The LSO in World War I: The Dream of Gerontius


In 2014 we began a series of articles that looked into the history of the London Symphony Orchestra and the effect of World War I on the musicians, the audiences and on music itself. 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of one of the pivotal moments of the War, the Battle of the Somme, and in this blog we take a look at how the Orchestra was coping with the country being at war and one particular event that we're remembering 100 years on.

At first the Orchestra had, like many people, assumed and hoped that the conflict would be over quickly and resolved to carry on with its concert-giving life as normally as possible. But as members of the Orchestra were called away for service, and the public became increasingly unwilling to venture outside to attend concerts, it became difficult to sustain a viable business.

Early in the year, in the February of 1916, the Board called an Extraordinary General Meeting. The motion proposed was as follows:

'That owing to the losses sustained by the Company, and in view of the fact that such expanion of entertainments is no longer necessary owing to there being no private orchestral engagements and with a view to arresting the strain on the Company in the matter of paying deputies, and in view also of the stringent need for economy, this meeting is of the opinion that our present series of symphony concerts should be curtailed and the Company's expenses reduced accordingly.'

Board minutes 1916

The report goes on to say that the motion was unnecessary, as that very day an undertaking had been received from the conductor and impresario Sir Thomas Beecham to accept financial responsibility for the current series of concerts – a very generous offer. He had also made a substantial gift of £100, and promised a further £100 gift. The LSO's season was saved... for now.

Clearly though, work was drying up for an orchestra that relied not only on its own series of concerts at The Queen's Hall, but also on engagements from outside parties such as festivals and out-of-town tours. The list of performances during the early 1910s, as held in our archives, clearly shows the trend:

1912: 79 performances
1913: 55 performances
1914: 55 performances
1915: 37 performances
1916: 26 performances

Against a background of compulsory conscription, a reduced appetite for 'frivolous' activities (entertaining yourself seemed in bad taste given the atrocities that were happening in France and Belgium, demonstrated by the film The Battle of the Somme that was shown in cinemas to around 20 million people in 1916, the first time many people had seen anything of the events overseas), the start of the German campaign of bombing from the air using the silent but deadly Zeppelins, blackouts, unreliable public transport and increased ticket prices due to the new Entertainment Tax that was introduced that year, the LSO was struggling to find enough work and enough audiences to keep going.

Entertainment Tax notice

Notice about the new Entertainment Tax in a 1916 LSO programme

So it is unusual to see amongst the performances in 1916 a large scale festival of a large scale choral work. At a time when large-scale music making had all but ceased, over six nights from 8 to 13 May 1916 the LSO took part in an event called 'Festival Gerontius' – performances of Elgar's choral masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius, plus the second and third movements of his new (unfinished at that point) work The Spirit of England

The festival was mounted at The Queens Hall by the alto Clara Butt, for whom Elgar had written Sea Pictures and, reportedly, whom he had had in mind for the part of the Angel in Gerontius. The event was in aid of the Red Cross, which at that time was providing relief both at home and abroad in the form of hopsitals, medical equipment, voluntary nursing staff, ambulance drivers, and much more. Clara was an active fundraiser during the war, putting on and performing in many charity concerts. She was awarded the DBE in 1920 for her wartime work.

'We are a nation in mourning. In this tremendous unheaval, when youth is dying for us, I want to give the people a week of beautiful thoughts, for I am convinced that no nation can be great that is not truly religious. I believe that the War has given us a new attitude towards death, that many who had no faith before are now hungering to believe that after death there is life.' – Dame Clara Butt

Festival Gerontius became a huge talking point in London society. The combination of the appropriateness of the piece (relating the journey of a pious man's soul from his deathbed to his judgment before God and settling into Purgatory), the performers – Gervase Elwes (Gerontius), Charles Mott (Angel of Agony), Herbert Brown (Priest), Clara herself, plus the LSO and the Leeds Choral Union, and not to mention John Booth and Agnes Nicholls who sang the movements from The Spirit of England – Elgar himself conducting and the amount of publicity that Clara was able to generate led to the Festival being an enormous success. The performances were attended twice by King George V, Queen Mary and Queen Alexandra, and raised the considerable sum of £2707.

Festival Gerontius advert

Festival Gerontius programme advert, May 1916

The festival was also critically acclaimed. It was reviewed by The Tablet, the Catholic newspaper:

'One may say it was superb, whether in the dignified and exalted hymns of the angel host, or in that wonderful passage of the demon chorus. The London Symphony Orchestra finely rendered the orchestral parts.'

This must have been of great comfort to Elgar, who was troubled by the war and wrote many works to help raise funds for the war effort, such as Carillon, to raise money for Belgian relief. 'It is difficult to imagine a more fitting moment, or more favourable conditions, for the presentation of Cardinal's Newman's famous poem, as interpreted by the musical genius of Sir Edward Elgar...The whole Empire is preoccupied with the thought of solemn issues, and death is very much in our midst.' said The Tablet.

Ultimately Festival Gerontius helped not only the Red Cross and the recipients of its fund, but the people in the audience and, in a small way, the LSO. Although the Orchestra eventually had to cease most operations the very next year, the players were able to reform the group in 1918 and continue performing, surviving, of course, to the present day. And the relationship with Elgar remained strong: the Orchestra made many of the first recordings of his works during the 1930s, right up to his death in 1934.

100 years on, we celebrate the place of The Dream of Gerontius in both the story of the War and in our own history with a performance at the Barbican Centre on Sunday 24 April 2016. Sir Mark Elder, who has a lifelong affinity with Elgar's music, is joined by Alice Coote, Allan Clayton and Gerald Finley, with the London Symphony Chorus and a semi-chorus from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Tickets from £10 are available here.


More Elgar and wartime connections

Thu 28 Apr 2016 7.30pm, Barbican
Music by George Butterworth, killed in World War I and Vaughan Williams, who served as a medical orderly. Plus Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in the War.
Sir Mark Elder conductor
Elizabeth Watts soprano
Cedric Tiberghien piano
> Buy tickets

Thu 14, 21, 28 Apr; 5 May 1pm, LSO St Luke's
BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concerts: Elgar Up Close
Chamber works by Elgar and his contemporaries featuring Jennifer Pike, the Elias String Quartet, Huw Watkins and the LSO String Ensemble.
> More info

Fri 13 May; 3 & 24 Jun; 1 Jul 12.30pm, LSO St Luke's
LSO Discovery Friday Lunchtime Concerts
Music inspired by the English countryside before and during World War I.
> More info