Elgar’s “Dream of Gerontius” — A Video Recording That Takes One’s Breath Away

Deal W. Hudson
December 19, 2016

I hardly know what to say, but I will try: This DVD recording of Sir Edward Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius” is one of the most magnificent presentations of any piece of music I know. Taped in color by the BBC inside the Worchester Cathedral in 1968, the performance is conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, then 79, and sung by Sir Peter Pears, as Gerontius; John Shirley-Quirk, the Priest; and Dame Janet Baker, the Angel.

At 58 years old, Pears gives a performance as the dying Gerontius that’s breathtaking to watch. At times looking directly into the camera, Pears virtually becomes the Gerontius imagined by John Henry Newman in his poem of 1865, traveling from this life into purgatory. And the voice! Pears’ performance is a master class for tenors in how to deliver sacred music with the voice, face, and the entire body. As I listened to his delivery of “Mortis indiscriminate,” I asked myself, “how did he do that?”

The section shared by Pears and Baker beginning at 51.20 – “that calm and joy uprising in my soul” – is one of the most sublime moments in music I’ve ever experienced, helped, in part, by the superb BBC lighting and camera work. (I’m not exaggerating, by the way.)

Dame Janet Baker, well known for the singing of Elgar, would be the star of this film were it not for the intensity of Pears’ performance: Like Gerontius himself, he is singing as if his life depended on it. But I’m very grateful to have this video recording of Baker, in her prime, singing one of her most celebrated roles.

Many have already heard both Baker and Shirley-Quirk, who could not be bettered as the Priest, in the famous Barbirolli EMI recording of Gerontius from 4 years earlier, 1964. They are even better here under Boult’s baton, possibly aided by the occasion of a pioneering TV broadcast of 1968. Shirley-Quirk, for example, delivers the “Angel of Agony – Jesu! by that shuddering dread which fell on Thee” – with overpowering authority, his handsome presence with that patch of silver-grey in his wavy dark hair adds an additional dramatic touch.

Just when I didn’t think the performance could reach any greater depth came Pears’ “Take me away, and in the lowest depth/ There let me be,” and what is too-often said in praise of recordings, “revelatory,” actually occurred. The soul of Gerontius was stripped bare, “That sooner I may rise, and go above….” and the so-called “fourth wall” disappeared. Pears/Gerontius was singing to me.

When Dame Janet Baker’s Angel answers, singing the “Softly and gently, deeply-ransomed soul . . .  Be brave and patient on thy bed of sorrow,” I had to remind myself to keep breathing — this is great music played and sung in a way we all dream of experiencing, but rarely see and hear.

Finally, there is Sir Adrian Boult, for many years a personal friend of Elgar, resplendent in a tailcoat and extra-long baton, really standing on a riser in front of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus in the midst of Worchester Cathedral, which the film explores in all its glory. Boult’s conducting of the “Prelude” creates a sense of approaching drama I’ve not heard in any other recording, and I’ve heard nearly all of them.

Anyone who loves music, particularly sacred music or Elgar himself, should own this DVD, it’s just that good. No, it’s not just good, it belongs to the small group of recordings that will be treasured as long as we listen to music.

By Deal Hudson

Deal W. Hudson was born November 20, 1949 in Denver, CO, to Emmie and Jack Hudson, both native Texans. Dr. Hudson had an older sister Ruth, and eventually, a younger sister, Elizabeth. Emmie Hudson, Ruth Hudson and Elizabeth Hudson now live in Houston, TX; Jack Hudson passed away some years ago. The late Jack Hudson was a captain for Braniff Airlines in Denver at the time of Dr. Hudson’s birth. Later the family moved to Kansas City when his father joined the Federal Aviation Agency. From Kansas City, the Hudson family moved to Minneapolis, then to Massapequa, NY, and finally to Alexandria, VA, where they first occupied a home overlooking the Potomac River adjacent to the Mount Vernon estate. After a year, the family moved to a home on Tarpon Lane a few houses up the street from the Yacht Haven boat docks. Dr. Hudson attended Mt. Vernon Elementary School from grades 4 to 6 and has a special gratitude for the teaching of Mr. Hoppe who first told him was a ‘smart lad.’ Having moved with his family to Fort Worth, TX in 1960, Dr. Hudson attended William Monnig Junior High and Arlington Heights HS. In high school, Dr. Hudson was captain of the golf team, editor of the literary magazine (Guerdon), and performed the role of Peter in the ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ during his senior year. Dr. Hudson graduated cum laude with a major in philosophy from the University of Texas-Austin in 1971 where his undergraduate advisor was Prof. John Silber. His teachers at the University of Texas included Prof. Louis Mackey and Prof. Larry Caroline. Dr. Hudson minored in both classics and English literature. Dr. Hudson lived in Atlanta from 1974-1989, where he attended Emory University, receiving a Phd from the Graduate Institute for the LIberal Arts. He also taught philosophy at Mercer University in Atlanta from 1980-89. In 1989 Dr. Hudson and his family left Atlanta when he was hired to teach philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx. Dr. Hudson taught at Fordham, and also part-time at New York University, from 1989 to 1994. Dr. Hudson first came to Atlanta in after graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) with an M.Div. While at PTS, Dr. Hudson managed the Baptist Student Union at Princeton University and became its first director. Dr. Hudson also was licensed at a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention at Madison Baptist Church in Madison, NJ. Dr. Hudson’s primary area of study at PTS was the history of Christian doctrine which he pursued with Dr. Karlfried Froelich. In 1984 Dr. Hudson was received in the Catholic Church by Msgr. Richard Lopez, with the special permission of Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan, at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta. Dr. Hudson has been married twenty-five years to Theresa Carver Hudson and they have two children, Hannah Clare, 23, and Cyprian Joseph (Chip), 15, adopted from Romania when he was three years old. The Hudson family has lived in Fairfax, VA for more than fifteen years, after having lived five years in Bronxville, NY and a year in Atlanta, GA, where Theresa and Deal were married.

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