My plan this afternoon is to attend the final rehearsal of The Dream of Gerontius by Elgar in Wells Cathedral. The concert is too late, starting at 7 pm, but we'll catch a lot of superb music in the afternoon, from the Wells Choral Society.
There's a synopsis of Gerontius on the BBC website. (Don't be put off by grocers' inverted commas.)
The first time I heard the work was in Monkton Combe School chapel during Lent. We heard wonderful music during Rest Music after lunch, but too little introduction. So when we were told about the great chorus "Praise to the Holiest in the height" I expected a familiar hymn tune. Elgar's masterpiece slipped by me.
My second encounter was a close one of a different kind. I was singing it with CUMS, the Cambridge University Music Society, in King's Chapel. There's no better way of learning a work than by singing it. After the performance I found myself sitting listening to the recording next to Sir David Willcocks himself.
More when we've come bac from the cathredral. But it's a treat in store.
I can no more; for now it comes again,
That sense of ruin, which is worse than pain,
That masterful negation and collapse
Of all that makes me man; as though I bent
Over the dizzy brink
Of some sheer infinite descent;
Or worse, as though
Down, down for ever I was falling through
The solid framework of created things,
And needs must sink and sink
Into the vast abyss. And, crueler still,
A fierce and restless fright begins to fill
The mansion of my soul. And, worse and worse,
Some bodily form of ill
Floats on the wind, with many a loathsome curse
Tainting the hallowed air, and laughs, and flaps
Its hideous wings,
And makes me wild with horror and dismay.
0 Jesu, help! pray for me, Mary, pray!
Some angel, Jesu such as came to Thee
In Thine own agony....
Mary, pray for me.
Joseph, pray for me.
Mary, pray for me.
I am beginning see a pattern to how poets imagine the process of dying. It includes a letting go and a falling. For Christian believers that fall is a fall into the loving hands of God. If the love of God includes glorious music like this, then I shall find the letting go even easier.
What should I say about Bach and the St Matthew Passion, though? Does Bach make all the other composers seem shallow by comparison? I believe God has a place for us all. Verdi's Requiem helps us at one time, the St John Passion at another. And PT Forsyth asked for Gerontius to be read to him on his deathbed.
I was very privileged to be asked to sing the little parts, Pontius Pilate, St Peter and Judas, in the Cathedral St John Passion one year, As I think I wrote elsewhere I learned a great deal about solo singing during the very course of this performance, just by listening to the professional soloists who stood next to me.
Lutherans call Bach 'The fifth evangelist,' apparently, and you can tell why. So pure, so straight, so joyful, so true.