joy whatever
     Now besets me, pain or fear,
And with a strong will I sever
     All the ties which bind me here.
Adoration aye be given,
     With and through the angelic host,
To the God of earth and heaven,
     Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Sanctus fortis, Sanctus Deus,
     De profundis, oro te,
Miserere, Judex meus,
     Mortis in discrimine.

I can no more; for now it comes again,
That sense of ruin, which is worse than pain,
That masterful negation and collapse
Of all that makes me man.
     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·    
                                       … And, crueller still,
A fierce and restless fright begins to fill
The mansion of my soul. And, worse and worse;
Some bodily form of ill
Floats on the wind, with many a loathsome curse
Tainting the hallowed air, and laughs, and flaps
Its hideous wings
And makes me wild with horror and dismay.
O Jesu, help! pray for me, Mary, pray!
Some Angel, Jesu! such as came to Thee
In Thine own agony …
Mary, pray for me. Joseph, pray for me.
               Mary, pray for me.

Assistants
Rescue him, O Lord, in this his evil hour,
As of old so many by Thy gracious power:-
     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·    
Noe from the waters in a saving home;
     (Amen.)
     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·    
Job from all his multiform and fell distress;
     (Amen.)
Moses from the land of bondage and despair;
     (Amen.)
David from Golia and the wrath of Saul;
     (Amen.)
     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·    
                  … - So, to show Thy power,
Rescue this Thy servant in his evil hour.

Gerontius
Novissima hora est; and I fain would sleep,
The pain has wearied me…
     Into Thy hands,
O Lord, into Thy hands …

[1/5]
The Priest and Assistants
Proficiscere, anima Christiana, de hoc mundo!
Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul!
Go from this world! Go, in the Name of God
The Omnipotent Father, who created thee!
Go, in the Name of Jesus Christ, our Lord,
Son of the living God, who bled for thee!
Go, in the Name of the Holy Spirit, who
Hath been poured out on thee! Go, in the name
Of Angels and Archangels: in the name
Of Thrones and Dominations: in the name
Of Princedoms and of Powers: and in the name
Of Cherubim and Seraphim, go forth!
Go, in the name of Patriarchs and Prophets;
And of Apostles and Evangelists,
Of Martyrs and Confessors; in the name
Of holy Monks and Hermits; in the name
Of holy Virgins; and all Saints of God,
Both men and women, go! Go on thy course;
And may thy place to-day be found in peace,
And may thy dwelling be the Holy Mount
Of Sion; through the Same, through Christ our Lord.

 

PART II

Soul of Gerontius (tenor)
Angel (mezzo-soprano)
Anegl of the Agony (baritone)
Demons, Angelicals, and Souls (chorus)

[2/1]
Soul of Gerontius
I went to sleep; and now I am refreshed.
A strange refreshment: for I feel in me
An inexpressive lightness, and a sense
Of freedom, as I were at length myself,
And ne'er had been before. How still it is!
I hear no more the busy beat of time,
No, nor my fluttering breath, nor struggling pulse;
Nor does one moment differ from the next.
     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·    
This silence pours a solitariness
Into the very essence of my soul;
And the deep rest, so soothing and so sweet,
Hath something too of sterness and of pain.
     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·    
Another marvel: someone has me fast
Within his ample palm; …
                                       … A uniform
And gentle pressure tells me I am not
Self-moving, but borne forward on my way.
And hark! I hear a singing: yet in sooth
I cannot of that music rightly say
Whether I hear, or touch, or taste the tones,
Oh, what a heart-subduing melody!

Angel
              
My work is done,
                     My task is o'er,
                                    And so I come,
                                    Taking it home
               For the crown is won,
                                    Alleluia,
                     For evermore.

               My father gave
                     In charge to me
                                    This child of earth
                                    E'en from its birth
               To serve and save,
                                    Alleluia,
                     And saved is he.

               This child of clay
                     To me was given,
                                    To rear and train
                                    By sorrow and pain
               In the narrow way,
                                    Alleluia,
                     From earth to heaven.

[2/2]
Soul
It is a member of that family
Of wondrous beings, who, ere the world were made,
Millions of ages back, have stood around
The throne of God.
     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·    
I will address him. Mighty one, my Lord,
My Guardian Spirit, all hail!

Angel
                                          All hail, my child!
My child and and brother, hail! what wouldest thou?

Soul
I would have nothing but to speak with thee
For speaking's sake. I wish to hold with thee
Conscious communion; though I fain would know
A maze of things, were it but meet to ask,
And not a curiousness.

Angel
                                    You cannot now
Cherish a wish which ought not to be wished.

Soul
Then I will speak. I ever had believed
That on the moment when the struggling soul
Quitted its mortal case, forthwith it fell
Under the awful Presence of its God,
There to be judged and sent to its own place.
What lets me now from going to my Lord?

