We are currently basking in glorious spring weather, but Easter is still a week away. My favourite season and festival of the year, which brings with it the promise of new life, is teasing us with its proximity, but as I write we are still in Lent. And last Friday, on a heaven-sent day, we laid my vibrant and vivacious mother-in-law to rest, bringing the two poles of death and new life together in quite beautiful harmony.
There are so many pieces of music which capture this time of year, and I can scarcely believe that I am not sharing my non-negotiable-indispensable work with you, Bach’s ‘St.Matthew Passion‘; but in the context of recent weeks, I am drawn elsewhere. Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius‘, composed in 1900, is, in my book, his very best; Elgar himself penned the line ‘This is the best of me…‘ at the bottom of the score. The music is set to the poem by John Henry Newman, a Catholic convert and cardinal, which resulted in objections to its performance in a number of Anglican cathedrals: the poem tells of the journey of a Christian soul, that of Gerontius, arriving in purgatory with the promise of greater joys to come. The work is now firmly established as one of the finest of all choral pieces, and it includes several passages which will be familiar to you, such as ‘Firmly I believe and truly‘ and ‘Praise to the Holiest‘.
My mother-in-law, Dumbo, as she was universally known, was herself a convert, assisted in this transition by a Benedictine monk, who was a family friend for many years before his premature death. After twelve days of being unable to take food or water, Cardinal Newman’s words ‘Go forth, Christian soul, go forth upon thy journey‘ were being quietly recited by her bed on the 21st March, and on that same day, the feast of St.Benedict itself, they were heeded.
This simple, direct, prayer, is sung here by Gerald Finley. supported by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. It matters nothing whether or not you subscribe to the Catholic doctrine: we all face death at some point and the ritual which we can choose to mark it can be a thing of enormous beauty and solace.
Whether facing, or recalling, the loss of a loved one, it is music like this which can bring comfort and encouragement to a grieving heart.