Opera Scotland

Dream of Gerontius 1921Dundee Amateur Choral Union

Read more about the opera Dream of Gerontius

In the summer of 1914, Dundee Choral Union had been enjoying rehearsals for the local premiere of Elgar's great oratorio, to be performed in the Kinnaird Hall. The outbreak of war brought proceedings to a halt. Order was eventually restored, and for the inauguration of the packed out Caird Hall, the city's first performance of Gerontius was at last given.

The Choral assembled a notable trio of soloists, even after some enforced changes.  In 1921, as in 1914, the tenor booked for the lead had been the great Gervase Elwes. His tragic death, after being dragged under a train in Boston while on tour in the USA, necessitated the first change.

He was replaced by the veteran John Coates, a noted Wagnerian both in Britain and, before the war, in Germany. Two nights before the concert, Coates had sung Lohengrin in London.

The bass was also a short notice substitute, as the originally announced star, Norman Allin, was ill.  Only Phyllis Lett appeared as scheduled.


Press Reports:

Dundee Advertiser: Saturday, November 12, 1921

Elgar’s “Dream of Gerontius” - Its Musical Interpreters

'Edward Elgar’s great choral setting of Cardinal Newman’s Dream of Gerontius was written expressly for the Birmingham Music Festival of 1900, so that 21 years have elapsed before we in these Northern regions are to have an opportunity to listen to the music that has placed Elgar in his position as the greatest living British composer, and appraise a work the beauty and grandeur of which have earned tributes from the whole world. It was performed twice in Germany within 18 months of the Birmingham concert.

'That it makes a rather belated appearance in Dundee is not the fault of the Choral Union, for The Dream was rehearsed in 1914, and the late Gervase Elwes practically booked for its performance early in the following season.  But art blossoms poorly in the hail of war, and it was not till last year, with the prospect of a grand new hall to sing in, that the Choral Union could bring its scheme to fruition. The Dundee Choral Union are indeed fortunate in having as their conductor for this performance Mr C M Cowe, for he brings peculiar qualities of mind and heart to the interpretation of Elgar’s massive and mystical score. In addition to his well-known and proved ability as a choral conductor, he is steeped in the lore of The Dream, has lost few opportunities of hearing it performed, and, with the patience akin to genius, has striven hard to bring his force to the high state of perfection it has attained in the delicate shading necessary for a successful rendering.

'It was intended that the name-part be filled by Mr Gervase Elwes, whose tragic death last year was lamented by all concert-goers, but the voice of Mr John Coates as the vocal exponent of the soul-troubled Gerontius is full of promise since he achieved signal success in the part at the Worcester Festival in 1902, and has gained great praise for his singing in Elgar’s works since then. He has generations of musical blood in him, and achieved a European reputation in opera. He was singing in Lohengrin two nights ago in London, in which he appeared in Germany 20 years ago; and at one time was almost lost to British music through the flattering offers of German managers. He is in splendid form, as is shown by the encomiums heaped upon him for his recent series of recitals in London.

'Mr Norman Allin, who fills the part of the Priest and the Angel of the Agony, has also a wide knowledge of Elgar’s masterpiece, and his artistic treatment of The Messiah solos at a Choral Union concert in pre-war days is still a pleasant recollection.

Miss Phyllis Lett can be depended on to make the most of the opportunities in the grateful if difficult music assigned to the Angel in the second part of the work, for she has sung for most of the important Societies in the country, and at nearly all the big Festivals. She is a distinguished scholar of the Royal College of Music, and also studied under Jean de Reszke.'


