DSO performs Elgar's grand rumination on life after death, 'The Dream of Gerontius'

Dallas Morning News
By: Scott Cantrell

It's the ultimate human mystery, pondered by every civilization and religion: What, if anything beyond physical decay, happens to us after death? Legions of composers have set texts of the Roman Catholic Requiem, and others — from Brahms to Benjamin Britten — have mixed other texts on the subject.

One of the grandest and most individual musical ruminations on death is Sir Edward Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius. It got a performance alternately sublime and thrilling Friday night at the Meyerson Symphony Center, with Jaap van Zweden leading the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, soloists and choruses. 

John Henry Newman's florid poetry imagines a soul's journey from final mortal minutes, through death and intermediate encounters, to a cleansing period in Purgatory. It's a heavy dose of Victorian Roman Catholicism, and some references had to be changed for early performances in Church of England cathedrals. Despite a disastrous 1900 premiere, at England's Birmingham Music Festival, it was quickly acclaimed a masterpiece. Although a rarity on these shores, in England it ranks in popularity with Handel's Messiah and Mendelssohn's Elijah.

The opening prelude sets the Wagnerian tone that prevails through much of the piece; you might think that Parsifal has come to England to die. The richly yearning harmonies are indeed often other-worldly. The muted-string prelude to Part Two is sheer sublimity, preparing Gerontius' reawakening, now free from his body.

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