NHSO’s William Boughton Discusses Dream of Gerontius
The Sacred Heart University Choir program and the New Haven Symphony Orchestra (NHSO) hosted Maestro William Boughton recently for a discussion of Edward Elgar’s masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius. This work derives its text from an epic poem by Cardinal John Newman and will be performed as part of the NHSO’s spring concert, Angels and Demons, on May 2 and 3. Members of the Mendelssohn Choir of Connecticut, who have been practicing to sing the choral portions of the score, were in attendance along with professors, students and guests.
Born into a musical family, Boughton developed a love of music at a young age. He studied at the New England Conservatory, Guildhall School of Music and Prague Academy as a cellist. At the start of his career, he played in the cello section with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as the BBC and London Sinfonietta. In 1980, he formed the English Symphony Orchestra and extended its repertoire from the Baroque and Viennese classics into contemporary music. During his time with the orchestra, he commissioned more than 20 works from composers such as Peter Sculthorpe, John Joubert, Anthony Powers, Michael Berkeley, John Metcalf, Stephen Roberts and Adrian Williams.
Boughton, who is a recipient of an honorary doctorate from Coventry University for services to British music, began serving as the music director of the NHSO in 2007. There, he instituted a composer-in-residence program and started a major initiative featuring the works of William Walton. He currently hosts a monthly program on WMNR CT and acts as a guest speaker. While with the NHSO, he has received an ASCAP Award for adventurous programming and a critical acclaim for the Walton Project after Gramophones Edward Greenfield nominated it for “Record of the Year” in 2010. He has also created the New Haven Symphony Orchestra Youth Orchestra.
His next effort, The Dream of Gerontius, promises to transport the audience to heavenly and earthly realms. The poem was originally written by Cardinal Newman, and Elgar knew the poem well. He owned a copy as early as 1885 and even received a copy as a wedding gift in 1889. It wasn’t until the occasion of the upcoming Birmingham Festival in 1900 that Elgar decided to compose the score. The masterwork describes Gerontius’ journey from earth through purgatory and then finally to heaven. The piece is 912 lines long and “is not an oratorio, not a requiem and not a mass,” Boughton said.
“We have been rehearsing The Dream of Gerontius since the fall, and we are gearing up for the big effort of getting together with the symphony to do the performance,” said Elsa Peterson Obuchowski, one of the members of the Mendelssohn Choir in attendance at the lecture. The second soprano from Norwalk explained, “this is a large and challenging work, and it is a great honor for us to be involved with it.”
The characters include Gerontius, an angel, a priest, a multitude of friends and family and even demons attempting to bring the protagonist’s soul into Hell. Elgar remained true to the poem in that he chose a tenor and baritone for the Angel of Agony and the priest. He took some creative liberties in writing the part of the angel who accompanies Gerontius throughout much of the piece. The Angel was written as a male, but Elgar chose a mezzo-soprano to sing it. As the audience in the classroom heard the hauntingly beautiful melody from the female lead, it became clear that he made the right decision.
“The choral writing is dense and demanding,” Boughton said. He noted as a whole, in one moment the work is ethereal and the next moment it can be loud and even frightening. Boughton indicated that the work uses repeated themes. “Its use of leitmotifs hold the whole work together and there is a judgment theme that is central to it,” he said. Without hesitation, Boughton began playing the melody of the judgment theme on the piano, later pointing out its repetition in a subsequent section. Throughout the lecture, he was focused and deeply in touch with the work. Various sections of Gerontius were queued up, and the room was filled with the tenor soloist’s rich, smooth voice. The music transitioned between a soft prayer to a cry and crescendo of horns. “You can feel, throughout this music, the incredible poetry, this emptying out, this disengaging from the physical body,” Boughton noted.
“We get a better sense of what the piece and what the poetry means to Maestro Boughton, including not just the music, but also the text and emotional content,” Obuchowski said. She said that the ability to hear from Boughton will help the choir to be even more expressive when their efforts culminate in the May concert.
“If there’s a more beautiful, poetic and musical interpretation of heaven, I don’t know of it,” Boughton said of the ending. He pointed out that both Elgar and Newman wrote their respective parts in an incredible heat of inspiration. Elgar was asked to create the music in less than a year before the Birmingham Festival, which was a mammoth feat. He completed the task beyond what anyone could have hoped for, and in a short period of time.
“The whole thing was a remarkable story,” said Alyssa Cianciosi ’13 of South Windsor. “I found it interesting that the piece was 100 minutes long, and Elgar wrote it in less than a year.”
It was evident to all that Boughton has been personally impacted by the work. “This depicts a wonderful, timeless world where there is no materialism and there is no time – it is quite extraordinary,” he said. “There are so many different levels you can approach, appreciate and grow to love in the music. This work is very rarely performed in the United States, and this may be the only opportunity in your lifetime to see it here,” Boughton concluded.
The concert is slated for Thursday, May 2, at 7:30 p.m. at Woolsey Hall in New Haven, and Friday, May 3, at 7:30 p.m. at Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford. For more information and to buy tickets, go to www.newhavensymphony.org or www.mendelssohnchoir.com.