Dallas — The choral-orchestral repertoire is rich with requiems: Mozart, Verdi, Fauré, Duruflé, Brahms, and Britten distilled some of their most profound music in works dealing specifically with the looming presence of death. All these composers viewed death on a largely impersonal scale.
One composer, however, took on the subject of death on an almost shockingly immediate and personal level. Edward Elgar, inspired by a poem by the British Roman Catholic Cardinal John Henry Newman, dared to paint, in broad romantic textures, the journey of an individual human soul at the moment of death. The resulting oratorio, The Dream of Gerontius, has been a staple of musical life in Britain for over a century, since its premiere in 1900; in recent years, finally recognizing the extraordinary and unique qualities of the work, major American orchestras (including the orchestras of San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago) have presented Gerontius.
This weekend, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Music Director Jaap van Zweden) and the 200-voice Dallas Symphony Chorus (conducted by Joshua Habermann) will give Gerontius its long overdue Texas premiere in the what is possibly the finest room in America for large-scale choral-orchestral works, the Meyerson Symphony Center. It’s part of the Soluna: International Music & Arts Festival, with performances 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 26 and 27.
On the surface, The Dream of Gerontius professes a specifically Roman Catholic theology. The extent to which Elgar, officially a Catholic in overwhelmingly Protestant England, may have believed or not believed in the details of traditional Catholic theology is questionable; British Protestants, after an initial reticence, came to recognize the transcendent universal qualities in Gerontius.
At the time he wrote Gerontius, Elgar was busy shaking up the British musical establishment by integrating the compositional techniques of Wagner’s operas into British choral music. He found his ideal subject for that ongoing project in Newman’s boldly descriptive poetry: where Wagner had drawn on Nordic mythology, with its cast of gods and mythical creatures, Elgar latched onto Newman’s vision of angels and demons, who soar through the universe around the throne of God. While giving Wagnerian technique a distinctly British accent, Elgar likewise pushed forward in terms of choral-orchestral technique, creating breathtaking effects equal to those of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony—and doing so a decade earlier than Mahler.
For the concert-goer unfamiliar with Gerontius—as is the case with most American music lovers—the work offers an array of fascinating moments and effects. Elgar immediately draws the listener into the experience of the dying Gerontius (“Old Man”) with a quiet Prelude that rises to the agony, fear, despair, and hope of a human facing his end. This is, however, only the beginning of the mosaic of effects Elgar creates as he follows Gerontius on his journey. Part I alone ranges from archaic chants for the comfort the dying Gerontius to what amounts to a Pomp-and-Circumstance style march as the Soul of Gerontius, released from the body, begin its pilgrimage to the throne of God.
On that journey, a chorus of demons attack the Soul of Gerontius with biting counterpoint and sacrilegious taunts; an orchestral jolt describes the instant of Judgment, after which the agonized Soul of Gerontius descends into Purgatory for its cleansing. There, in final moments, as a violin solo soars upward, a choir of angels continues its praise, and the Souls in Purgatory at last find rest in the lower registers.
But the most striking and memorable moment in the oratorio arrives before the judgement, as the Soul of Gerontius approaches the gates of the throne room of God. There, introduced by a proclamation from his guardian angel, full chorus and orchestra create an overwhelming tidal wave of sound on the words, “Praise to the Holiest in the heights, and in the depths be paise,” followed by a grand fugal narration of the battle of Good and Evil.
What does it mean, ultimately? More than one commentator has seen, in Gerontius, a depiction of the joy and agony of creativity, with the moment of greatest ecstasy followed by fatigue and serenity. Speaking in terms of ecstasy and release, the sexual implications of Gerontius will not be lost on those looking in that direction; anyone familiar with the music of Elgar can hardly help but be aware of the ever-present aspect of sensuality in his music. (Newman and Elgar are both turning in their graves as I write this.)
Still, the theme of Death is clearly the most obvious element of Gerontius. One does not need to be Catholic—or even Christian, or, for that matter, a believer in any god whatsoever—to understand the longing for some sort of understanding of what lies beyond this existence. What is clear beyond theology is that, in a moment of creative bravery, Elgar here displays a willingness to take on the universal experience of death, to personalize that experience, and to encapsulate his concept in the form of one of the greatest works of the late romantic era, and one of the grandest of all choral-orchestral works.