Elgar, Edward – The Dream of Gerontius Op. 38
for Mezzo-Soprano, Tenor and Bass Soli, Chorus & Orchestra
(b. Lower Broadheath, near Worcester, 2 June 1857 — d. Worcester, 23 February 1934)
with an analytic essay by A. J. Jaeger
The first performance of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius was given on the morning of Wednesday, 3 October 1900, in Birmingham Town Hall during the prestigious Birmingham Triennial Festival. History remembers the occasion as one of the poorest premieres of any major work in the last 150 years. The chorus was under-rehearsed and utterly bemused by the style of the piece, losing their way and their pitch frequently. All three soloists were at fault, although the Angel, Marie Brema, several times saved the performance as all around her broke down. The conductor, Hans Richter, was badly under-prepared and blamed himself for the subsequent mess. It is obvious to us today that no- one had appreciated how very different Gerontius was from any previous choral work – not so much a successor to Handel, Mendelssohn, or Dvorak oratorios as post-Wagnerian music-drama, using techniques learned from Liszt and Wagner, and a language and orchestral style nearer to Richard Strauss. Musical England was simply not ready for it. The experience also exposed the administration of Britain’s music festivals and the unrealistic expectations of its main publisher of choral music.
But there can be little doubt that much of the blame must lie with Elgar himself. The Birmingham Festival Committee ing Elgar a commission for the principal new work of the 1900 festival. This was proof of the reputation Elgar now had among the choral festivals, for Birmingham was their pinnacle and had a proud history of commissioning new works. Mendelssohn’s Elijah (1846), Gounod’s Redemption (1882), Dvorak’s The Spectre’s Bride (1885) and Requiem (1891) are just some of the pieces written for Birmingham that had entered the regular repertoire of choral societies throughout Britain. It did not take Elgar long to accept the commission, but choosing a subject was another matter. His first proposal was for a work based on the life of St Augustine, but George Johnstone, the Secretary at Birmingham advised against what might be a controversial choice in Protestant Britain. Elgar let the matter rest there until his present commitments were completed.
The first of these was to complete the score of his cantata Caractacus, for the Leeds Festival in October 1898. Almost immediately after its successful premiere he began a completely unexpected work, the Enigma Variations, which was to prove the piece with which he would achieve international fame. But even after its first performance in June 1899, there was pressure to revise the ending. The pressure came from Elgar’s friend and mentor, the manager at Novello & Co., Augustus Johannes Jaeger. Elgar continued to work on revisions during the Summer, when he began to compose Sea Pictures for the Norwich Festival of 1899. …
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