"This, if anything of mine, is worth your memory," wrote Edward Elgar (quoting Ruskin) regarding his oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. The composer, often self-deprecating about even his most ambitious works, felt that this effort, inspired by a poem of Cardinal Newman, represented his finest music. Elgar received a copy of Newman's poem as a wedding present from his priest, and it struck a particular chord with him; in fact, the poem -- which explained Roman Catholic theological views on the immortal soul in an accessible manner -- had a tremendous vogue in the late Victorian era. Elgar edited the text down to about half its orginal size for the sake of musical economy, but he managed to do so without altering the essence of the poem. The 1900 premiere under Richter at the Birmingham Festival was marred by insufficient rehearsal, but at its German premiere a year later it was hailed as a masterpiece. Subsequent British performances quickly established the work in the repertory.
The central character of Gerontius is an imperfect, yet decent, man who is riddled with doubts on his deathbed. An angel comes to him during his last moments to give him a glimpse of the afterlife, culminating in an overwhelming vision of God. Gently the angel returns his ward to a death which will now be a peaceful transition. The prelude to the oratorio commences with a fade-in, as a candle's light would gradually illuminate a dark room. Here the hesitating, vague rhythm would seem to represent the labored breathing of the dying man. A typically Elgarian martial theme emerges, in major but quickly souring into anguished minor, evoking a crisis of faith. Part One of the oratorio proper commences; it consists of a dialogue between Gerontius, alternately offering supplication and despairing, and the clerical assistants, praying for his soul. Hope is found in the buoyant and noble "Proficisere" of the priest ("Go upon thy journey, Christian soul!"), in Elgar's nobilmente mode, answered by the chorus of assistants and subsiding to a serene close. Part Two commences, again nebulous but purged of torment, as Gerontius' soul speculates on this strange new existence and is joined by his angel who will lead him to the Almighty. They travel past the underworld, depicted in the "Demon's Chorus" by a restless, shadowy fugue punctuated by grotesque laughter. The angel assures the soul that they are past their harm, and presently they come before the choir of angels, depicted in the work's most glorious music, "Praise to the Holiest." This ethereal and childlike section is usually performed by a children's chorus. The soul is brought before God, inspiring uncomprehending awe; at this point comes Gerontius' moving aria, "Take me away." The angel soothes Gerontius and returns him to a gentler leave-taking, as the oratorio comes to a serene, transfigured close with "The Angel's Farewell," perhaps Elgar's most sensitive music.