An English Master

Edward Elgar (1857-1934) was the greatest Catholic composer at the turn of the nineteenth century and the greatest English composer since Purcell some two hundred years earlier. Elgar’s mother, Ann, was a convert to Catholicism and, despite her husband’s objections, raised her children in the faith. Among the things she used to read them as youngsters was a poem called “The Better Land,” that spoke of a place of no sorrow or tears. This place was “beyond the tomb.”

Elgar never forgot. Death was never far from his mature works. But unlike some of the neurasthenic composers at work at the same time, his preoccupation with death was not morose and sickly. It expressed itself indirectly in an orchestral style that was extremely rich and conveyed a sense of ripeness, or even over-ripeness, and autumnal glow. It was a noble summing-up. What could follow such a sense of radiant fulfillment, but a farewell? That farewell was death itself, not as a nihilistic ending, but as a passage to eternal life. This valedictory quality gives Elgar’s music a powerful poignance, which some critics misinterpret as nostalgia for the fading glory of the British Empire. It is far more than that; it is music pointing to a “Better Land,” which is why we still listen to it and are moved.

At the heart of Elgar’s output is a work that makes explicit this implicit theme of death. It was written in 1900, after the highly successful Enigma Variations and before the First Symphony. It is The Dream of Gerontius, one of the most extraordinary choral works ever written. It is also a stunning affirmation of Catholic faith. Upon hearing Sir John Barbirolli conduct it in 1958 at the Castel Gandolfo, Pope Pius XII, himself only days from dying, said: “My son, that is a sublime masterpiece.”

When Elgar married in 1889, the priest of St. George’s in Worcester, where Elgar had served as organist, gave him as a wedding present a copy of The Dream of Gerontius, a long mystical poem written in 1865 by Cardinal John Henry Newman. This poem had some currency in Anglican England, not only because of Newman’s fame, but because a copy of it, with General Charles “Chinese” Gordon’s underlinings and notations, was found near Gordon after his heroic death in Khartoum. Copies of Gordon’s annotated text circulated widely in England and one found its way into Elgar’s possession. The poem depicts the agonizing death of Gerontius, his experience of the afterlife, and his passage to the seat of judgment, escorted by his guardian angel. After judgment, his soul departs for purgatory.

Elgar heavily edited the original poem, which is inseven sections. He largely retained the first section portraying the deathbed scene, while the remaining six dealing with the afterlife were telescoped into a second part just twice the length of the earthly opening. This new emphasis gave greater weight to the drama of Gerontius’s death. Newman’s poem is startlingly literal, visionary but didactic. The psychology of a dying man is convincingly captured, but Gerontius’s recitation of certain Catholic doctrines on his deathbed is awkward dramatically. Equally awkward are the metaphysical observations Gerontius makes in the afterlife such as, “I am not self-moving.” Also, some of the language is stilted. It is a measure of Elgar’s melodic gift that he could make the following sound mellifluous: “They sing of thy approaching agony,/ Which thou so eagerly didst question of.” Nonetheless, despite its shortcomings, the poem compellingly presents the greatest drama human beings face and the one they fear the most.

Elgar put flesh and blood, even in its incorporeal parts, on Newman’s creation of Gerontius and made him live, die, and live again. The ten-minute orchestral prelude is in itself a close-to-overwhelming experience in which Elgar presents the themes that will appear throughout the hour-and-a-half piece in leitmotif fashion. A pulsing, clock-like ticking figure measures the dying man’s last moments. Then, the hammer blows of approaching death sound. The very moment of death (Novissima hora est) is depicted with music of breathtaking serenity. The demons’ cacophony is captured with the brilliance of Berlioz. The angel sings with pure rapture. With shades of Wagner and Brahms, but very much in his own voice, Elgar transports his listeners as close to the “Better Land” as one can come without going there.

Nothing could be more ambitious than what Elgar undertook, or appear more easily ridiculous (A man’s soul signing with its guardian angel…?). Elgar felt very exposed. Exactly how exposed is clear from the bitterness he expressed at the inadequately prepared and badly bungled premiere at the Birmingham Musical Festival in 1900. After the performance he wrote:

Providence denies me a decent hearing of my work: so I submit—I always said God was against art and I still believe it… I have allowed my heart to open once—it is now shut against every religious feeling and every soft, gentle impulse for ever.

When a later performance of Gernotius was presented properly prepared, the work’s value was immediately recognized by a broad public. Elgar recovered, and went on to open his heart in many other masterpieces, including two oratorios based on the New Testament: The Kingdom, and The Apostles.

The totally Catholic character of Gerontius did not escape attention. Sir Charles Stanford was alleged to have remarked to Elgar, “My boy, it stinks of incense.” For this reason, there were protests that Gerontius was unsuitable for performance in Anglican cathedrals. For a performance at Worcester Cathedral, the clergy insisted on deleting Roman Catholicisms from the text. In his review, the Pall Mall critic wrote: “A Roman Catholic priest of known wit, who was present this morning at the performance, suggested that instead of omitting the words ‘In purgatory,’ the difficulty might have been better solved by simply putting ‘Fried souls.'”

Elgar was very clear about how he wished Gerontius to be performed: passionately (as is also evident from the excerpts he recorded in 1927). During one rehearsal, he entreated the tenors to sing the Kyrie, marked pianissimo, with “more tears in the voices,” as if “they were assisting at the death of a friend.” He thought of Gerontius more in the Italian opera tradition than as a staid English oratorio: sing as if your life depended upon it, especially if you are dying. After Elgar, Gerontius found its ideal interpreter in Sir John Barbirolli, who gave definitive performances of many of Elgar’s masterpieces. In preparing for one performance of Gerontius, Barbirolli could have been speaking for Elgar when he scolded the tenors and basses in the Demons’ Chorus: “You’re not bank clerks on a Sunday outing, you’re souls sizzling in hell.” Himself a Catholic, Barbirolli believed that only a choir of Catholics could fully understand the transcendent vision Elgar and Newman tried to communicate. The very fact that he thought so is an indication of how deeply he understood and sympathized with this work. In his 1965 recording on an EMI CD [CMS-7631852, coupled with the incandescent Sea Pictures], he conveyed this vision with the greatest urgency, eloquence, and a surging vitality. Of this recording, Sir John said: “I wanted to leave it as a kind of testament of my faith.” It features the Halle Orchestra and is distinguished by a totally convincing performance from tenor Richard Lewis as Gerontius and by the sublime singing of mezzo-soprano Janet Baker as the Angel. (She is also the soloist in the Sea Pictures, one of the greatest vocal recordings ever made.)

If you have ever had to keep watch at the deathbed of someone close to you, you may have difficulty keeping your composure listening to this piece. Your reaction may be Elgar’s own as he conducted Gerontius in 1902, shortly after his mother’s death: he wept. But as Cardinal Newman writes at the end of Gerontius, “Farewell, but not for ever!… I will come and wake thee on the morrow.”

  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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