Tuesday, 3 December 2019

The Oxford connection: Elgar's Dream of Gerontius based on the writings of the recently canonised John Henry Newman

John Henry Newman in May 1890
John Henry Newman in May 1890
John Henry Newman was canonised by Pope Francis on 13 October 2019. An important, and controversial, figure in the religious history of England in the 19th century, he is best known to musicians because his 1865 poem The Dream of Gerontius formed the basis for Edward Elgar's 1900 oratorio of the same name. And in fact, I suspect that far more people know Newman's text via Elgar than those who have read the full text. 

Intriguingly Dvorak had considered using Newman's text for an oratorio 15 years earlier, one wonders what that might have been like.

Rather appropriately, Oxford Bach Choir is beginning its 2019/20 season on Sunday 8 December 2019 with a performance of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius in the Sheldonian Theatre, conducted by Benjamin Nicholas with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and soloists Kathryn Rudge, Ed Lyon and Roderick Williams.

Newman had strong links with Oxford, he was ordained an Anglican priest there, becoming Vicar of St Mary's University Church, as well as helping found the Oxford Movement which radically transformed the High Anglican Church. On his conversion to Roman Catholicism and being ordained a Roman Catholic priest, Newman founded the Birmingham Oratory and lived there for nearly 40 years. Thus providing an interesting link to the orchestra for Sunday's performance.

Founded in 1896, and with some of its origins traceable back to 1819, Oxford Bach Choir has Benjamin Nicholas, director of music of Merton College, as its musical director. The choir's 2019/20 season also includes a contribution to Beethoven 250 with a performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis in March 2020.

There is an intriguing LGBT link to Newman's life, albeit one which causes a degree of controversy. For much of his life, Newman had a passionate friendship with Ambrose St John, the two were fellow Anglican priests, fellow converts and fellow Oratorians in Birmingham. When Newman died he specified that he was to be buried in St John's grave. The two men have a joint memorial stone inscribed with the motto Newman had chosen, Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem ("Out of shadows and phantasms into the truth").

Full details from the Oxford Bach Choir's website.

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