On Wednesday evening I had to review The Dream of Gerontius performed by the University of York Choir and Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Stringer at York Minster. My heart sank, however, when I found that my seat was at the back of the nave. Just so we are clear here, Gerontius is scored for tenor, mezzo-soprano, bass, huge chorus, and orchestra with organ. You can see the performers from there but would need a taxi to get to the front row. You cannot review a concert performance from there. Anyhow, following the amplified welcome with useful pointers to the fire exits and loos, John Stringer waved his musical wand, and we were off. The Prelude opens with a very quiet, sober melody in D-minor. I don’t know why I know it is in D-minor or why Jaeger – Elgar’s friend and publisher, forever immortalised as Nimrod in the magnificent ninth variation of Enigma Variations,
named it the Judgement theme. The music is impressive as Elgar introduces all the work's main themes. These melodic ideas, dripping with Wagner’s influence (and Parsifal in particular), sensuous melodic lines dovetail each other, flowing seamlessly into the next. John Stringer coaxed a quite hypnotic atmosphere; the playing confident and with purpose. Unfortunately for me sitting at the back of the class, the music builds to an urgent climax with organ accompaniment and pounding timpani. The Minster acoustic made sure the effects were still bouncing off the Minster walls as the march-like theme directed us to Gerontius’ deathbed. Tenor Joshua Ellicott opens Gerontius’ account with the words: ‘Jesu, Maria – I am near to death’. The rest of his aria, indeed the whole of the oratorio, could not be followed, understood, or heard, except in the slimmed-down musical textures, despite the quality of the soloists. Unless you knew it or could follow the text. Well one of the unexpected insights of not being able to hear the text (from the back of the class) was to focus on the written word. And this was a revelation: I found Cardinal John Henry Newman’s poem laughable. Literally.
a visitant Is knocking his dire summons at my door…
Tell it to come back later, you are busy
All Apostles, all Evangelists, pray for him.
All holy Hermits, all holy Virgins…pray for him. Ah, that narrows the field somewhat
Some bodily form of ill Floats on the wind, with many a loathsome curse Tainting the hallowed air, and laughs, and flaps Its hideous wings. Just had a quick chat with the bedside priests. They say that’s not good
Soul (of Gerontius):
But hark! Upon my sense Comes a fierce hubbub, which would make me fear… Oh dear. A hubbub is one thing, but a fierce hubbub is quite another
Demons: To psalm-droners, And canting groaners
To every slave, And pious cheat, And crawling knave, Who liked the dust Under his feet.
Not sure about the last line John. How about, bony feet? Or scaly feet? Or smelly feet? I like the psalm-droners…canting groaners bit though.
Anyhow, after much fearing and awing, the Soul can no longer dodge the celestial bullet with his name on it...
Soul: I go before my judge…
At this point I had a vision: it was Graham Norton, with Gerontius sat in the red chair. The Soul ready to be judged, fit for spiritual purpose, and therefore allowed to walk free? Alas not. The lever is pulled, the chair violently tips backwards, and, with flailing arms and legs, Gerontius the Soul vanishes into the Underworld where Blackadder’s Bishop of Bath & Wells awaits with his red-hot poker.
Perhaps I should add something more respectful, yes indeed…
‘The characters in The Dream of Gerontius move from dramatic monologue to literary polyphony. That polyphonic characterisation shifts the focus away from Gerontius, the protagonist. The mystery that cannot be handled by only one character is shared between different characters like different parts of a piece of music meant to be performed in a symphony. Through that music score, the mystery is partaken and made accessible to everyone. Therefore, in the musical version, all voices participate on an equal level. The musical version also seems to unite below and above, unlike what is operated in the single melodic lines of psalms. The diversity of voices and the richness of their blending combine to form a beautiful harmony in the expression of the mystery.
Musicality runs through the poem in the forms of litanies, hymns by Choirs of Angels and Choirs of Demons.’
Newman’s Poetry: The Heart of a Victorian Renaissance (Dampi Somoko)
Clearly this has currency, and it is easy to see why Elgar, steeped in Roman Catholicism*, was drawn to it for his text. It is a marriage made in heaven.
(*But was Elgar the devout Roman Catholic often portrayed? The Elgar Society, amongst other voices, strongly suggest his faith withered on the vine.)
For me, the most significant part of the oratorio is at the start of Part Two where the Soul of Gerontius realises he is not alone on this journey:
And hark! I hear a singing; yet in sooth I cannot of that music rightly say…
Ok, the prose is drivel (some clown likened Newman’s poem to that of Goethe), but it does usher in a touching dialogue between Mr Soul and his (guardian) *Angel. What shines through here is the intimacy, kindness, and humanity; yes, humanity.
(*For Newman, of course, the Angel is male, but Elgar writes the part for a mezzo-soprano. This is simply a musical decision. It adds contrast and clarification to their roles.)
Well, that’s it folks. So, until the next time it’s a goodnight from me and a goodnight from him. Goodnight.
The review is published at charleshutchpress.co.uk