Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Elgar's Dream of Gerontius: Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic

The fate or otherwise of the soul is a matter to which many of us devote more than a passing thought. Most people only do this when a loved one dies or when they themselves are ill or getting on in years.

I often think, when I meditate, on the words of Shakespeare's Hamlet: To be or not to be that is the question... - the soliloquy points up the fact that we'd do well to consider what strange things may meet us in the unknown, in the next dimension of reality. In death.

Who knows what cards today's MacDeath keeps under his cloak? Prophets of all religions will say: Yes. We know. But, in truth they do not know any more about death, the next great adventure, as a precious friend often calls it, than the rest of us; we who say that we do not and cannot know, whatever those holy books and scriptures may say.

In any event, while we are alive here on this Earth, we may all dream. Perhaps in our finest dreams, beautiful angels will appear and guide us safely along beams of light that lead to our final destinies. We may all be accompanied by heavenly music, perhaps played on golden harps.
Desperate characters who have done much harm in the world will have to settle their accounts, we like to believe. Some other fate, perhaps worse than a lengthy stay in purgatory, perhaps a fate too horrible to imagine, may be their destiny, we quietly hope.
These human failings and desperate hopes do more than keep the religion business in business. They prove that we are not robots. They keep many of us from going mad. And they inspire the poets too.

Edward Elgar's two-part Oratorium The Dream of Gerontius is based on the poem by Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) which tells of an old man's dream of his last hours and the journey of the soul.

Friends and priests have done what they can; in prayer they have asked for mercy for Gerontius' soul: Save him in the day of doom. A guardian Angel soon arrives to conduct the soul to the place of judgement.

On the journey the soul hears the noise of demons emanating from a wall of fire; voices of souls now consigned to purgatory. Dread of hell fire, of the venomous flame, a coward's plea...

Despite this nightmarish experience, Gerontius' soul has no fear as it awaits the judgement. Gerontius has led a good and honest life and therefore no harm can befall his soul. And so it proves.

On 3rd October 1900 the premier was performed in Birmingham Town Hall, a venue not too far from the composer's home near Worcester. A Vienna Philharmonic premier came five years later, on the 16th November 1905. It was doubtless a great success for performances of Elgar's Enigma Variations quickly followed: 11th November 1906 and again on 29th and 30th January 1907.

Two world wars intervened and apart from one or two exceptions the work of Edward Elgar all but disappeared from the Vienna scene.

It was to be a long wait, for it was not until 1992 that The Dream of Gerontius was again performed in Vienna; after an absence of 87 years it signalled a change in attitudes and something of an Elgar renaissance is now taking place in Austria.

Berlin Philharmonic's resident conductor Simon Rattle, with his usual aplomb and panache, ably conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra's The Dream of Gerontius on the Sunday 6th December. I was informed by a friend who went the previous day, that the Saturday concert was equally wonderful.

The performers:

Magdalena Kozena (mezzo soprano) - the Angel

- this child of clay
to me was given,
to rear and train
by sorrow and pain

Toby Spence (tenor) - Gerontius

- my soul is in my hand: I have no fear
But Hark! a grand mysterious harmony:
it floods me, like the deep and solemn sound
of many waters

Thomas Quasthoff (bass) - the Priest and the Angel of Agony

Jesu! spare those souls which are so dear to Thee

The Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien - the Assistants (Friends), the Demons, the Souls in Purgatory and the Choir of Angelicals

- praise to the Holiest in the height,
and in the depth be praise ...

It ended with well-satisfied applause and more than 3/4 of the auditorium rising to its feet (front centre parterre people are beyond standing!).

Simon Rattle appeared genuinely delighted, especially with the marathon performance of Toby Spence, as I'm sure we all were. Thomas Quastoff was reliably solid as always and I particularly enjoyed his deep powerful tones in the role of the Priest. The choir had been trained-up for this by Johannes Prinz and it seemed that they were all in fine fettle.

In the end it was warm smiles all round and a large bouquet for the Angel.

An Austrian Elgar renaissance is well on course.

image: fine angel clipart


  1. I have sung in the chorus a few times Poet - it is certainly one of my favourite works.
    As to what happens to us upon our deaths - I believe that this life is it, just as it is for all other animals, plants etc., and I don't ever give it much thought. As I approach eighty I do so with trepidation, not because I think about what happens after I die but more because I do not want to live on after I become dilapidated! For this reason I carry an Advanced Decision card.
    Of course I might well be wrong - as you say, who knows. If I am wrong and Elgar is right then we may meet some day (you and I, I mean, not Elgar)

  2. It's a lovely work for a chorus. I bet you enjoyed it.
    As to General MacDeath, after looking at all the options I see him this way and I fear him not - the universe is 13.7 billion years old, it's very big, and I'm in it. I believe the universe is a conscious entity. It follows, according to physics, that I must have been in the universe in some form at the beginning. That being so 'I' must always be in it. look for my comet!


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