Edward Elgar’s great work of poetic soul-scouring and symphonic grandeur had a mired reception at its première in Birmingham in 1900, years before Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring sparked its famous riot in Paris in 1913. Both composers had stretched the tolerance of their audiences, requiring open minds and an ear for new tonalities. Elgar had the additional misfortune of an insufficiently prepared chorus, hoarse soloists, and an under-rehearsed orchestra – a disaster for a work as ambitious as The Dream of Gerontius, which requires peak performance from all of its massed resources.
Stravinsky went on to change the musical landscape. Elgar found the appreciation, and the performance his work warranted, first in Germany (in a German translation), in Düsseldorf, in 1901, and again in 1902, when he was toasted by Richard Strauss: ‘I drink to the success and welfare of the first English progressive Musician, Meister Elgar.’ ‘Meister Elgar’ was an outsider, by class and religion, in his own country, so the accolade – from a European composer of such renown, and one Elgar revered – was crucial. By 1903 the English had come round to acknowledging their own, and Gerontius had its first London performance in (the Catholic) Westminster Cathedral, in 1903. Subsequent performances in England became embroiled in doctrinal sensitivities – the text, by the nineteenth century’s most famous Anglican convert to Catholicism, John Henry Newman, led various Anglican clerics to demand some expurgation before they would allow the work to be performed in their cathedrals and churches. And for a time, the Catholic Elgar complied. Needs must?