The following text comes from the program for the 2007 Bard College concert series and symposium entitled Elgar and His World, which was organized by Leon Botstein, Christopher H. Gibbs, and Robert Martin, Artistic Directors, Irene Zedlacher, Executive Director, and Byron Adams, Scholar in Residence 2007. Readers may wish to consult the festival site for additional information about this and past festivals and related publications, including Elgar and His World, ed. Byron Adams, which Princeton University Press published in 2007.
"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." — John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies, affixed by Elgar to the score of The Dream of Gerontius ,
hroughout his life, Elgar felt that he was an outsider. Many factors undoubtedly contributed to this feeling, most obviously his attempts to be accepted fully in the upper-class circles in which he found himself following his marriage in 1889 to Alice Roberts, the daughter of a celebrated general. But apart from his lower-middle-class upbringing, he was further marked apart from his peers by his Roman Catholicism. Though English Catholics had been granted emancipation in 1829, they were viewed with a lingering degree of suspicion by the Protestant majority in England. Given Elgar's yearning for social acceptance, it was perhaps inevitable that he should have had a complex relationship with his faith, the path of which can be traced out in the creation of his three mature oratorios. The intensely personal, individualistic and overtly Catholic The Dream of Gerontius, a commission for the 1900 Birmingham Festival, gives way to an acceptable Anglicanism in The Apostles (premiered at the Birmingham Festival in 1903) and The Kingdom (given at the 1906 Birmingham Festival) — both products of a period during which the composer appears to have undergone a personal crisis of faith. The third oratorio in the projected trilogy, The Last Judgement, was — perhaps tellingly — never completed.
The Kingdom, Op. 51
The texts of both The Apostles and The Kingdom are drawn chiefly from biblical sources, as was the convention for oratorios at the time. The Kingdom picks up the narrative of the biblical story immediately after Christ's Ascension, the event that formed the climax of The Apostles. Elgar highlights the continuity between the two works in the later oratorio's orchestral Prelude. Important thematic ideas from The Apostles are presented together with new themes in a two-part structure that begins by reviewing the main events of the earlier work. Elgar arranges these themes to highlight Peter's role as the leader of the Apostles, and the importance of his position is emphasized by the conspicuous repetition of his own theme, introduced first by three trumpets and finally by the full brass section. The second part of the Prelude foreshadows the coming action, including a new processional theme characterized by August Jaeger, who wrote an explication of the score for the premiere, as representing "New Faith." The Kingdom follows the story of the Apostles from their meeting in the Upper Room to select a replacement for Judas, the descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost, and the disciples' arrest and miraculous escape.>/p>
The Kingdom is a more contemplative work than The Apostles, and this quality is captured most effectively in the Virgin Mary's soliloquy "The Sun Goeth Down" which concludes Part IV. Prompted by Peter and John's arrest following their teachings at the Temple, Mary ruminates on these events, recalling with wonder the Apostle's faith and the glories of God. The orchestral accompaniment surrounds Mary with a nimbus of delicate sonority, and Elgar fleetingly quotes from two ancient Hebrew melodies, "Hymn of Weeping" and "Hymn of Parting," together with leitmotives drawn from earlier in the oratorio. The choral setting of The Lord's Prayer that concludes The Kingdom was actually written alongside the music for The Apostles. In many ways, it is an example of a conventional oratorio finale: a universally understood proclamation of faith and praise, recalling the anthems of an Anglican church service. Once again, Elgar uses leitmotives, with the orchestra commenting on and expanding upon the meaning of the words.This conclusion builds to a powerful climax through the line "for Thine is the kingdom, and the pow'r, and the glory for ever and ever," but Elgar closes on a contemplative note, in keeping with the general tone of the oratorio, as John and Peter offer their testimony. Finally, the orchestra presents an augmented version of the "New Faith" motif, indicating that the Apostles' journey from confused, ordinary men to enlightened servants of God is now consummated fully.
