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“As to my own Gerontius, it was not the versification which sold it, but the subject. It is a RELIGIOUS subject which appeals strongly to the feelings of everyone.”
(Cardinal John Henry Newman writing to his friend, the author Georgiana, Lady Chatterton, 18th September 1870)
Some anthropologists have suggested that human beings sang before they spoke. We made musical sounds to burst the silence—impossible to hold back, or hold in. To sing, whether in sorrow or joy, had about it a kind of necessity. And it was an amplification of something: making love, not just making life.
Something of this legacy of singing remains to this day and I think it’s a clue as to why a work like The Dream of Gerontius has the power and the impact it does, even for those with no connection to, or interest in, the content of its text. It isn’t just that music itself is an expressive path to our souls, but that singing is breathing; and the flesh associated with its sounds (the mess of spittle, throats, tongues and teeth) connects it to our very existence at the deepest level. It is on the lip of life. Our lungs are our batteries. When we cease to sing we cease to live.
‘Praise to the Holiest’—that ringing climactic chorus midway through Part Two—thrills us because our whole bodies pour out as we share its ardour. The great collective intake of breath and its expelling in musical radiance is both community and survival. We sing together and are lost, subsumed in the rush of a thousand, thousand voices. A chorus of angelicals indeed! At that moment, what ‘Holiest’ means is made irrelevant by ‘Praise’.
And, flipping the coin, in the Demons’ chorus we re-live every moment of anxiety we’ve felt. We walk up to the cage; we reach out to the flames and stop just before we smell the burning. We sense fear in the music, and an attraction behind the daring (risk-taking accompanied our ancestors on their every journey), and then the relief when it passes, the voices muted and fizzling away.
Elgar’s music is nephew to Wagner’s, in its melodic lines as well as its harmonic and orchestral colour. But Gerontius the man … could anyone be further from the world of the German composer’s heroes and myths? The yearning of chromaticism in Tristan & Isolde and Parsifal is surely erotic, but in Gerontius we look way beyond the sensual. We sense that the smouldering desire of human love is not to be denied, but rather that it leads us to something greater. Tristan has flesh in his hands (until death robs him of it), but Gerontius’ flesh, withering on his dying bones, is the gate to an ecstasy beyond death. His Liebestod is all Love. At the end of Elgar’s masterpiece (often with tears on our faces) we realise that belief or doubt, God or zero, is not a required choice. As that final chord subsides we sense our very existence is to be chosen, believed in, loved. The oxygen with which we sing is not just keeping us alive, but is an embrace. To live is to be loved. To sing is to be sung, perhaps, one day by that Singer whose own hidden, silent joy we will not grasp until, like Gerontius himself (that most fallible of humans), we face the Most High and can only cry out: ‘Take me away’.
“It’s awfully curious the attitude (towards sacred things) of the narrow English mind: it puts me in memory of the man who said, when he saw another crossing himself, ‘oh, this devilish crossing.’ There’s a nice confused idea for you.”
(Elgar writing to his editor A J Jaeger, 15th June 1900)
Thanks to the usual sundry disasters which have befallen new works since time immemorial, The Dream of Gerontius had a particularly inauspicious premiere. Indeed, many of the mishaps of that October morning in Birmingham will no doubt sound familiar to musicians today. The ladies and gentlemen of the chorus received their parts far too late from the publisher, whose general negligence with the score resulted in the composer still having to correct orchestral parts a fortnight or so before the performance. There were other less ordinary problems: the elderly choirmaster W C Stockley, a late replacement for Elgar’s recently deceased supporter Charles Swinnerton Heap, seems to have lacked the energy or focus for a work of such unprecedented complexity. Likewise, Stockley’s antipathy to the overt Catholicism of Gerontius, and the participation of one or two soloists well past their respective primes, cannot have helped. Even if stories of the linearity of history are highly exaggerated, the resulting first performance was by all accounts the kind of event that enters the annals of legendary concert hall catastrophes.
