OP1702. THE DREAM OF GERONTIUS (Elgar), Live Performance, 20 Nov., 1957, w.Barbirolli Cond. RAI Ensemble; Jon Vickers, Constance Shacklock & Marian Nowakowski; Barbirolli Cond. Hallé Orch.: Symphonie fantastique (Berlioz), recorded 2 Jan, 1947. (Germany) 2-Archipel 0403. - 4035122404036
“THE DREAM OF GERONTIUS is a work for voices and orchestra in two parts composed by Edward Elgar in 1900, to text from the poem by John Henry Newman. The work was composed for the Birmingham Music Festival of 1900; the first performance took place on 3 October 1900, in Birmingham Town Hall. The piece is widely regarded as Elgar's finest choral work, and some consider it his masterpiece.
THE DREAM OF GERONTIUS received its U.S. premiere on 23 March 1903 at The Auditorium, Chicago, conducted by Harrison M. Wild. It was given in New York, conducted by Walter Damrosch three days later. It was performed in Sydney, Australia, in 1903. The first performance in Vienna was in 1905; the Paris premiere was in 1906; and by 1911 the work received its Canadian premiere in Toronto under the baton of the composer.
In the first decades after its composition leading performers of the tenor part included Gervase Elwes and John Coates, and Louise Kirkby Lunn, Elena Gerhardt and Julia Culp were admired as the Angel. Later singers associated with the work include Muriel Foster, Clara Butt, Kathleen Ferrier, and Janet Baker as the Angel, and Heddle Nash, Steuart Wilson and Richard Lewis as Gerontius.
Sir Henry Wood made acoustic recordings of four extracts from THE DREAM OF GERONTIUS as early as 1916, with Clara Butt as the angel. Edison Bell issued the work in 1924 with Elgar's tacit approval (despite his contract with HMV); acoustically recorded and abridged, it was swiftly rendered obsolete by the introduction of the electrical process, and soon after withdrawn. HMV issued live recorded excerpts from two public performances conducted by Elgar in 1927, with the soloists Margaret Balfour, Steuart Wilson, Tudor Davies, Herbert Heyner, and Horace Stevens.
The work has come to be generally regarded as Elgar's finest choral composition. The authors of The Record Guide [Sackville-West, p. 254], writing in 1956 when Elgar's music was comparatively neglected, said, ‘Anyone who doubts the fact of Elgar's genius should take the first opportunity of hearing THE DREAM OF GERONTIUS, which remains his masterpiece, as it is his largest and perhaps most deeply felt work’."
- Hans Lick
“The Canadian tenor Jon Vickers brought a colossal voice and raw dramatic intensity to everything he sang, including legendary portrayals of Wagner’s TRISTAN, Verdi’s OTELLO, Beethoven’s Florestan and Britten’s Peter Grimes, had few rivals. Yet, even in subdued passages, whether posing questions as the clueless title character of Wagner’s PARSIFAL or singing tender phrases of a Schubert song, Mr. Vickers’ voice had penetrating body and depth. For all his power, he was a master at singing high pianissimo phrases with ethereal beauty. Making every word he sang matter was another hallmark of his artistry. Mr. Vickers was incapable of fudging a text for the sake of vocal effect, a priority he traced to his Christian upbringing, in which hymns and prayers were revered. Still, Mr. Vickers had his share of detractors, who found his singing burly and gruff.
He identified intensely with the characters he portrayed, especially misfits, like Peter Grimes, and misunderstood heroes, like Verdi’s Otello, who are outwardly strong but struggling against brutal destinies. Yet he readily admitted that in taking risks and giving his all, his singing could be inconsistent and uncontrolled. That Mr. Vickers lost himself in his roles did not surprise those who knew him. He was a volatile and enigmatic person, in many ways decent and principled, but hot-tempered and quick to jump on any perceived slight.
The soprano Birgit Nilsson, the great Isolde to his Tristan, said that Mr. Vickers ‘was almost always unhappy’, and that his ‘nerves were outside the skin, not inside the skin’, as she told Jeannie Williams, the author of JON VICKERS: A HERO’S LIFE. In her book, Ms. Williams recounts stories of Mr. Vickers bullying underlings and dressing down colleagues. When a 1986 Metropolitan Opera production of Handel’s SAMSON traveled to the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Mr. Vickers insulted the conductor, Julius Rudel, during a rehearsal in front of the entire cast and orchestra, shaking Mr. Rudel so much that he offered to quit. Yet in interviews he often spoke of how his rural roots and Christian convictions had shaped his life philosophy, as he explained in a 1974 documentary for the Canadian Broadcast Company: ‘The understanding, which slowly and surely developed in me, of the necessity of human contact and an understanding of the needs of others and their problems has probably, more than anything else, given me the ability to analyze my roles, to come to grips with a score, to study a drama, to project my feelings into the life of someone I’ve never met except on a piece of paper’.