The Dream of Gerontius , Op. 38
While some commentators have detected the influence of Elgar's Catholicism in The Apostles and The Kingdom, at the time of their premieres both works were generally perceived to be aligned more with Elgar's Anglican contemporaries, such as Stanford and Parry, than with the oratorio that preceded them, The Dream of Gerontius. For this score, Elgar eschewed the more conventional biblical texts and instead set his own redaction of a poem by John Henry Cardinal Newman, whose conversion to Catholicism was one of the religious controversies of the Victorian age. Elgar's choice of Newman's poem was a bold one for a festival commission and somewhat surprising given Elgar's sense of social insecurity due to his own Catholic faith. He was certainly aware of the problems the work presented in this respect: as his friend Rosa Burley later observed,"He was afraid . . . that the strong Catholic flavour of the poem and its insistence on the doctrine of purgatory would be prejudicial to success in a Protestant community." The strength of Elgar's religious feeling in 1900, when Gerontius was composed, and his identification with Newman's eponymous protagonist, enabled him to override these concerns to produce a touchingly personal, yet universally relevant, statement of faith.
The Dream of Gerontius is divided into two parts. Part I is narrated entirely by Gerontius himself from his deathbed, where he is attended by a priest and his assistants (the chorus), who offer prayers drawn from the Catholic litany. As Elgar outlined to Jaeger in a letter written in August 1900,"I imagined Gerontius to be a man like us, not a Priest or a Saint, but a sinner, a repentant one of course. . . . Therefore I've not filled his part with Church tunes & rubbish but a good, healthy full-blooded romantic, remembered worldliness, so to speak." Gerontius's suffering is expressed through vocal lines that range from recitative to arioso, and he displays a gamut of emotions from serene acceptance to agitated desperation and terror. He uses what is left of his energy to proclaim his faith in the aria "Sanctus fortis," before he collapses from exhaustion. Gerontius then utters a few final broken words and falls into silence, leaving the priest and his assistants to pray for his soul, speeding its way onward with the benediction, "Go Forth Upon Thy Journey, Christian Soul!"
In Part II of the work, Gerontius's Soul awakes to find itself in Heaven. All terrestrial suffering has now melted away, and his Soul describes the strangeness of its celestial surroundings. Filled with wonder, the Soul questions its Guardian Angel, who guides the Soul as it is borne toward the House of Judgment. As the Soul travels toward judgment, it passes snarling demons gathered to harvest damned souls for Hell. (According to Jerrold Northrop Moore,Elgar used a musical cipher to embed in the "Demon's Chorus" the name of his enemy, the composer Charles Villiers Stanford, as SATANFORD.) After passing the threshold into the House of Judgment, the Soul sees God for one shattering moment. This glance marks the climax of the entire oratorio; here Elgar took Jaeger's suggestion that it could only be represented by "a few gloriously great and effulgent orchestral chords."The Soul then implores the Angel,"Take me away, and in the lowest deep / There let me be."With a tender farewell, the Angel gently dips the Soul into purgatory, promising to return after its sins have been expiated.
The anxieties that Elgar had to overcome in order to compose The Dream of Gerontius, as well as his conviction that, in the quotation from Ruskin that he wrote on the manuscript of the score, it represented "the best of me," must have made the disastrous premiere very hard to bear. Although many critics were able to appreciate the greatness of Gerontius despite the lamentable performance (caused partly by an under-rehearsed choir, uncomprehending soloists, and Elgar's late delivery of the score to the conductor, Hans Richter), Elgar convinced himself that his masterpiece was an abject and total failure. He wrote to Jaeger, "I have allowed my heart to open once— it is now shut against every religious feeling & every soft, gentle impulse for ever." The tone of this letter might be self-dramatizing, but it seems that in some respects Elgar remained true to his word, thus setting down the path that led to the more conventional oratorios that followed.
Elgar and His World. Program for the Bard Music Festival. Anandale-on-Hudson: Bard College, 2007; pp. 69-73.
Last modified 23 August 2007