The Dream of Gerontius

Just a quick lunchtime post to mention that I took yesterday (Sunday) evening off to attend a concert at the Brighton Dome which was part of the annual Brighton Festival. The perf0rmance consisted of just one piece: The Dream of Gerontius by Sir Edward Elgar, performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Edward Gardner) together with the Brighton Festival Chorus.

I happen to know a couple of people who sing with the Brighton Festival Chorus. Both were a bit nervous ahead of last night’s performance because it’s a challenging work and although they’ve been rehearsing the choral passages themselves, they only had a short time to practice together with the orchestra. Reading about the performance history of this work, their fears might have been justified: the first performance, in Birmingham in 1900, was a shambles, largely due to inadequate rehearsal time, and it took some time for it to become established in the repertoire. As it turned out, however, they had nothing to worry about. I thought the Chorus was magnificent, as was the Orchestra and indeed the three soloists: Alice Coote (Mezzo), Robert Murray (Tenor) and Matthew Rose (Bass). I particularly liked Matthew Rose’s performance. He cut an imposing figure on the platform, towering over the other musicians, and his sonorous bass tones projected wonderfully.

Although I began by saying that the concert was “just one piece”, The Dream of Gerontius is a very substantial work, lasting over 90 minutes (excluding the interval). It requires a large choir (well over a hundred voices last night) as well as large orchestral forces, including two harps and a big brass section. I’m sure it’s a handful to perform, but last night’s concert was well-controlled and at times simply beautiful.

It’s basically a setting of a long poem, describing the journey of a dying man towards death. It takes a very Roman-Catholic view of Paradise, Purgatory, and the Last Judgement and this may have contributed to its initial lack of popularity in (Protestant) England; it found greater favour in Germany in the years after its first performance.

I’m actually not the biggest fan of Elgar, generally speaking. He’s often very rhythmically unimaginative and predictable, as in the opening passage of Part 1 in last night’s performance which plodded along for a quite a while before getting going. However, there are some thrilling passages too. This work does sound surprisingly modern at times and at others is very reminiscent of Richard Strauss, at least to my ears.

Anyway, an excellent performance of a profound and challenging work. I’m glad to say that it attracted a full house too, though the majority of the audience were (like me) not in the first flush of youth..

P.S. I texted a friend that I was at The Dream of Gerontius, but autocorrect turned it into The Dream of Geronimo. As far as I know there’s no choral work with that title, but perhaps there should be!

One Response to “The Dream of Gerontius”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    There is perhaps more to the slow reception of this piece of music in Anglican England than the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. The poem which Elgar set to music is by John Henry Newman, who was the Vatican’s trophy convert from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism in the 19th century.

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