1 T WAS AN AUTUMN DAY M 1974, the sun making I. all too rare appearance as we sat, lowersixthformers at Chetham's
School, Manchester, listening, amazed by the beauty of Elgar's The Dream of Geron rius. None of us had heard the work before. Its impression was such that when it was time for the lesson to end and the music had to stop, the entire class sighed with regret: "please play us some more."
For 25 years I have felt a particular closeness to this great work and from time to
time I revisit it in an attempt to understand it more closely. The very first performance I conducted was in VOsanin
ster Cathedral in 1984. A tense occasion, I recall, the tenor soloist ill at the 1 1 th hour, replaced by the great Kenneth Bowen with only a discussion as to how we must stay together. Most particu larly I was struck by the way in which Newman's words and Elgar's music fitted in so perfectly with the hallowed surroundings of Bentley's architectural masterpiece .
For me, Elgar and Britten are the two British composers this century who most clearly share what one might best describe as "the common touch", which lifts their music, essentially English as it is, from the parochialism of mere nationalism. The composer and writer Constant Lambert summed up Elgar's approach describing him as "the last serious composer to be in touch with the great public".
Britten was soon to gain similar recognition and the past few decades have produced new and interesting voices for the international platform: Michael Tippett, John Tavener, George Benjamin and, most recently, James MacMillan.
To truly assess the significance of Elgar's Gerontius it is necessary to step back into the last century, to an era before sound broadcasting, let alone hi-fis, CDs and digital reproduction.
Singing, whether at home or in communities, was a mainstream activity; it was regarded as a normal and necessary part of life. Choral societies could be found in
every city, town and village and were regarded as the lifeblood of English music. They were also the main inspiration, and indeed livelihood, of the Victorian and Edwardian composers.
As well as establishing Bach's importance in musical history, it was Felix Mendelssohn who established the oratorio so strongly in this country, a tradition derived from Bach and Handel.
Though there were many attempts to produce oratorios by Stanford, Parry and others, such efforts failed to grasp the opportunities to develop the oratorio in an innovative and arresting way. Not until 1900, that is, when Geronrius appeared.
Suddenly, the mould was broken with the arrival of a work which sought to be dramatic. It is a musical drama an opera in two acts its subject the common fate of humankind. It is an epic poem about the mystery of death. Death is portrayed as the final curtain, the ultimate end, oblivion. But it also shows the other side of death, the raising of the curtain, the awakening, resurrection. The eternal question had only one answer. Elgar, a staunch Catholic, seized on Cardinal Newman's poem with sensitivity and imagination, and created a masterpiece. Geronrius was a triumphant proclamation of his absolute belief in eternal life.
It was in 1898 that Elgar was asked to compose a work for the 1900 Birmingham Triennial Festival. He had been pondering a setting of the Newman text since a copy of it had been given to him on his wedding day. The Birmingham festivities were among the most important in Britain, with a history that could be traced back to 1768 and had an impressive record of presenting new works: Mendelssohn's Elijah (1846) and Dvothk's Requiem (1891) both directed by their composers, take pride of place among the many premieres mounted in the city's town hall. Though Elgar accepted the commission, he did nothing about it during the following year as he was much occupied with performances of Sea Pictures and Enigma Variations.
The journey towards completion was fraught with difficulty. Elgar faced demanding publishers and insufficient time to complete the score. The first performance was planned for October 3, yet the choir and orchestra had no sight of the work until the end of June. By August, when rehearsals began, the Birmingham Singers were unsurprisingly baffled. Brought up on Messiah and Elijah, Elgar's demands on his chorus were quite different.
The chorus master was completely hopeless and unwisely curtailed rehearsals when the choir had clearly given up even trying to master the complexities. Last minute attempts to salvage the situation were too little, too late. Too many deadlines had been missed, after only one orchestral rehearsal, a handful of the chorus were inadequate for the requirements of producing a work whose idiom was unfamiliar and difficult.
It is hardly surprising that, at the final rehearsal, Elgar was distraught by what he heard and, sensing disaster, lectured the chorus in where they were failing to achieve even a basic standard. Even in the hands of Hans Richter, a well respected conductor of his time, the performance failed in almost every respect, most things that could go wrong did. The chorus were as bad as Elgar feared and the soloists sang much of the work a semitone flat.
Thankfully, however, the story of Gerontius doesn't end there. With more rehearsal, subsequent performances proved to be increasingly successful and, within a few years Gertmtui.c had established itself as a work of enormous originality. Nearly one hundred years later, its posi
don in the choral repertoire is unquestionably high. It has entered the bloodstream of English choral music-making and most competent choirs are familiar with it and are able to overcome it's many technical demands.
As I prepare it yet again, this time with the Bach Choir, I am very aware of how well the choir, perhaps the most famous of British Choral Societies, knows the work. Together we are discovering new aspects of texture and colour constantly amazed by the details which Elgar incorporates within the score.
He wanted it to be his finest work and many regard it as such. When he finished the full score on August 3, 1900, Elgar wrote the following quotation from John Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies: "This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another: my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory."
• Elgar's 'The Dream of Gerontius will be performed by the Bach Choir and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, at the Festival Hall on lune 23.