Encouraged to pursue singing seriously, he auditioned for George Lambert, a voice teacher who recruited students for the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, and was offered a scholarship, beginning with the 1950-51 academic year. While at the conservatory, Mr. Vickers met Henrietta Elsie Outerbridge, a child of missionaries who had worked in China. Hetti, as she was called, had studied medicine for several semesters and taught English and art. They married in July 1953. A devoted couple, they were ‘one of the great love stories of our time’, in the words of the soprano Teresa Stratas.
Mr. Vickers considered his professional stage début to be a performance in 1954 as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s RIGOLETTO at the Toronto Opera Festival, which in 1959 became the Canadian Opera Company. Over the next two years with the festival he sang Alfredo in LA TRAVIATA, Don José in CARMEN and other roles but preferred singing for radio and television because the work paid better.
In 1957, for his first season at the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in London, he sang Don José, Riccardo in BALLO IN MASCHERA and Enée (Aeneas) in Berlioz’s epic opera LES TROYENS. Mr. Vickers would later sing Enée in a new production of the opera at Covent Garden in 1969, the centennial of the composer’s death. The conductor was Colin Davis, an inspired Berlioz interpreter. During the run, the Covent Garden forces recorded the opera in a London studio, and the sessions were tense. The cast, especially Mr. Vickers, complained of the strain of recording the work while also performing it on stage. Some rough patches in Mr. Vickers’s singing come through. Still, he brought a heroic cast to the music, and the recording remains a classic.
Mr. Vickers’ first performances at the Metropolitan Opera came in early 1960, singing Canio in Leoncavallo’s PAGLIACCI, Florestan in Beethoven’s FIDELIO and Siegmund in Wagner’s WALKÜRE, all within two months. It was on the Met stage in 1967 that Mr. Vickers introduced what many consider his greatest achievement, the title role of Britten’s PETER GRIMES, conducted by Mr. Davis and directed by Tyrone Guthrie. Working with a libretto by Montagu Slater, Britten conceived the title role of the loner fisherman in an English village for his lifelong partner, the tenor Peter Pears, who gave the first performance in London in 1945. With his ethereal voice, Pears portrayed the fisherman as an alienated dreamer, a misfit in a narrow-minded town. While yearning to be accepted, Grimes takes out his thwarted anger on homeless boys who are drafted into work as his apprentices. Britten described the opera as depicting the struggle of an individual against the masses. But many see Grimes’ persecution as a metaphor for the oppression of homosexuals. Mr. Vickers, who was, as many of his colleagues recounted, quite homophobic, could not abide such an interpretation. For him [the role of] Peter Grimes was a study in the ‘psychology of human rejection’, a view shared by Mr. Davis and Guthrie. With his powerful heldentenor voice, Mr. Vickers revealed the danger within the twisted psyche of the ostracized fisherman. His Grimes was one moment lost in reverie, the next exploding with brutality. His bleakly poignant portrayal and fearsome singing altered the public perception of the role. Though they did not like to voice their attitudes publicly, Britten and Pears were dismayed by Mr. Vickers’ Grimes. But they could not argue with success. Companies around the world mounted productions of PETER GRIMES for Mr. Vickers.
He sang more than 280 total performances at the Met, including the company premiere of LES TROYENS in 1973, and the title roles of Verdi’s OTELLO and Wagner’s PARSIFAL. For years Mr. Vickers resisted the role of Wagner’s Tristan, to the frustration of Birgit Nilsson, the great Isolde of her day, who had been searching for a powerhouse tenor who could match her in the opera. Mr. Vickers finally came through in Buenos Aires in 1971, singing Tristan to Ms. Nilsson’s Isolde. It was a triumph. They went on to sing it many times, though not as often as Ms. Nilsson had hoped. ‘I told him at the time that I waited and waited for my Tristan for 14 years’, Ms. Nilsson told THE NEW YORK TIMES, ‘as long as Jacob waited for Rachel in the Bible’. He sang the role just twice at the Met, and only one of those was with Ms. Nilsson, on 30 Jan., 1974.
Mr. Vickers lived in Toronto at the start of his career and then settled in London before returning to Canada and buying a farm about an hour’s drive from Toronto. After his retirement in 1988 he gave occasional master classes but mostly kept a low profile. He once touched on the impetus of his artistry in a graduation address in 1969 at the Royal Academy of Music in Toronto. ‘I sang because I had to’, he said. Singing, he explained, was ‘an absolute necessity, fulfilling some kind of emotional and even perhaps physical need in me’.”
- Anthony Tommasini, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 12 July, 2015