Edward Elgar – The Dream of Gerontius

Sunday 29th April 2018, Glasgow City Halls

“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.”

Elgar completed The Dream of Gerontius and inscribed these lines, by John Ruskin, on the final page of his manuscript. Gerontius was quickly and widely acknowledged as the greatest English oratorio since those of Handel, written 150 years and more earlier. Its beauty and depth of expression remain widely admired.

John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-90) wrote the poem which provided both text and inspiration for Elgar’s work. Newman was a very important English cleric during the Victorian era. Elgar had received a bound copy of the poem as a wedding gift in 1889.

Gerontius took shape slowly at first yet, Elgar grew increasingly enthused and enthusiastic about his oratorio. Alice, his wife however, viewed the work in more spiritual terms: “It seems to me that E. has given a real message of consolation to the world”.

Shortly before rehearsals were to begin, the director of the Festival chorus died. He was replaced by his retired predecessor, an elderly man in poor health. Choristers reported that his rehearsals were unfocused and often curtailed, owing to his lack of stamina.

Elgar’s dejection was profound. “I have worked hard for 40 years,” he lamented in a letter to his publisher, written six days after the premiere, “and at the last, Providence denies me a decent hearing of my work.” He vowed never to attempt any sacred composition again.

However, many of the critics could see past the frail, flawed realisation of the premiere and the work would become established in Britain once it had had its first London performance in 1903.

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