“The Dream of Gerontius”, Elgar’s opus 38
Vivid memories from April 1945
Heddle Nash, Gladys Ripley, Dennis Noble, Norman Walker
Huddersfield Choral Society; Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Dr. Malcolm Sargent
April this year marked the 70th anniversary of the recording in Huddersfield Town Hall of the ‘Dream’, an occasion I witnessed at first hand. Could an 8-year old claim to have appreciated what was going on, and how much is it a genuine memory or later study? I confirm how I was deeply moved - this guaranteeing for me what I genuinely recall. I experienced a spiritual wakening at the choir’s affirmation of “Praise to the Holiest” and the lingering of Heddle Nash’s frightened, dying and weak voice shook this child on that day. I was hooked.
From the Mayor’s box (there were, maybe, 14 or 16 Huddersfield Choral Society (HCS) committee members, friends and civic dignitaries) we looked down into the auditorium; no other non-participants were present, just performers and recording engineers. I had been taken there by my father, Hugh Frederic Gadsby (on leave from the RAF) and his own father, Frederic Walter Gadsby, a long-serving member of the HCS Committee (and its President: 1947-1949). I remember acute embarrassment as my elders in the mayor’s box stood up in unison – and I demurely followed - on two occasions to demand a re-start.
In those days of direct shellac recording re-starts were discouraged – get it right first time! I remember the repetitive stops & starts as successive maximum 4.5 minute sections were put down for each of the 78-rpm’s 24 sides onto which the master (HMV recording C.3435-3446) was directly archived. Only those two sides (nos. 4 & 9 out of 24) were re-started, a remarkable contrast to today’s ‘perfecting-technology’. Cleverly, the sound technicians, I learned since, over-lapped many of the sides “as if anticipating how this could help bring together the recording as a whole at sometime in the future.”
This had been the first recording of the full 1900 work (those in 1927 under Elgar himself had been of extracts only). So, how did this performance compare with later ones? Bill Rosen has posed five short questions: Was Elgar England’s finest composer? Is The Dream of Gerontius his finest work (“the best of me”)? Was this Sargent’s finest hour and his 1945 recording of this work the greatest ever made? Was Heddle Nash the finest Gerontius ever? Whilst I am ill-qualified to compare this with a dozen post-war recordings, Rosen believes that others played the drama too early, Sargent (1945) sustaining it to the end. Perhaps his 1941 performance in London’s Queen’s Hall, hours before its destruction, moved and motivated him.
For years I had to make do with a poor cassette recording of an 8th December 1978 Radio 3 broadcast taped from the original discs, until I obtained, with great joy, the 2006 Direct Audio Transfer made by Pristine Audio (PACO.009). Despite bringing me a beautifully continuous performance, it will never cloud my personal reminiscences of that day. Two questions I pose: Does anyone know the exact date in April 1945 and, is there anyone else alive who bore witness to this musical treat? HCS’s 125th anniversary booklet (1961) omits this major contribution to choral music in its Notable Dates, it being covered in the Performance Listing.
Perhaps my visits to Birmingham Oratory, passing Cardinal Newman’s own office also adds a touch of sentiment! Being an early music buff, I don’t relish Gladys Ripley’s style, but my heart savours the whole. Heddle Nash’s “Take me away” will never be surpassed.
I was indeed so privileged to have witnessed the occasion, and after this arduous day was done, I proudly remembered being introduced to Mr. Herbert Bardgett, chorus master since 1932, and being patted on the head by Dr. Malcolm himself (two years before his knighthood)!
Ted Gadsby’s reminiscences have since brought forth much of the background to the staging of the event, in the form of archive material and contemporary press cuttings, from the Huddersfield Choral Society and The Elgar Society, which are acknowledged.
Action took place between 8th and 13th April 1945, with the mornings devoted to the principals & orchestra and the evenings also with the choir present. There were some 130 members of the Huddersfield Choral Society and 75 players of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, whose instruments are listed.
Accoustics in the Huddersfield Town Hall presented a challenge, and canvass sheets and carpets were hung to slightly reduce the reverberation period, in the absence of an audience’s ‘textiles’.
The Recording Schedule reveals that the order of the recordings was necessarily not that of the work as presented on the 24 sides of the 78 rpm discs. From the schedule and subsequent reports, Ted has ascertained that he was present on the Monday evening (9th April, 1835-2135h), witnessing “Praise to the Holiest” (side 19), “Be merciful, O Lord” (22) and Gerontius’s cry “Take Me Away” (23).
The wartime background to staging the event is worthy of a book in itself, not least the tremendous efforts over several preceding years by The British Council and HMV Producer Walter Legge to bring together suitable parties for this event. The immense problems were administrative, political, personal (selection of musicians; their specially-requested leave whilst serving in HM Forces), 'personality constraints' (Elgar himself approving of Nash in 1931) and financial, as well as the technical mountain of recording onto shellac for such a long work. “I've amazed myself how it came about - and I was there for the best moments”, writes Ted!
Both the Huddersfield Choral Society and The Elgar Society have kindly opened their archives for me, for which I’m grateful. Some principal references are:
- Alec Robertson review, The Gramophone, June 1945.
- Jerrold Northrop Moore (of 1975 LP) review and Alan Blyth (of 1993 CD) review (both drawing out the late-wartime juxtaposition of many real-life exhausted souls, comparing to that of Gerontius), Testamant CD booklet 1994.
- “The Nightmare of Gerontius” by Carl Newton, Elgar Society Journal, July 1997, vol.10 no.2 pp.74-89.
Written by Ted Gadsby.