What Elgar had in common with the creator of Gerontius

Fr Guy Nicholls places the original manuscript of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius on Newman’s desk in the latter’s living quarters at the Birmingham Oratory (Getty)

Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) is often caricatured as an establishment figure, while in truth he was a sensitive outsider. Born near Worcester into a lower middle-class family, his mother took the unusual step of converting to Catholicism, insisting her children be brought up in the faith. Her husband, who was the organist of St George’s Catholic Church, converted on his deathbed.

Young Edward followed in his father’s footsteps as organist, but also spent time listening to liturgical music in Worcester’s magnificent Anglican cathedral. The building was a venue for the Three Choirs Festival, and Elgar played the violin in several festivals as an orchestral musician, performing new music by composers such as Dvořák and Tchaikovsky, alongside oratorios by Parry, Cowen and others. Yet nothing surpassed Elgar’s admiration for Wagner, especially Parsifal: a Christian myth of spiritual transformation woven from “endless melody” and leitmotivs laden with meaning.

Elgar was a late developer. Not until the triumph of his Enigma Variations in 1899 did he receive widespread public acclaim. He had already composed several major choral works, including Lux Christi (1896) which, eschewing Wagnerian techniques, retained separate arias, recitatives and choruses. Traditionally, English oratorios were based on the Old Testament, but Elgar preferred to explore Christ’s impact on ordinary lives. Lux Christi depicts the miraculous healing of a blind man, and wrathful Jehovah has no part to play.

In 1900 Elgar began writing his choral masterpiece, The Dream of Gerontius, which, written in a freer style, his publisher soon considered a worthy successor to Parsifal. Commissioned by the Birmingham Triennial Festival, the work sets to music Cardinal Newman’s poem of 1865, when the outspoken cleric was under attack from both Anglicans and conservative Catholics. It traces the transition of a dying man from earthly to heavenly existence, including detailed descriptions of the incorporeal state as the soul passes through seven phases of transformation. Elgar shared much in common with Newman, who was a Catholic convert. Both were accomplished violinists who greatly admired Beethoven, while music was central to Newman’s vision of both the Church and the afterlife.

The poem’s Catholic symbolism and references to music appealed to Elgar, although he knew its imagery would stir controversy. Cutting Newman’s text shifted emphasis away from dogma towards the feelings of an ordinary sinner, but Elgar’s finest achievement was resolving the tension in the poem between divine love and judgment. The music sung by Gerontius’s guardian angel reveals a compassionate rather than angry God, despite the sombre anticipation of divine judgment found in the work’s opening bars. When judgment finally occurs as a momentary cataclysm, there is no terrifying punishment, only an eruption of self-awareness.

In the work’s closing passages, the angel bids the soul a temporary farewell, abandoning Gerontius to purgatory’s healing waters; a poignancy expressed by one of Elgar’s most serenely beautiful melodies.

Peter Davison is a musicologist and cultural commentator, who is currently artistic adviser to the George Lloyd Society