‘I hear no more the busy beat of time…’
by The Editor
Classical Music Editor Stuart Millson comments expertly on a recent extraordinary performance of Sir Edward Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius.
The April edition of The Quarterly Review’s classical music column contained the following article – an appreciation of a major British choral-orchestral work by Sir Edward Elgar.
“This is the best of me…” These were the words of Edward Elgar, the English composer who, in 1899 and 1900, emerged as our country’s most renowned composer with two works, the Enigma Variations and The Dream of Gerontius – a setting of Cardinal Newman’s poem about the journey of the soul – “Jesu, Maria, I am near to death…” into heaven and eternity accompanied by an angel. Elgar is sometimes compared to Brahms or Richard Strauss, as an English version of those two Germanic composers, and ‘Gerontius’ can certainly be likened at least to the idea of Strauss’s symphonic tone poem, Death and Transfiguration. But Elgar’s piece, which often seems operatic, or even in a visionary musical category of its own (rather than a tried-and-tested religious orartorio from the English provinces), uses for its near two hours of performance a large chorus, and three soloists: an English Parsifal, perhaps, or an element of William Langland’s Vision of Piers Plowman in an intense Roman Catholic form.
The Wagnerian conductor, Hans Richter – who championed Elgar throughout his life – conducted the first performance on the 3rd October 1900 and described the Worcestershire composer as “…. this English genius”, begging the performers at the 1900 Birmingham premiere to give their very best. Unfortunately, Elgar was plunged into one of his many depressions by the premiere: the performers were, by all accounts, under-rehearsed, and the mystical elation he craved eluded him – at least for a time. How Elgar would have loved to hear recent and modern recordings of his work, not least (for this reviewer) Sir Adrian Boult’s outstanding version with the poised, blazing brass and silky strings of the New Philharmonia Orchestra, caught by the EMI microphones of 1975 on what must have been a day of great form and energy. How I hope that people in 200 years’ time will still be listening to this music – and understand its tenderness, its awe-inspiring heights (and demonic depths), its Englishness – all projected from Elgar’s own emotional heartland, ridged by the Malvern Hills.
Last month, I discussed these very ideas – the genius of Elgar, of what makes Englishness in music, and whether enough is being done to educate people (particularly the young) in classical music – with the conductor, Ronald Corp OBE, who was at that time preparing for a performance of The Dream of Gerontius with one of his “house” ensembles, the London Chorus. We met at a coffee shop near Regent Street on a cold February mid-morning – Ronald Corp, immediately enthusiastic and very warm and outgoing in manner, plunging into a stream of ideas, answers to my questions, and with some very amusing observations about music and musical life in this country.
A composer himself and a great enthusiast for English music, he has written a lyrical Cello Concerto (conducting his own work alongside the Herbert Howells concerto on the Dutton record label), numerous choral works, motets and very beautifully-realised settings of poetry - some with a strongly contemporary themes. He sees a great bond with Elgar. “Our choir, the London Chorus, was actually formed to give the first complete London performance of The Dream of Gerontius, way back in 1903.* Our founding father was a conductor called Arthur Fagge, a name from the heyday of London musical life in the days of Henry Wood, but which seems to have been forgotten over the years.”
The maestro is very much attuned to musical links and connections, and sees a symbolic value in his project with the London Chorus. Despite championing new music, he also expresses some scepticism about certain contemporary trends in the arts: “Our 2015 Gerontius is a return to that heritage of the era of Arthur Fagge and Elgar, and a bond with the past. Too often today, contemporary works that are given just one outing are hailed as ‘masterpieces’ by some in the arts media, and that could be true, but how do we really know until something has stood the test of time? The first performance of Elgar’s work was actually not a resounding success, and yet Gerontius has emerged over more than 100 years as a symbol of the English musical renaissance, and an immense and spiritual work almost unrivalled in the English repertoire.”
Ronald Corp is very active generally in London musical life, having founded the New London Orchestra (which has many fine recordings under its belt – not least a series of British light classics), and also conducting the New London Children’s Choir and the Highgate Choral Society. “I like to think that I run a permanent ‘Three Choirs Festival’,” remarks Ronald, “and I am immensely proud of all that we have done together. During the Diamond Jubilee, for example, we took over the Barbican for a concert celebration of our Queen’s reign, and I conducted the Highgate Choral Society in another Elgar work from the turn of the last century, the Coronation Ode, which was written for Edward Vll. Despite more than a century having elapsed since those works of days of Empire, the greatness of his music speaks much to the audiences of today as it did to those people who lived in the quite different world of Edwardian England.” Ronald was also inspired to write his own patriotic work for this concert, entitled This Sceptr’d Isle – a pageantry-filled setting of the famous speech made by John of Gaunt, from Shakespeare’s Richard ll.
