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Michaelmas and The Dream of Gerontius

Plough Music Series

Joel Clarkson

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  • Ellis Spear

    Very nice commentary and explanation of Michaelmas

The Plough Music Series is a regular selection of music intended to lift your heart to God. This is not a playlist of background music: each installment will focus on a single piece worth pausing to enjoy.

September 29th is Michaelmas, or the Feast of Michael and All Angels. In premodern Europe, the feast marked the passing of seasons as summer’s warmth gave way to the shadow of winter. Saint Michael was invoked, along with all the angelic host, to aid the faithful as they brought in their harvest. To these communities, angels were guardians of the righteous, seeking their well-being and defending them from evil.

In Edward Elgar’s unstaged opera The Dream of Gerontius, an adaptation of John Henry Newman’s poem of the same name, the protagonist Gerontius endures a holy death and traverses heaven to face his final judgement, after which he will enter purgatory. Along the way, Gerontius is met by angels, who accompany him, pray for him, and encourage him in his journey.

The scene below finds Gerontius and his guardian angel approaching the judgement seat of God. As they draw near, Gerontius’s guardian angel points out the Angel of the Agony, who aided Christ in the Garden of Gesthemane, and who now pleads for Gerontius before Christ. The Angel of the Agony asks that Christ “hasten the hour” when Gerontius will forever be in God’s presence. Just before Gerontius approaches his judgement, he receives a comforting benediction from his guardian angel, who blesses him for his divine encounter.

In Gerontius, as in Michaelmas, angels assist humans, seeking their good, safeguarding them from harm, and even pleading for them before God, until, after their earthly journey, humans finally come to the beatific vision. There, as the Angel of the Agony declares, “they shall ever gaze on thee,” on Christ himself.

Sir Colin Davis conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, with tenor Ben Heppner, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, and baritone Gerald Finley singing solos.

Listen to the music

Angel

Thy judgment now is near, for we are come
Into the veilèd presence of our God.

Soul

I hear the voices that I left on earth.

Angel

It is the voice of friends around thy bed,
Who say the "Subvenite" with the priest.
Hither the echoes come; before the Throne
Stands the great Angel of the Agony,
The same who strengthen'd Him, what time He knelt
Lone in that garden shade, bedew'd with blood.
That Angel best can plead with Him for all
Tormented souls, the dying and the dead.

Angel of the Agony

Jesu! by that shuddering dread which fell on Thee;
Jesu! by that cold dismay which sicken'd Thee;
Jesu! by that pang of heart which thrill'd in Thee;
Jesu! by that mount of sins which crippled Thee;
Jesu! by that sense of guilt which stifled Thee;
Jesu! by that innocence which girdled Thee;
Jesu! by that sanctity which reign'd in Thee;
Jesu! by that Godhead which was one with Thee;
Jesu! spare these souls which are so dear to Thee;
Souls, who in prison, calm and patient, wait for Thee;

Hasten, Lord, their hour, and bid them come to Thee,

To that glorious Home, where they shall ever gaze on Thee.
Jesu, spare these souls which are so dear to thee.

Soul

I go before my Judge….

Chorus:

Be merciful, be gracious; spare him, Lord,
Be merciful, be gracious; Lord, deliver him.

Angel

…. Praise to His Name!
O happy, suffering soul! for it is safe,
Consumed, yet quicken'd, by the glance of God.

Alleluia – Praise to his Name.

 The Angel Standing in the Sun, a painting by Joseph Mallord William Turner

Detail of The Angel Standing in the Sun, a painting by Joseph Mallord William Turner (Public Domain)

Contributed By portrait of Joel Clarkson, award-winning composer, author and voiceover performer

Joel Clarkson is a composer, author and voiceover performer.

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