Music with Ease > Classical Music > Concert Guide: Turn of the 20th Century > The Dream of Gerontius - Elgar
The Dream of Gerontius
"The Dream of Gerontius," poem by Cardinal Newman and set to music for mezzo soprano, tenor, and bass solos, chorus and orchestra, was first performed at the Birmingham (England) Festival of 1900. The theme of the poem is the dream of the dying Gerontius of his soul's passage to the unseen world, its reception by the angels, and the mysteries of that world.
The score is built up un the Wagnerian manner so closely that it contains no suggestions of the classical oratorio form. The orchestral prelude gives out no less than ten themes, which hold an important place in the body of the work and which must be kept in mind in order to form an intelligent idea of its meaning. The first tenor solo for Gerontius ("Jesu, Maria, I am near to Death") follows the prelude without break and this in turn is followed by a semi-chorus of devotional kind ("Kyrie eleison"). A brief tenor solo ("Rouse thee, my fainting Soul") is succeeded by a second semi-chorus ("Be merciful"), very tender and sweet in character. A longer solo for tenor ("Sanctus fortis") ensues, full of deep feeling and followed by a powerful interlude by orchestra. The voice, that of Gerontius, again comes in with a melancholy strain ("I can no more") developing into an expression of horror and dismay as in his disordered imagination he fancies himself pursued by fiends. A short chorus by the priestly assistants follows ("Rescue him, O Lord!"). As their prayer with its harmonious Amens dies away, Gerontius sings his dying song ("Novissima hora est"), and the jubilant massive chorus ("Go forth upon they Journey") closes the first part of the oratorio.
The second part opens with an orchestral prelude significant of the soul's passage and its rest, leading to a dreamy poetical solo by the soul ("I went to Sleep, and now I am refreshed"), followed by a beautiful solo for the Angel, designated as the "Alleluia" ("My Work is done, my Task is o'er"). A dialogue ensues between the Angel and the soul and this is followed by a powerful scene, both vocal and instrumental, representing the flight of the Angel with the soul through troops of raging demons whose howls gradually die away as the Angel nears the throne of God. Another dialogue follows between the soul and the Angel to which succeeds the chorus of the Angelicals, which is so divided as to produce a most impressive effect. A third dialogue ensues, begun by the Angel ("We now have passed the Gate") followed by the chorus ("Glory to Him"). After alternating passages for the soul and the chorus, the Angelicals unite in a mighty song ("Praise to the Holiest in the Height"). As the song dies away the soul hears the voices of men left on earth, and as the Angel explains the sounds a powerful bass solo by the Angel of Agony intervenes ("Jesus! by that shuddering Dread"). At its close the Angel repeats his "Alleluia," and amid the choruses of souls in purgatory and Angelicals the Finale begins with one of the most beautiful numbers in the work, the Angel's solo ("Softly and gently, dearly ransomed Soul"), and closes with the softly diminishing chorus of the evangelicals ("Praise to the Holiest").