Ronald Corp also commemorated the anniversary of the First World War, and the pity of war, setting the words of a German poet, Gerrit Engelke, injured in the fighting and defying death, but eventually leaving this world before his time, as the composer explains: “We know so much about Britain’s war poets, and we honoured them fully in our concert, especially in our inclusion of Elgar’s For the Fallen from his Spirit of England, and the setting which we chose for our performance, the Chapel of the Royal Naval College, Greenwich. But little is known about what was going on in the trenches on the other side. I found the words of one German poet, and thought it would be interesting to show the war from another angle. It seems that war tends to have the same effect upon us all. I was very proud that my work formed part of our commemoration for the World War One anniversary.”
But what of music education – why are children not being told about classical music in schools? Why are the names, Elgar and Vaughan Williams, unknown to so many young people – why do they know no hymns or folk-songs? “I – and many others – are trying to counter this, and there are some fine schools and teachers doing great work. But yes, it is a pity, especially when music of every kind is now so easily available. As to folk music, perhaps some of the ideas in some folk-songs, which are by definition old-fashioned and of the countryside, are not liked today – perhaps the idea of a lady or maiden fetching water, or hanging washing on a clothes line upset some people?” An amusing point, which certainly added some laughter to our coffee-conversation!
And so we come to the performance at St. John’s, Smith Square, the conclusion of many rehearsals by the London Chorus and the New London Orchestra. It was clear to The Quarterly Review, and to the enthusiastic audience at St. John’s, that the players had given us a performance of complete integrity, and passion. Live classical music is as much a physical experience, for the eyes of the onlookers, as it is a “listening pleasure”, and throughout Ronald Corp’s evening at the helm of Gerontius, his orchestral players – in their expressions and movements – showed their total immersion in their work. The London Chorus, too, sang with a love of the work which I have seldom seen; and it is clear that their loyalty to Ronald Corp is not in question. They gave him their very best, and how they soared and filled St. John’s in the passage which follows the first appearance of the bass (in this performance, the commanding Samuel Evans) – in part one of Gerontius:
“Go in the name Of Angels and Archangels;
in the name Of Thrones and Dominations;
in the name Princedoms and of Powers;
and in the name Of Cherubim and Seraphim, go forth!”
Rising operatic star, Peter Auty, sang the tenor part of Gerontius (who becomes the Soul, in part two of the work) bringing concentration and passion, especially in that passage of swelling power and overwhelming ecstasy which begins with the Angel (a beautifully-clear Madeleine Shaw) singing: “We have now passed the gate, and are within The House of Judgement” – the Soul passionately replying and exclaiming:
“The sound is like the rushing of the wind –
The summer wind – among the lofty pines.”
With such a moment to treasure and savour, it seems ignoble of me to say that during Part One, I felt that Mr. Auty (a truly fine singer) sounded – at times – as though his voice was not truly embedded in the role; and I have to say, that I missed the other-worldly, almost ghostly, Peter Grimes-like delivery of tenor Peter Pears – to my mind, the best Gerontius, and the jewel in the crown of the well-known London Symphony performance on Decca, under the baton of Benjamin Britten. But by the second half, Mr. Auty gave what we had all come to hear, the passionate pilgrimage of a soul.
Ronald Corp conducted in a restrained, careful manner – always giving clear baton strokes and cues for his singers and performers: a fatherly, serious, priest-like performance, faithful to Elgar’s Englishness and his religious introspection. With 50 players, the New London Orchestra created a full symphonic sound, but I wondered if, perhaps, the ensembles ought to have been augmented – to give that extra dimension which such a large-scale work deserves, such as in the hammer-blow-like flash of percussion where the Soul sees “the glance of God”? However, the chamber-like delicacy of the front-desk strings of the New London Orchestra came into their own in the beauty of the introduction to Part Two. If we are approaching heaven, then we must also be with Elgar on the Worcester-Hereford border; with music, and woodwind interpolations over the hushed strings, conjuring the Elgar and England of The Wand of Youth, or a scene by the Severn in Caractacus. Playing of great quality by the New London Orchestra, with Ronald Corp seeing not just the great gestures of Gerontius, but the shadows and quiet corners of the church which are found throughout the score.
Ronald Corp and his New London Orchestra and London Chorus gave a Dream of Gerontius that truly came from the heart. As I left St. John’s, breathing in the cool night air in Georgian Smith Square, some words from Gerontius came into my mind…
“How still it is!
I hear no more the busy beat of time…”
Stuart Millson, Classical Music Editor.
Notes: * Prior to the first full performance of the work in London, Sir Henry Wood had conducted a performance of the orchestral Prelude to The Dream of Gerontius, and the Angel’s Farewell in an Ash Wednesday concert at The Queen’s Hall. Elgar’s friend, A.J. Jaeger, the publisher wrote in 1901:
“…this morning we went together to Queen’s Hall to hear Wood conduct the Gerontius Prelude and Angel’s Farewell… Wood conducted it with loving care, spent one-and-a-half hours on it & the result was a performance which completely put Richter’s into the shade”.