GerontIn March I took part in a performance of The Dream of Gerontius in Oxford. I’ve been in two previous performances, the first with the Epworth Choir at Guildford Cathedral in the mid 1970s, the second (playing timpani this time rather than singing) at the University of Keele in the early 1980s. It’s one of those works that stays with you once you get to know it – and although I haven’t listened to it a great deal in recent years, I found I’d not forgotten it. This isn’t a typical English oratorio from the Victorian period – like Parry’s later Songs of Farewell it is profoundly religious and spiritual music, but without asserting unwavering conviction. As Wilfrid Mellers points out, it concerns “a suffering seeker after faith…the personal testament of a man in some ways similar to Elgar”, and that’s the reason why Gerontius caught the popular imagination in the way that The Apostles or The Kingdom, which toe the standard biblical line, did not.

Whatever Elgar’s own convictions, the music often reaches an intensity that (for me at least) provides just about the closest thing there is to a religious experience. Part Two – in a passage which Mellers characterizes as “celestial music” – opens with what are probably Elgar’s simplest but most beautiful bars, a brief instrumental prologue depicting Gerontius’ soul set free following his earthly death. It’s quiet and still, using step-wise parallel motion in intervals of fourths and fifths, and its underlying harmonies, though sequential, are still slightly uncertain, modal rather than diatonic. The music soon blends seamlessly into the continuation of Gerontius’ highly melodic recitative, starting with the words “I went to sleep, but now I am refreshed”. There are echoes here of Elgar’s most famous piece, “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations, though the mood is very different. It’s this passage, along with the eight minute opening orchestral prelude, that are the highlights of Gerontius for me.