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Elgar's 'Dream of Gerontius' was written for the Birmingham Music Festival of 1900. The work is based on a poem by John Henry Cardinal Newman. Elgar had long known and loved this poem, and in 1889 had been given a special copy, as a wedding present, one which contained hand-written notes by General Gordon, a British national hero who died under siege at Khartoum. Elgar considered the poem to be a basis for a great choral work, and a commission to compose a work for the Birmingham Music Festival created the opportunity for him to achieve his ambition. The oratorio ** he wrote for the festival is grand in scale, a work in two parts with a large orchestra, double chorus, a semi chorus and three soloists (Bass and baritone are scored separately, but the choice to have a single soloist sing both baritone and bass parts is usually made, since they are only short passages.) The name 'Gerontius' has its root in the Greek word "geron" (old man) and the story told by Newman's poem is the journey of a pious man's soul from his deathbed to his judgement before God and his arrival in Purgatory. The poem is based in Roman Catholic theology and the vocabulary is that of the Roman Church. Elgar was not a strongly religious man, but he was brought up a Roman Catholic and he used Newman's text without moderation, making the necessary abridgements of a very long poem only after consultation with Newman's executors.
Following the commission on New Year's day 1900, Elgar completed the piano score of Part One by March 1900 and the first performance at the Birmingham Music Festival was on October 3rd 1900 under Hans Richter. This performance was a near disaster, the conductor having received his score from the printers late (despite Elgar having delivered the manuscript on 3rd August) and there then being too little time for rehearsal. Also the Birmingham Festival Chorus was in difficulty, their regular rehearsal conductor having recently died, and they performed badly. Two of the soloists proved unequal to the demand of their parts. Elgar, who was prone to depression, afterwards wrote to his friend and confident, Jaeger: "I have worked hard for forty years and at the last Providence denies me a decent hearing of my work: so I submit - I have always said God is against art and I still believe it .... I have allowed my heart to open once - it is now shut against every religious feeling and every soft gentle impulse for ever."
Fortunately the critics saw the greatness of Elgar's work, despite the problems with the first performance , and there was a much better outcome in 1901 when German chorus master Julius Buths translated the text and arranged a successful performance in Düsseldorf. Elgar wrote of this performance "It completely bore out my idea of the work: the chorus was very fine". Since that time 'Dream of Gerontius' has remained in the world repertoire and is viewed by many as his greatest achievement, a masterpiece. Between 1903 and 1911 'The Dream of Gerontius' was successfully performed in Chicago, New York, Vienna, Paris and in Toronto (conducted by Elgar himself in Toronto) and it has remained a strong favourite with all choirs that can muster the necessary resources.
**Note Elgar disapproved of the use of the term "oratorio" for the work, though his wishes are not always followed.