Dundee Advertiser:  Thursday,  November 17, 1921

Brilliant Scene in Caird Hall - Every Grade of Society - Array of Beauteous Dresses

By Our Lady Correspondent

'The first concert of the Dundee Amateur Choral Union to be held in the new Caird Hall will not only be memorable as a magnificent choral success; apart altogether from the musical interest, it will be outstanding as one of the greatest and most brilliant gatherings held in the city within recent years. Every seat in the spacious hall was filled, and the audience represented almost every grade of Dundee’s society. Viewed from the balcony, it was a wonderfully impressive scene. Not a single break could be observed in the long rows of rapt listeners. The white of the women singers and the black of the men rose in a solid phalanx above the orchestra platform, and required only a more artistic background to show to advantage the advisability and charm of uniformity in the toilettes of the members of a big choir.

'A large portion of the audience were in evening dress, but the brilliance of colour and sparkle of jewels were largely hidden under fur wraps and silken scarves, for the night was both wet and cold, and many had never before experienced the comfort of the new hall, and came prepared for draughts or chill.

'Mrs Marryat, to whose generosity, supplementing that of her brother, the late Sir James Caird, Bart., Dundee is indebted for the magnificent new hall, was unable to attend the concert, but wrote to the Lord Provost expressing her deep regret.

'Among those who followed the Union’s performance with keen interest were Lady Baxter, becomingly gowned in a toilette of saxe blue velours-de-laine, trimmed with mole fur, and with her Mrs Lloyd Griffith in black satin with tunic of rose-pink jersey-de-soie; Sir James and Lady Urquhart, the latter wearing a handsome gown of black satin under a wrap of pony-skin; Mrs Douglas Urquhart, whose pretty frock of brique georgette was artistically adorned with gold stitchery; Mrs Earle Nicoll, who had affected under a coat of black seal a toilette of black satin; Mr and Mrs Ernest Cox, Mrs Cox in a lovely frock of black taffetas appliquéd in white and saxe blue, under a wrap of pony fur.

'Sir William Don was accompanied by Lady Don and Mrs Coll A Macdonald. Heavy black satin with draped skirt and ceinture of gold brocade went to the fashioning of Lady Don’s toilette; while Mrs Macdonald was gowned in wine-coloured silk with wide halter collar of gold.  With Lord Provost Spence came Mrs Spence, handsomely gowned in lustrous dull blue silk, with band of Oriental trimming at the corsage. Mrs William Rettie, Balcairn, who came in smart frock of black charmeuse, brought Mrs Rettie, in a charming dress of apple green and gold tissue.  Under a black seal wrap Mrs John A Leng wore an exclusive toilette of black brocade; while Mrs J C Low, who came with her husband, had chosen a gown of elephant grey, under a seal coat.  Mrs William Thomson was wearing a lovely frock of saxe blue and silver brocade; Mrs Harold Thomson looked well in brique charmeuse; and Miss Gwen Thomson came in a pretty dress of fuchsia ninon over a foundation of vieux-rose charmeuse.

'Others in the audience included Sir Wm Henderson and the Misses Henderson; Mrs Briggs, Kelly Castle, Arbroath, in black taffeta, with accordion pleated skirt; Mrs W H Buist in black charmeuse, with corsage of gold lace under a cloak of midnight blue chiffon velvet;  Mr and Mrs J Hannay Thompson, the latter in black satin, trimmed on the corsage with Oriental beading;  Mrs Bonar in a pretty frock of copper charmeuse.

'Silver grey crepe de chine was affected by Mrs D A Anderson; Mrs H J M Thoms looked well in nigger georgette, lightly touched with jade, and stitched with gold; Mrs A W Fergusson had donned nigger taffetas.  Handsomely gowned in black taffetas came Mrs W S Nicoll, who brought with her Miss Ella Nicoll wearing a charming gown of black crepe de chine, and Miss M Duncan attired in black taffetas.   White satin veiled in black lace in tiered effect formed Mrs J E Williams’ toilette; Mrs P S Nicoll chose lemon taffetas, wholly veiled in pale blue georgette;  Miss Dickie was in black taffetas piped with white charmeuse;  Mrs B L Nairn in a cloak of emerald and black satin over a gown of black charmeuse.

