Elgar's 'Gerontius' sings meanings beyond words

October 24, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

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.

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