Opera Scotland

Dream of Gerontius The Dream of Gerontius

Music

Edward Elgar

Text

The composer.

Source

Poem (1865) by Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-90).

 

Premieres

First Performance: Birmingham (Town Hall), 3 October 1900.

First Performance in Scotland: 1903.

 

Background

Elgar received the commission for a choral work for the 1900 Birmingham Festival when he was enjoying a new level of success. Earlier choral pieces, such as The Light of Life, King Olaf and Caractacus had enjoyed a measure of success. But the wholly orchestral Enigma Variations, in 1899, had taken his fame to a new level. For Elgar to choose Gerontius as his subject matter had been a risk. He was himself a Catholic, but the vast majority of his audience would be Anglican or non-conformist. The second section, dealing with Purgatory, was particularly risky, and at some early performances the text was changed to be more acceptable. Its acceptance by Presbyterian audiences in Scotland seems not to have been too much of a problem.

 

Characters

Gerontius (tenor)

Priest (bass)

Angel (contralto)

Angel of the Agony (bass)

 

Plot Summary

The oratorio depicts the journey through death and Judgment to Purgatory. The chorus represents variously friends, priests, demons and angels.

Gerontius, an old man, lies in bed, slipping inevitably towards death. He is fearful and apprehensive as he struggles to breathe. His friends pray for him, and he cries for help as he dies. The Priest separates Soul from Body, and sends it on its journey, as his friends pray for his salvation.

In music of great serenity the Soul is greeted by his Guardian Angel, who will lead him towards Judgment. Because he feared this in life, he has no need to fear it now. A chorus of Demons can be heard, awaiting those souls that fail and are sent to Hell. However he is now beyond fear of them. As the Angel leads him on he hears a choir of Angels, more powerful than the Demons. He is told that he will see God once, very briefly, before the Angel leads him into the House of Judgment.

He hears again hints of the voices of his friends and the Priest praying for him as he died, and the Angel of the Agony now pleads his cause. The tension builds in the orchestra, then with one dramatic burst of sound we imagine his vision of God. After this Gerontius is exhausted, and his Angel tenderly sends him on to sleep in Purgatory.

The Cast

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