Daniel Barenboim and Staatskapelle Berlin’s concert of Edward Elgar’s large-scale, contemplative-dramatic oratorio “The Dream of Gerontius” will mark the conclusion of this year’s Musikfest Berlin. This concert will present another side of the composer of the far more familiar “Pomp and Circumstance”. Elgar belonged to the Catholic minority in a largely Anglican England. His oratory was based on a text by Cardinal John Henry Newman, who had converted to Catholicism in 1845.
But it was not the Catholic subject matter that caused the failure of the oratorio’s premiere at the 1900 Birmingham Triennial Festival, conducted by Hans Richter, but rather the inadequacies of the performing musicians. The complexity of the work, which demanded a “late Romantic” orchestration, a double choir and three vocal soloists, had been underestimated. It only became a success – especially for Edward Elgar himself – when Richard Strauss designated him “the first English Progressivist” after a further performance of the piece at Niederrheinisches Musikfest in 1902. With this piece, Elgar was able to tie in with the great British choir tradition of anthems, with Henry Purcell and the London oratorios of Friedrich Händel.