Elgar's 'Gerontius' sings meanings beyond words

Augustus Jaeger was an honest, undemonstrative sort who didn't suffer fools gladly. Yet when the German-born publisher first saw Edward Elgar's music for the "Angel of the Agony" section in his "The Dream of Gerontius," Jaeger wrote the composer that "I feel as if I wanted to kiss the hand that penned those marvellous pages."

But Jaeger -- whom Elgar characterized musically as "Nimrod" in his "Enigma" Variations -- went on to warn the composer that "You must not, cannot expect this work of yours to be appreciated by the ordinary amateur [or critic] after one hearing. You will have to rest content, as other great men had to before you, if a few friends & enthusiasts hail it as a work of genius, & become devoted to its creator."


This was a canny prediction. Except for the early days of Elgar's international popularity in the first two decades of this century, "Gerontius" has had trouble crossing the Atlantic or even the English Channel. The Elgar revival of the past 10 years has won converts to the symphonies, the concertos and even the tone poem, "Falstaff," but it's left "Gerontius" pretty much alone.

Elgar's big choral work, which will be performed Thursday and Friday for the first time by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and music director David Zinman, is not easy to classify. In Great Britain, it ranks with Handel's "Messiah" and Mendelssohn's "Elijah" as one of the most popular of all choral works. Yet unlike those pieces (and although it's commonly thought of as one), it's not really -- as Elgar himself insisted -- an oratorio.


And although Zinman has taken to calling the work "Elgar's 'opera' -- his 'Parsifal or 'Tristan' " -- that's not really quite accurate, either.

"Gerontius" is as close to such pieces as the last movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 (the "Choral") or Mahler's Symphony No. 8 (the so-called "Symphony of a Thousand") as it is to opera. Like the Beethoven, which is a setting of Schiller's "Ode to Joy" or the Mahler, a setting of Part II of Goethe's "Faust," "The Dream of Gerontius" is a setting of a poem -- an intensely religious verse narrative of the same name by Cardinal John Henry Newman, who almost single-handedly revived Roman Catholicism in England. What sets "Gerontius" apart from TC the symphonic works is that Elgar set Newman's words with extraordinary care, musically dramatizing their narrative so completely that -- unlike a symphony -- it is a musico-verbal imitation of an action with a beginning, a middle and an end.

So why isn't "The Dream of Gerontius" an opera? And if not, why didn't Elgar -- who always wanted to write an opera -- turn it into one?

Part of the answer is the provincial nature of English music in Elgar's day -- in some ways almost unchanged since the time of Mendelssohn -- in which writing a big choral work was the safest way of getting a serious hearing. But unlike other composers who merely set potpourris of biblical texts, Elgar chose a serious poem that tells the story of an old man ("Gerontius" is a Latinization of the Greek "geron," meaning old man) who dies and receives last rites.

It follows his soul as it leaves its body and -- accompanied by its Guardian Angel -- travels past demons, encounters various orders of angels, and sees the face of God before finally departing for Purgatory, where it will wait until the morning of the Resurrection.

Elgar was a Roman Catholic, and in Great Britain, with its established Protestant church, it took a certain amount of courage for him to set so intensely Catholic a work by the English theologian whose conversion to Rome half a century earlier had set the entire nation on its collective ear.

Understandably, not everyone liked "Gerontius."

"It stinks of incense," one notable musician of the day complained. But the work had champions from the beginning, particularly among forward-looking musicians, among assimilated Jews -- it's neither ironical nor an exaggeration to remark of Elgar that most of his best friends were Jews -- and even among such agnostics as George Bernard Shaw.


And it's likely that it was probably not his Catholicism that drew Elgar -- who later, although he received last rites, became an unbeliever -- to "Gerontius," but Newman's imaginative vision.

Newman -- who was one of the great prose stylists in English literary history and whose best-known and most passionately felt book, the "Apologia pro Vita Sua," is one of the masterpieces of autobiography -- was not a great poet. But his vision of a soul being borne along without location or time and without even (in the usual meaning of the term) senses of perception is both imaginative and ambitious.

There are no visual effects in the second part of the poem -- the soul can hear but not see -- and this makes Newman depend upon the articulation of his own feeling about the redemptive love of God for man to make his lyrics moving.

And this is the reason why "Gerontius" -- although it is more dramatic than either a symphony or an oratorio -- could not have been an opera. Its action is perceived only through the ear. Newman was himself a remarkably good violinist -- he was among the first musicians in England to play Beethoven's challenging last string quartets -- and, realizing how much he had depended on hearing, he himself proposed that "Gerontius" be set to music.

Anyone who has ever listened seriously to Elgar's score knows how just that suggestion was. "The Dream of Gerontius" is one of the few times in which a very good work became a great one when translated to another medium.

Elgar is musically able to realize what are merely suggestions in Newman's text. There is the way, for example, in which the Angel of the Agony solo in Part II, which so impressed Jaeger, is foreshadowed by the treading figures in the priest's administration of last rites in Part I. This idea -- that a priest intercedes with God for us on Earth as angels do in heaven -- is in Newman's poem, of course. But a reader can miss it; a listener -- presented with the huge, slow crescendo and the chromatic agony of the Angel's "Hasten, Lord, their hour" -- can not.


The death of Gerontius in the poem is merely presented by ellipsis dots after "Lord, into thy hands . . ." In the music -- guided as it is by the marking "molto espressivo" (much expressiveness) -- Gerontius' failed attempt to say "I commend my spirit" is represented by a tiny crescendo, followed by a slow diminishment to the limits of audible sound and a final, pointed, extinction. And the Guardian Angel's song of farewell to Gerontius' soul as it departs for Purgatory -- perhaps the best thing in Newman's poem -- becomes even better in the music: an ineffably lovely lullaby that looks back to a mother's love for her child as it looks forward to the final reward promised by God's love for man.

After Newman died, one of his contemporaries remarked: "[His] mind was worldwide. He was interested in everything that was going on, in science, in politics, in literature. Nothing was too large for him, nothing too trivial, if it threw light upon the central question, what man really was and what was his destiny."

In Elgar's "Gerontius" -- which was written in the 19th century's final year and is perhaps its last great work -- we hear the bigness of that question and the excitement of that vision as more than mere words.


You can hear excerpts from Edward Elgar's "The Dream of Gerontius" on Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service.

You will need a touch-tone phone. Call (410) 783-1800, or, from Anne Arundel County, (410) 268-7736. After the greeting, punch in 6103.



Even if you already like Elgar's "Enigma" Variations and his symphonies and concertos, if you're coming to "The Dream of Gerontius" for the first time when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performs it, the chances are you won't like it. So either don't waste your money on tickets or spend a little more by investing in a recording to familiarize yourself with the music before the performance.

The two best recordings of the piece -- the nostalgia-drenched performance of John Barbirolli (EMI) and the sweeping and precise one of Benjamin Britten (London) -- are out of print. But Richard Hickox's recording (Chandos) is a satisfactory alternative.