“Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem”

July 9, 2010

The Dream of Gerontius by Sir Edward Elgar is an acquired taste — a taste that it took me a long time to acquire despite the fact that I first heard it in the Royal Albert Hall with Sir Adrian Boult conducting. Even those favorable circumstances left me cold. Some attribute comparative lifelessness to recordings, but it is to them — and possibly a kind of musical maturity — that I am indebted for my love of that work.

The oratorio sets the text of what was once a hugely popular poem by John Henry Cardinal Newman, one of the most eminent of the Eminent Victorians. A new play, starring Derek Jacobi, is available for the next six days on the Web site of BBC Radio 4. It is not to be missed. Called Gerontius, it plays somewhat on the death-scene in the poem to explore a crisis in the life, and post-life, of Cardinal Newman and his companion Father Ambrose St. John. The play and its broadcast are occasioned by the expected canonization of the former and the highly controversial disregard for “my last, my imperative will” that he be allowed to lie in the same grave with Father St. John. After more than a century of doing so, his body has been exhumed and moved to what, for whatever reason or reasons, is considered by authority to be a more appropriate place. The production uses music from Elgar’s oratorio in a very telling manner.

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