Angel
Thou art not let; but with extremest speed
Art hurrying to the Just and Holy Judge.
     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·    

Soul
                                    Dear Angel, say,
Why have I now no fear of meeting Him?
Along my earthly life, the thought of death
And judgment was to me most terrible.
     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·    

Angel
                                    It is because
Then thou didst fear; that now thou dost not fear.
Thou hast forestalled the agony, and so
For thee the bitterness of death is passed.
Also, because already in thy soul
The judgement is begun.
     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·    
A presage falls upon thee, as a ray
Straight from the Judge, expressive of thy lot.
That calm and joy uprising in thy soul
Is first-fruit to thee of thy recompense,
And heaven begun.

Soul
Now that the hour is come, my fear is fled;
And at this balance of my destiny,
Now close upon me, I can forward look
With a serenest joy.
     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·    

[2/3]
But hark! upon my sense
Comes a fierce hubbub, which would make me fear
Could I be frighted.

Angel
                              We are now arrived
Close on the judgement-court; that sullen howl
Is from the demons who assemble there,
     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·    
Hungry and wild, to claim their property,
And gather souls for hell. Hist to their cry!

Soul
How sour and how uncouth a dissonance!

Demons
       Low-born clods
               Of brute earth,
                      They aspire
       To become gods,
               By a new birth,
       And an extra grace,
               And a score of merits,
                             As if aught
       Could stand in place
                             Of the high thought,
                      And the glance of fire
               Of the great spirits,
       The powers blest,
               The lords by right,
                      The primal owners,
                             Of the proud dwelling,
               And realm of light, -
       Dispossessed,
       Aside thrust,
                             Chucked down,
               By the sheer might
               Of a despot's will,
                             Of a tyrant's frown,
                             Who after expelling
                      Their hosts, gave,
               Triumphant still,
       And still unjust,
                             Each forfeit crown
               To psalm-droners,
               And canting groaners,
                      To every slave,
               And pious cheat,
                      And crawling knave,
       Who licked the dust
                             Under his feet.

Angel
It is the restless panting of their being;
Like beasts of prey, who, caged within their bars,
In a deep hideous purring have their life,
And an incessant pacing to and fro.

Demons
       The mind bold
               And independent,
                      The purpose free,
       So we are told,
               Must not think
                      To have the ascendant.
                             What's a saint?
                      One whose breath
                             Doth the air taint
                      Before his death;
                             A bundle of bones,
                      Which fools adore,
                             Ha! ha!
                      When life is o'er.
     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·    
       Virtue and vice,
               A knave's pretence.
                      'Tis all the same,
                      Ha! Ha!
                             Dread of hell-fire,
                      Of the venomous flame,
                             A coward's plea.
               Give him his price,
                             Saint though he be,
               Ha! ha!
                      From shrewd good sense
                             He'll slave for hire,
               Ha! Ha!
                             And does but aspire
       To the heaven above
                      With sordid aim,
       And not from love.
                             Ha! Ha!

[2/4]
Soul
I see not those false spirits; shall I see
My dearest Master, when I reach His throne?
     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·    

Angel
Yes, - for one moment thou shalt see thy Lord.
     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·    
One moment; but thou knowest not, my child,
What thou dost ask: that sight of the Most Fair
Will gladden thee, but it will pierce thee too.

Soul
Thou speakest darkly, Angel! and an awe
Falls on me, and a fear lest I be rash.

Angel
There was a mortal, who is now above
In the mid-glory: he, when near to die,
Was given communion with the Crucified,
Such, that the Master's very wounds were stamped
Upon his flesh; and, from the agony
Which thrilled through body and soul in that embrace,
Learn that the flame of the Everlasting Love,
Doth burn ere it transform …

Choir of Angelicals
     Praise to the Holiest in the height,
          And in the depth be praise:

Angel
                   … Hark to those sounds!
They come of tender beings angelical,
Least and most childlike of the sons of God.

Choir of Angelicals
     Praise to the Holiest in the height,
          And in the depth be praise:
     In all His words most wonderful;
          Most sure in all His ways!

     To us His elder race He gave
          To battle and to win,
     Without the chastisement of pain,
          Without the soil of sin.

     The younger son He willed to be
          A marvel in His birth:
     Spirit and flesh His parents were;
          His home was heaven and earth.

     The Eternal blessed His child, and armed,
          And sent Him hence afar,
     To serve as champion in the field
          Of elemental war.

     To be His Viceroy in the world
          Of matter, and of sense;
     Upon the frontier, towards the foe,
          A resolute defence.