Elgar had inscribed the autograph score with the dedication ‘A.M.D.G’ (Ad maiorem Dei gloriam—To the greater glory of God) and a quotation from John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies: “This is the best of me: for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like any other: my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory”. Yet it took only a few days after the disastrous premiere for the composer to remark “I have allowed my heart to open once—it is now shut against every religious feeling and every soft, gentle impulse for ever.”
That Elgar should have made an express connection between the failure of the first performance and his personal devotion is quite telling. His compulsive tendency to descend into periodic bouts of melodramatic self-pity should not distract us from acknowledging that Gerontius is indeed the expression of a wholly vulnerable man; all the more remarkable when one considers that Elgar submitted the fruit of his deeply personal spiritual labours within the tradition-bound context of the English choral festival. His Catholicism was inherited from and encouraged by a mother who was herself a convert (incongruously married to an Anglican who strongly disliked the Roman Church and perhaps even religion altogether). Elgar was very much someone who chose—or perhaps more accurately, was called—to be a Catholic. This is as far removed from the heavy dogma and ritual of southern European Catholicism as can be imagined. It is, rather, the theology of a man’s spiritual pull towards the church as opposed to that of someone pushed to religion out of cultural circumstance. In a country that still practised de facto discrimination against Catholics, this self-chosen social exile explains a great deal of Elgar’s tendency to denigrate himself.
From Elgar’s point of view, faith is meaningful precisely because it accepts that the mysterious will forever remain essentially unknowable. Gerontius is entirely through-composed, with merely a short pause between its two parts. The general restlessness of the score reveals itself not only in the relentlessly meandering harmonic language of the piece—completely unheard of in the English oratorio tradition—but also in the constantly shifting role of the orchestra, which frequently evokes the presence of an indifferent and even antagonistic spirit. It is into this directionless void that Gerontius as lonely Everyman sings his last words in this world and his first ones in the next. Even when we encounter standard choral writing, eg the fugue of the Demons’ Chorus, the traditional compositional techniques and tropes often have an acerbic and disruptive quality.
Elgar’s letters show that success did little to allay the composer’s view of himself as “friendless and alone”, as he described himself in a letter to Sir Arthur Sullivan. It is difficult to square these words with our vision of Elgar as the Edwardian gentleman par excellence, not least because the composer himself sought to cover up such insecurities once he unwittingly assumed the status of national icon. But even the personal aspect of Gerontius—Newman’s own biographer described the text as “the least in sympathy with the present time”—is strangely qualified by the composer’s tendency toward self-effacement. After all, in one of his countless rants to his editor Jaeger penned during the work’s composition, Elgar was insistent that “none of the ‘action’ takes place in the presence of God … the Soul says ‘I go before my God’ but we don’t; we stand outside.” This perspective may help explain the avowedly modern way in which Elgar gives instruments and voices more or less equal footing. With many moments more typical of Wagner than of Stainer, upright and unimpeachable Protestant hymnody is frankly outdone by a late-Romantic vision of the ineffable inner core of collective consciousness. Such a vision only seems depersonalised if seen from a Low Church perspective, placing a premium on what is knowable about God. To Elgar, however, this would have seemed terribly limiting.
Rather, Gerontius is a sonic manifestation of the great spiritual wager made by the faithful against the unfathomable. Even in its breadth and dramatic sweep, it projects as much emotional uncertainty as it does its composer’s Olympian prowess and erudition. It is a work as much from the world of Mallarmé’s L’Après-midi d’un faune as it is from that of Parsifal. This tense mixture of philosophies was not lost on Elgar’s contemporaries, most notably the critic of The Daily Telegraph who wondered whether “a subject so awful, and as regards each individual of us so profoundly intimate, belongs to those which should be decked in musical trappings for the delectation of a festival crowd.” But then again, such works rarely come from those possessed with a belief in their own transcendent infallibility.
