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Victorian England loved its monster choral works. It wolfed them down at seemingly endless year-long seasons of festivals up and down the country.
Coming just one year after the successful Enigma Variations, it would probably not have mattered which choral monster Elgar supplied for the Birmingham Festival. As it happened, he created a masterpiece, certainly his greatest choral work – if not the greatest by any English composer.
Elgar had planned this piece since his thirties, and possessed a copy of Cardinal Newman’s original poem with annotations by General Gordon of Khartoum; Gordon’s notes on the text were retrieved from his belongings after his demise and became a popular Victorian publication. Despite a near-disastrous premiere performance, the work thrived (particularly, early on, in Germany, when Richard Strauss used it to hail ‘Meister’ Elgar as ‘the first progressive English musician’). Over here, what is less well remembered is that it was only grudgingly accepted because of its Roman Catholic themes, to the point that it was banned in some cathedrals.