Edward Elgar (1857-1934):  
The Dream of Gerontius  

One of the most curious aspects of this work is that no-one can agree which is the best recorded performance; and I have come to the conclusion that this is because there are  many ways in which you can deliver the piece convincingly, so that at any point there are options.   Some years ago I set myself the challenge of joining together all the bits from the recordings that I like in order to make one that did exactly what I would like to hear; but I have never completed the task.

What I am certain about, though, is that in the very best performances this is an intensely personal journey for all those taking part, performers and audience; and it requires a live performance to create this - not just in a concert hall but in a large church or a cathedral.  We all know that it is our lot to die; and in spite of the Catholic nature of the words there is a poignancy for everyone, reflecting on our own life as well as those we have lost who are close to us: to prepare for or to examine what happens beyond death.  Here the dying, the prayers, the angels, the demons, the judgement, the final going before the throne of God, all give us food for thought and contemplation.  The aim in the performance is therefore to take people on this journey, through the eyes of Cardinal Newman and Edward Elgar, in a way which moves them deeply.  As a conductor there is nothing I like more than to enjoy the thrill of a silence at the end of the work as the echoes disappear and peace takes over, and we allow ourselves to be overcome by emotion.

As to the music itself: Elgar was at the height of his powers.  His compositional technique, based on the Wagnerian leitmotiv, created a symphonic work linked by themes that weave and alert the listener subconsciously to an emotion.  And the detail in the score is clear and minute.

There are several stories about The Dream that I like to tell. Jaegar (Nimrod in the Enigma Variations) was a clerk at Novello's, Elgar’s publisher, but also a valued judge of Elgar’s music and a trusted friend.  At the point of where the Soul meets God Elgar had, at first, written what Jaegar describes as a musical whimper.  Elgar says that the soul would be ‘all shrivelled up’, but Jaegar mocks, saying that at the most dramatic moment Elgar has failed: worse still, Wagner would not have done so.  This taunting did the trick and Elgar wrote a march based on the opening ‘Judgement’ theme growing ever louder and higher and eventually increasing in speed, before a sudden total stop.  Then, with the instruction that every instrument should play with their utmost force, Elgar writes a crashing chord -  once heard never forgotten - and the Soul sings ‘Take me away’, descending from a high A. That a clerk could have affected this moment so much I think is a great tribute to his contribution to the making of Elgar and, in this case, The Dream of Gerontius.   

The second story concerns Janet Baker, who I have heard sing the Angel in the Festival Hall, copy at her side not opening it once!  She had sung the Angel in countless performances under the baton of Sir John Barbirolli.  After his death the Hall Choir and Orchestra did a memorial concert and she was asked to sing.  During the farewell section, at the end of the work, Janet Baker stopped singing, the emotion too great, tears streaming down her face, while the choir and orchestra continued to the end of the performance. There can have been no greater tribute; and it shows how so many people feel when they engage with this unique, powerful and moving masterpiece.

John Dunford,  Wetherby Choral Society

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