Recreating an Elgar orchestra
“The composer has laid out his work in most grandiose style … but Mr Elgar’s great effects are made … by his really remarkable instinct for orchestral colouring …”
(J A Fuller Maitland, The Times 4th October 1900)
I’ve always marvelled at Gerontius—one of Elgar’s most glorious and complex scores. The thrilling choral writing, with its frequent multi-part divisions in both full and semi-chorus, seems to incorporate every influence: Anglican chant and anthem, Germanic polyphony, the French choeur mystique and much from the world of opera. Likewise, the orchestration is equally astounding, both in the refined delicacy which colours every nuance of the orchestrally accompanied recitative, and in the brilliance of the ensemble at full tilt. This project presented the opportunity to recreate an orchestra from around the time of the Birmingham premiere in 1900, now almost a century-and-a-quarter ago, and it was a fascinating experience to hear the music afresh, in even more vivid colours. The following notes (with thanks to players for much of this information) describe some of the salient features of orchestral instruments in Elgar’s time.
A mixture of ‘transitional’ and more ‘modern’ instruments strung with gut on all but lowest strings, creating a transparency of tone which hugely facilitates the delicacy of the string writing—Elgar frequently writes pp, ppp and even pppp markings. Gut strings also encourage a more flexible and graduated use of vibrato and portamento; although we have trodden a careful line here, as (later) historic recordings show a huge variety of styles between orchestras. Elgar frequently divides the string section into as many as 20 parts; the players are arranged in groups, not by desk, as suggested by the ‘echo’ effects at the beginning of Part Two. Double basses are placed at the back of the orchestra. A mixture of leather, wooden and metal mutes is used.
Flutes and piccolo
Metal instruments existed at the turn of the century, but wooden flutes and piccolos were ubiquitous in English orchestras until well after the Second World War; indeed, their mellow sound has encouraged a return of such instruments to modern orchestras. Rudall, Carte & Co and Louis Lot are the two finest makers of the period.
Oboes and cor anglais
Elgar would have expected to hear French system oboes, which have a sweeter and more delicate sound compared to those of the German system. Nicholas Daniel plays a very special Lorée oboe previously owned by the legendary oboist Léon Goossens, who Elgar knew well and for whom he wrote the exquisite Soliloquy, part of a projected suite, in 1930. Indeed, many of the greatest British oboe works of the 20th century by Bax, Vaughan Williams, Britten, Delius and Bliss were created for Goossens and played on this instrument. Nicholas writes ‘I truly adore playing this oboe, especially alongside gut strings; it remains in exceptional condition and seems to have ‘muscle memory’ of the great man’s air and vibrato. Léon’s daughter, Jennie, came to the Gerontius performance in Croydon after which she presented this historic instrument to me, which was really one of the proudest moments of my life.’ The cor anglais is by Triebert, another fine French maker, for whom Lorée worked as foreman before leaving to set up his own atelier.
Katherine Spencer plays a pair of clarinets by Martel Frères, imported and sold by Hawkes & Son. This maker was much favoured by English players in the early years of the 20th century, and helped define the English school of clarinet playing. The A clarinet is widely regarded as one of the finest instruments ever made, and was played by Reginald Kell in the historic 1937 recording of the Brahms quintet with the Busch Quartet. The bass clarinet is a simple system German rosewood instrument; such instruments were well known in England in the second half of the 19th century.
Again, French system instruments, with a narrow bore and sweeter tone. There is a well-known photograph of Elgar playing a typical Buffet Crampon bassoon, and the same instruments—with their distinctively shaped bells—can be seen in a film of Elgar conducting the London Symphony Orchestra towards the end of his life. The contrabassoon is a German Heckel system instrument. French system contras were very rare at this time, unreliable in tuning, and lacking the lowest notes which Elgar writes, most noticeably at the end of the Demons’ chorus.
‘Piston’ horns are closely related to the hand horns of the 19th century; a simple valve mechanism was inserted in place of the crooks. These instruments were played widely until the Second World War—Marcus Bates’ horn was owned by Livia Gollancz who played in the London Symphony Orchestra at that time. Dennis Brain also played this type of horn in the early part of his career, the same instrument his father Aubrey Brain would have played in some of the earliest performances of Gerontius. These horns are characterised by a very liquid sound, softer than the modern horn, but also capable of a thrilling, focused ff.