Angel
We now have passed the gate, and are within
The House of Judgement …

Soul
The sound is like the rushing of the wind
The summer wind - among the lofty pines.
     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·    

Choir of Angelicals
     Glory to Him, Who evermore
          By truth and justice reigns;
     Who tears the soul from out its case,
          And burns away its stains!

Angel
They sing of thy approaching agony,
Which thou so eagerly didst question of.

Soul
My soul is in my hand: I have no fear, -
     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·    

[2/5]
But hark! a grand mysterious harmony:
It floods me, like the deep and solemn sound
Of many waters.
     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·    

Angel
And now the threshold, as we traverse it,
Utters aloud its glad responsive chant.

Choir of Angelicals
     Praise to the Holiest in the height,
          And in the depth be praise:
     In all His words most wonderful;
          Most sure in all His ways!

     O loving wisdom of our God!
          When all was sin and shame
     A second Adam to the fight
          And to the rescue came.

     O wisest love! that flesh and blood
          Which did in Adam fail,
     Should strive afresh against the foe,
          Should strive and should prevail;

     And that a higher gift than grace
          Should flesh and blood refine,
     God's Presence and His very Self,
          And Essence all divine.

     O generous love! that He who smote
          In man for man the foe,
     The double agony in man
          For man should undergo;

     And in the garden secretly,
          And on the cross on high,
     Should teach His brethren and inspire
          To suffer and to die.

     Praise to the Holiest in the height,
          And in the depth be praise:
     In all His words most wonderful,
          Most sure in all His ways!

[2/6]
Angel

Thy judgement now is near, for we are come
Into the veilèd presence of our God.

Soul
I hear the voices that I left on earth.

Angel
It is the voice of friends around thy bed,
Who say the 'Subvenite' with the priest.
Hither the echoes come; before the Throne
Stands the great Angel of the Agony,
The same who strengthened Him, what time He knelt
Lone in the garden shade, bedewed with blood.
That Angel best can plead with Him for all
Tormented souls, the dying and the dead.

Angel of the Agony
Jesu! by that shuddering dread which fell on Thee;
Jesu! by that cold dismay which sickened Thee;
Jesu! by that pang of heart which thrilled in Thee;
Jesu! by that mount of sins which crippled Thee;
Jesu! by that sense of guilt which stifled Thee;
Jesu! by that innocence which girdled Thee;
Jesu! by that sanctity which reigned in Thee;
Jesu! by that Godhead which was one with Thee;
Jesu! spare these souls which are so dear to Thee;
Souls, who in prison, calm and patient, wait for Thee;
Hasten, Lord, their hour, and bid them come to Thee,
To that glorious Home, where they shall ever gaze on Thee.

[2/7]
Soul
I go before my Judge …

Voices on Earth
Be merciful, be gracious; spare him, Lord.
Be merciful, be gracious; Lord, deliver him.

Angel
                                       … Praise to His Name!
     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·    
O happy, suffering soul! for it is safe,
Consumed, yet quickened, by the glance of God.
Alleluia! Praise to His Name!

Soul
Take me away, and in the lowest deep
          There let me be,
And there in hope the lone night-watches keep,
          Told out for me.
There, motionless and happy in my pain,
          Lone, not forlorn, -
There will I sing my sad perpetual strain,
          Until the morn,
There will I sing, and soothe my stricken breast,
          Which ne'er can cease
To throb, and pine, and languish, till possest
          Of its Sole Peace.
There will I sing my absent Lord and Love: -
          Take me away,
That sooner I may rise, and go above,
And see Him in the truth of everlasting day.

Souls in Purgatory
Lord, Thou hast been our refuge: in every generation;
Before the hills were born, and the world was:
     from age to age Thou art God.
     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·    

[2/8]
Angel
Softly and gently, dearly-ransomed soul,
     In my most loving arms I now enfold thee,
And o'er the penal waters, as they roll,
     I poise thee, and I lower thee, and hold thee.
     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·    
And carefully I dip thee in the lake,
     And thou, without a sob or a resistance,
Dost through the flood thy rapid passage take,
     Sinking deep, deeper, into the dim distance.

Angels to whom the willing task is given,
     Shall tend, and nurse, and lull thee, as thou liest:
And Masses on the earth, and prayers in heaven,
     Shall aid thee at the Throne of the Most Highest.

Farewell, but not for ever! Brother dear,
     Be brave and patient on thy bed of sorrow;
Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here,
     And I will come and wake thee on the morrow.

Souls
Lord, Thou hast been our refuge in every generation.
Come back, O Lord! how long: and be entreated for Thy servants.
Bring us not, Lord, very low: for thou hast said,
          Come back again, ye sons of Adam.
               Amen.

Choir of Angelicals
Praise to the Holiest, etc. Amen.

(From the Novello edition of The Dream of Gerontius)


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