Elgar, Newman and the Dream of Gerontius: In the Tradition of English Catholicism/Edward Elgar: A Source Book

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Percy Young. Elgar, Newman and The Dream of Gerontius: In The Tradition of English Catholicism. Aldershot, Hampshire: Scolar Press, 1995. 162 pp. ISBN 0-85967-877-6 (hardcover).

Stewart R. Craggs. Edward Elgar: A Source Book. Aldershot, Hampshire: Scolar Press, 1995. 188 pp. ISBN 0-85967-920-9 (hardcover).

Cardinal Newman was the nineteenth century's most famous convert to Roman Catholicism. As an Anglican cleric, and one of Oxford's leading intellectuals, he had preached sermons describing Rome as "the whore of Babylon." When the conversion came it was spectacular. Rome offered him the diocese of Westminster, its highest position in England, and Newman thereafter exercised an unparalleled influence in Catholic affairs.

It is often said that Elgar was given Newman's poem The Dream of Gerontius on his wedding day, but we know that he was familiar with the work long before that. It had already achieved some fame through the murder of the religious mystic General Gordon of Kartoum, whose death had roused the nation and had forced a reluctant Gladstone to send in the British army to avenge him. Gordon's personal copy of Gerontius was found among his possessions, with certain passages of the text underlined. These underlinings were widely publicised and Elgar made a note of them: he even passed them on to others, including his future wife, Carolyne Alice Robertson.

Gerontius is an intensely Catholic work. It tells of the death and spiritual journey of a Christian soul as it progresses towards Heaven, its encounter with purgatory, with angels, and its glimpse of God. The words brought forth from Elgar some of his most enduring music which established him as England's greatest composer. Yet the circumstances surrounding the first performance were less than auspicious. The work was a failure when it was first performed at the Three Choirs Festival in 1900, under the baton of Hans Richter. Elgar was especially critical of the singers; he noted that they hardly seemed to know their parts and the ensemble was ragged. In retrospect we now understand that much of the blame rested with Elgar himself who finished the work at break-neck speed and did not give the performers enough time to rehearse. Richter redeemed the situation two years later when he took the work to the Lower Rhine Music Festival in Dusseldorf and, in the presence of Elgar, secured a resounding triumph. Richard Strauss was in the audience, and during the Festival he made a public speech in which he recognized Elgar as an English musical genius of the front rank. England was amazed; it did not know that it had one.

Unlike Cardinal Newman, Elgar was born a Catholic. He was brought up in the small Worcester town of Broadheath, where his father kept a local music shop and played the organ at St. George's Church. Surrounded by scores and musical instruments from his earliest youth, Elgar was virtually self-taught and, by the time he was in his teens, he was already playing the organ and sometimes composing for the church service. The Catholic Church provided him with his first musical opportunities. Yet it was the very fact of his being a Catholic, in a vastly Protestant England, that gave Elgar the lifelong feeling that he was an outsider. And that is how he was at first treated by the British musical establishment. He was forty-two years old before he made any mark on the national scene through his "Enigma" variations.

Meanwhile he earned a meagre living by teaching in and around Worcester, conducting the staff band of the local lunatic asylum, arranging music for a variety of ensembles, and sometimes playing the violin in the orchestras of the Three Choirs Festivals. It was for him a wretched existence. He once said of teaching that it was like turning a grindstone with a dislocated shoulder.

Gerontius was without parallel in the long history of English choral music. For years Anglican composers in search of an identity had composed a stream of oratorios more or less in pale imitation of Mendelssohn's Elijah (the influential model for so much that later went wrong with the genre) for performance in the churches and cathedrals of Victorian England. …