'Mr and Mrs Blyth Martin were there, the latter in black satin, with a Spanish wrap;  Mr and Mrs Wm Nicol, Mrs Nicol in black, sewn with silver.  Mrs Ramsay was also in black;  Mrs Polack, Glamis House, in black charmeuse, trimmed with gold;  Miss Polack, in mole satin.  Mrs T B Taylor was in mole satin, adorned with silver beading;  Mrs Gordon Anderson, in black satin, with silver lace;  Mrs Wm Mackenzie, in black taffetas;  Mrs East, in gold and black brocade, with cloak of midnight blue brocaded velvet;  Miss G East, in nigger taffetas under silk lace;  Mrs Mackie Whyte, in a black and white striped taffeta toilette;  Mrs Walter Robertson, in grey jersey de soie;  Mrs Philip Boase, in black charmeuse;  Mrs Wm High, in black charmeuse, with vest of silver lace;  Miss M Yuill, in lavender painted foulard;  Miss Helen Stevenson, in black charmeuse, sewn in Oriental silk, under a coat of Persian lamb;  Mrs Bell, Pinemount, in black charmeuse, piped in white.'

A Choral Union Triumph - Mr John Coates’ Fine Achievement

By Our Musical Critic

'The inspiring performance of Sir Edward Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius amply justified the decision of the organisers in selecting the great British composer’s masterpiece for such an event.  It was at first intended, when Choral Union began rehearsals last year, to give, as a lighter and more popular work, the first part of Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha trilogy, but the delay in completing the new hall upset this arrangement. As the difficulties of booking soloists and orchestra for a given date are manifold, the Committee wisely determined to proceed with Elgar’s long rehearsed work, and last night’s intelligent and impressive rendering more than justified its wisdom.

'The work is divided into two parts, and in the first, which deals with the divorcement of the troubled soul from the body of Gerontius, the title-part was taken by Mr John Coates, tenor, and that of the Priest by Mr William Hayle, baritone; who at short notice filled the place of Mr Norman Allin, prevented from appearing through illness.   Part II deals with the experience of the soul behind the portals of the tomb, and in this Miss Phyllis Lett, mezzo-soprano, took the part of the Angel; Mr William Hayle singing the music assigned to the Angel of the Agony.   The orchestra was that of the Glasgow Choral and Orchestral Union, and Mr C M Cowe conducted.

'Much has been said and written of the mystical and emotional content of Sir Edward Elgar’s oratorio; but these spiritual qualities are not so hidden that they fail to reach the ear and the mind of the listener engrossed in mundane affairs, if rightly attuned.  It is true that the wealth of Catholic imagery in Cardinal Newman’s poem has its counterpart in Elgar’s music. It would be surprising were that not so for the composer was for long organist in the Roman Catholic Church of St George, Worcester. But even at a first hearing, and without the rich colour of an ecclesiastical setting, with hidden choirs and dim cloisters, last night’s performance showed that it sparkled with points of abstract beauty.

'Elgar has been fortunate in his libretto, for Cardinal Newman’s poem affords a fitting theme for his peculiar genius. Gerontius, on his death-bed, dreams that his soul is transported through space to meet his Maker. Ministering angels relieve the terrors of the way - in which the mocking cries of demons clash with the strains of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. The lofty speculation of Newman has been treated by Elgar on the same high plane, and from its thematic prelude to the last farewell of the guardian angel of the sorely troubled soul, it abounds in passages of great melodic and harmonic beauty.   Elgar may startle by breaking conventions, but the touch of genius that makes for effect is never absent.

'The Choral Union looked a noble army, for they more than filled the accommodation provided on the platform, an extra row having to be added.  As far as numbers are concerned, the Society seems to be at the flood tide of prosperity, over 280 voices assisting in the performance.  At first blush the chorus seemed too large for the delicacy of Elgar’s harmonies, but one of the features of the evening was the excellent pianissimos of the choir.  Their fortissimos were good, too, but the conductors of most Choral Societies procure these easily.  Another commendable feature was the distinct articulation - for words are sometimes more important than music in a work of this nature that displays so much essential unity. There is little similarity between Gerontius and oratorios like Elijah or The Messiah, with their four-square choral effects, and it redounds to the credit of Mr Cowe and his huge body of singers that they were equal to the most subtle nuances. There was an excellent balance in all parts, and uniformly splendid tone, even in the softest passages.