Elgar wrote for trumpets in many keys, and indeed sought advice from some of the leading trumpeters of his day. Gerontius is scored for low F trumpets, and not the higher B flat trumpets (as written for in Elgar’s two symphonies) which eventually became more standard. Many players hugely admired the noble tone of the F trumpet, despite its challenges in the upper register, referring disparagingly to its smaller cousin as the ‘trompettina’ (little girl trumpet).
Elgar himself took up the trombone in middle age, around the time he was composing Gerontius, apparently with rather humorous results! His instrument, a typical narrow-bore trombone of the last years of the 19th century, was presented to the YMCA during the First World War and is now owned by the Royal College of Music, who kindly loaned it to Susan Addison for this project. Such instruments, colloquially nicknamed ‘pea-shooters’, are smaller and more delicately voiced than their modern counterparts.
This five-valved F tuba was designed by Harry Barlow, tubist of the Hallé Orchestra (and later of the London Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Orchestra), who played in many of the earliest performances of Gerontius. He was described as ‘the world’s greatest tuba player’ by Britten in 1931. The sound is wonderfully compact, blending perfectly as the bass of the trombone group.
Hand-tuned drums with deep bowls and calf-skin heads by Hawkes & Co. Elgar writes for three drums and an optional fourth which helps reduce the need for constant re-tuning. There is a photograph of Elgar conducting the London Symphony Orchestra with identical-looking drums in 1911.
The side drum and bass drum are original instruments from Elgar’s day, both with calf-skin heads. The side drum, with brass shell, could be used in a large modern symphony orchestra but the rope tension bass drum, with wooden shell, is smaller (30" diameter) and less powerful than today’s bass drums. As metal percussion instruments often deteriorate over time, modern copies were used for cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, glockenspiel and sleigh bells. The cymbals are small (17" diameter) in order that they match the bass drum in terms of attack, volume and decay.
The distinctive sound of the Erard harp was familiar to composers across Europe in the early 20th century. Even Debussy, whose harp music was more closely associated with the harps of Erard’s rival, Pleyel, expressed in later life a preference for the superior timbre of the Erard. Such instruments were widely heard in English orchestras, especially the slightly larger, highly decorated and ornate Gothic models imported from Paris, two of which feature on this recording. Their sound is characterised by brilliance and delicacy, and a more focused resonance when compared with American-style harps, which became standard after the Second World War. We are grateful to Fiona Hosford for the loan of the harp played by Mary Reid.
The ‘Father’ Henry Willis organ of Hereford Cathedral, built in 1892, is one of the finest romantic English cathedral organs, characterised by its forthright Great chorus, the flexibility of its Swell division, and the refined colour of the Solo and Choir divisions, all underpinned by a warm and rich Pedal section.
In 1904 Hereford became Elgar’s home when he moved with Alice to Plas Gwyn, overlooking the River Wye. Elgar was a frequent visitor to the Cathedral, not least for the Three Choirs Festival, in which Gerontius was first performed in 1902 (Worcester) and repeated in 1903 (Hereford). Elgar also enjoyed close relationships with the Cathedral’s organists: it was when walking with George Robertson Sinclair (organist from 1889) that Sinclair’s bulldog, Dan, fell into the Wye—immortalised by the composer in the 11th Enigma variation.
The Hereford organ is the perfect instrument for the highly imaginative organ part of Gerontius: from the cataclysmic tutti at the ‘lightning’ chord and the rich, underpinning grandeur in the prelude and choruses, to the single delicate stop as Gerontius faces judgment while all other instruments and voices fall silent.
It is notoriously difficult to record a cathedral organ as part of a large ensemble and therefore this magnificent instrument was recorded separately and carefully overdubbed. No doubt Elgar, who embraced early recording technology with such enthusiasm, would have approved.
Paul McCreesh © 2024