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From Dream to Nightmare

Composer Sir Edward Elgar
Composer Sir Edward Elgar

It was to be Edward Elgar’s crowning work. But his oratorio The Dream of Gerontius gradually developed into a nightmare.

Preparations for the oratorio’s premiere at the Birmingham Festival of 1900 went on for months with only occasional hints of disaster. The first warning sign came with the death of the choral director. His hastily chosen replacement was seventy-year-old W.C. Stockley, called out of retirement to train the choir.

After attending a London orchestral rehearsal of the work, Elgar wrote that he was “ashamed of myself as author of Gerontius, and wondered if he would have the courage to attend that first performance.

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Four days before the premiere Elgar was invited to address the choir, but by now he was so tense that instead of encouraging the singers, he accused them of turning his oratorio into a drawing-room ballad.

Three days before the premiere, he realized that he had underestimated the complexity of the score. He took the highly unusual step of calling another rehearsal—one that lasted six hours and left the chorus confused, tired, and frazzled.

One concertgoer described the resulting performance as “hideously out of tune.” Eleven days later Elgar’s friend the publisher wrote that Stockley, the choral conductor, ought to have been “boiled and served on toast for having had the audience in purgatory for two hours.” Nonetheless, his belief in the inherent beauty of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius never diminished.