Wednesday, October 3, 2012

"The Dream of Gerontius", Elgar's Oratorio

Edward Elgar's oratorio based on Blessed John Henry Newman's poem, The Dream of Gerontius premiered on October 3, 1900 at the Birmingham Music Festival in an unfortunately disastrous performance. Since then, however, it has been performed and recorded often. My favorite recording is the one conducted by John Barbirolli with Janet Baker as the Guardian Angel.
In 2000, its centennial was celebrated by many performances in Great Britain and here in the USA. There was quite a controversy when a music critic in California stated that one would have to be a Catholic to appreciate the content of the work--he could judge the artistic and performance merits, but not really be engaged by the words and music. Some queried whether he would say the same for Mozart's Requiem or Beethoven's Missa Solemnis?

Blessed John Henry Newman wrote The Dream of Gerontius in 1865 to wide-ranging praise, even from non-Catholics (e.g., William Gladstone)! It obtained real notoriety when a copy of the poem was found among the belongings of General "Chinese" Gordon after his death in Khartoum with pencilled margin notes. From the text (with various settings) come two hymns: "Firmly I Believe and Truly" and "Praise to the Holiest in the Height"!

On a personal note, I can never think of "The Dream of Gerontius" without remembering Heather Muller, a beautiful young woman who played the role of the Angel in a dramatic reading of the poem at a Newman School of Catholic Thought held at the Spiritual Life Center here in Wichita. The late Sister Madeleine Kisner, ASC expertly excerpted the text for performance, the opening act on a program with Professor Regis Martin on "Newman and the Four Last Things". Heather was murdered by the infamous Carr brothers in December of 2000.

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