20 Nov, 2020

DID-3

It’s one of those chance things.  Aged 17 and still at grammar school, I’d never heard of The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar’s masterly arrangement of Cardinal Newman’s poem.  If you don’t know it, don’t expect jolly, cheery, merry music. It’s about an old man dying, and his spiritual journey as he does so.

I sang tenor in the chorus in our church in Solihull, Warwickshire in 1965, a performance shared with choristers from other schools. The organist was my school’s music master, the orchestra a mix of fellow students and professionals.  The soloists were professional but alas, the combined memories of lifelong friend Lesley, who sang soprano, and I have failed to produce their names other than that the bass might, just might, have been John Shirley-Quirk.  Well, that’s good enough for Lesley and me!

Depths to heights: deeply moved and greatly uplifted, that’s how I was affected.  For a 17 year-old to sing about dying or to think much about it, or to be stirred by both, seemed strange even to me at the time, but it’s how music works, triggering the deepest responses of joy, sorrow, pity, elation, other hidden corners of our emotions and much more.  I fell in love with it and shortly after bought the record, a vinyl of course, featuring Janet Baker, Richard Lewis and Kim Borg, conducted by John Barbirolli.  It’s a real classic.  In fact I fell in love with Janet Baker too – sorry Les.

A more recent highlight: about 15 years ago I sang it again in the Royal Festival Hall as a member of The London Choral Society.  It was a great reunion of DP and The Dream, and it was symbolic also because the LCS had been formed in 1903 to  bring the piece to London.  A very special experience.

From that classic performance here is The Dream as it moves towards its end.  The sublime Janet Baker, as Angel, eases Gerontius’ soul closer to his final place in Heaven.  You might recognise the choir’s “Praise to the Holiest in the height”.   The Dream is not the sort of thing that will move everyone but it moves me.  And this is my Desert Island and I’ll play whatever Disc I want!

9 Comments

  1. As you say not the most cheerful piece. I think it went over my head all those years ago but then I was sooo much younger than DP. Having sung it since, in more mature times, I enjoyed it and I can definitely see why it would speak to your heart.

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  2. Its a very special piece David and thanks for sharing your memory of your school performance! John Pearly-Shirt indeed!!! He was a wonderful singer. The Barbirolli is (of course as a Mancunian) my favourite. But, you will know, Britten recorded it with Peter Pears – also a superb set.

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  3. A great third choice – and many years ago you introduced us, too, to the wonderful Janet Baker!

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  4. Lovely to hear your reactions to Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. It’s not a work I know well but I recognise the sentiments that music can produce, especially, in my case that of Welsh male voice choirs. Stay strong old son !

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  5. I think the first time I sang Dream of Gerontious was with you and the London Choral Society, David, and it was a tremendous experience. Thank you very much for your blog about Dream of Gerontious, you have answered the question that is in my heart and I am glad.

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  6. So glad to find that you share so many of my feelings on this great work, David. I go to any performance I can, and always find it deeply moving and at times overpowering.

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  7. It makes me cry, too, David, even when I play the Herbert Brewer arrangement of the Angel’s Farewell at the end of funerals, which I do occasionally (last month, for our much loved Father George at St Margaret’s). I think I only ever sang in a performance twice, with CUMS in King’s and again at the Maltings in Snape (when Britten was still alive back in 1969 or ’70). Janet Baker’s voice always leaves me weak at the knees, too, so thank you for the double whammy!
    It’s so good to know you are safely home, and don’t have to be careful not to choke to death every time you ‘eat’. A new lease of life, I imagine, when you’ve fully recovered from the surgery.

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  8. Wow, quite something for a 17 year old… I’m sorry to say I didn’t know it at all. Have read up on Wikipedia and now listened to the whole piece. It’s not all to my philistine taste – neither all the words or music! But… I really loved this Angel’s Farewell, and the early sanctus fortis (20:35-); and the “Proficiscere…Go” at end of Part 1 (31:45-38:12) is exquisitely overwhelming. Have now listened to that section many times. And I can see why you fell for JB! (“hungry and wild” – 53:22) Words are here in case useful to others: https://www.classicfm.com/composers/elgar/guides/dream-gerontius-complete-text/

    Fast forwarding to others I’ve now caught up on too.. DID4 Bach mass – wonderful… and fun to try to keep up with the score. So glad you were able to sing this finally in 2017. And then the humble recorders in DID5 – Loeki 4 are genius 🙂

    Thank you for the education all round! In terra pax x

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  9. A stunningly beautiful piece. I think I first heard it at the 3 choirs festival when I was still at school. Haunting but full of hope.

    Reply

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