'A small semi-chorus of Assistants set a fine example by the restrained yet beautiful quality in the “Kyrie” that follows the supplication of the dying Gerontius, and the tenderness of the prayerful choral appeal was unexceptional. “Rescue him,” and the Litany which succeeded, with the simple majesty of its flowing “Amen,” touched the sublime. The wonderful climax to the Priest’s declamation, “Go forth upon thy journey,” was even more thrilling, and the instant response to the stresses in a majestic movement scored in twelve parts, with solo, was magnificent.   The lightening of the orchestration till only a thin, unharmonised melody remained high above the murmured prayer of the chorus was one of the most impressive moments of the performance. The attack in all parts in the Demons’ Chorus was sure and firm (Elgar, curiously enough, including female voices).   It bristles with vocal difficulties; but the arresting climax of the first movement was delivered with great spirit, and the syncopated fugue boldly outlined. The song of the angels, “Praise to the Holiest in the Height,” has a setting in keeping with its noble words, and presents so many points of sheer beauty that detail is impossible; but the rich texture of its opening, for both female choruses each sub-divided, and the gradual crescendo with quickened tempo of the full chorus to its jubilant climax, were splendid choral efforts. The one blemish in an otherwise splendid rendering was a rather mixed bass attack in the closing ensemble, but the fine tone and carefully shaded sevenfold Amen made amends in a fine finish to an extremely creditable performance.

'Much of the credit of the high level of the rendering was due to the inspired singing of Mr John Coates in the title part. Head and heart contribute a share in his interpretation, in addition to pure quality and perfect intonation. He sang throughout without a score - no mean achievement in a work of this type, and his rich experience and faultless reading of the difficult music assigned to the storm-tossed Gerontius largely helped to make it a connected dramatic presentation. Mr Coates used his head voice with wonderful effect, and in his last prayer got a wonderful variety in tone colour.   The self-communing of the soul on its strange journey was vivid in its presentment;  and the long dialogue with the Angel which leads to the great climax in the Soul’s aspiration was remarkable for its carefully shaded treatment and impressive finish.

'Mr William Hayle, as Priest and Angel of the Agony, somewhat failed on the inspirational side of his interpretation, and lacked vigour in his fine opening declamatory passage;  but he enunciated in beautiful tone the stirring appeal of the second part, full of startling chromatic transitions and brassy stresses.

'Miss Lett’s treatment of the part of the Angel was marked by rich quality and good phrasing, and her “Alleluia,” with its beautiful orchestral ground work, splendidly treatedShe reached fine dramatic height in her dialogue with Gerontius; and the rich tone quality and great earnestness permeated the beautiful closing commendation to the Soul. A slight tendency to drag the tempo of the closing ensemble was the only fault of an otherwise fine reading.

'Of the orchestra, nothing but praise can be accorded. The score is one of the most complicated in English music, and Elgar throughout displays a thorough and intimate knowledge of his forces.   The prelude, which is Wagnerian in style, and enunciates the main themes to be found in the work, was impressively outlined;and seldom did the players fail to respond to the demands of the conductor. The legato opening the second part went with fine movement; and the bold, virile theme of the Demons, with its discordant sequences of chords, electrifying.

'Mr Cowe’s handling of both chorus and instrumentalists was commendable, and the high pitch of the evening’s work is a monument to his achievement with the Choral Union. Singers, players, and audience all joined in the deserved praise accorded him at the close of a memorable performance.'

Performance DatesDream of Gerontius 1921

Map List

Caird Hall | Dundee

18 Nov, 19.30

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