Composers Datebook®

The Dream of Gerontius

Composer's Datebook - October 3, 2023


Despite a disastrous premiere in Birmingham on today’s date in 1900, Edward Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius has become one of his best-loved and most-frequently performed works in the UK, where, in 2015, Classic FM offered a guide to what it called the work’s “most epic choral stupendousness.”

Here's Classic FM’s summary of its story: “The piece follows an ‘everyman’ character (the word ‘Gerontius’ comes from the Greek for ‘old man’) as he faces death, meets his guardian angel and goes before his God before being taken to Purgatory with the promise of everlasting glory.”

Well, all that Roman Catholic talk of Purgatory in the poem by Cardinal John Henry Newman that Elgar set to music did not sit well with the Church of England in the early decades of the 20th century. Many Anglican clerics flatly refused to let it be performed in their cathedrals.

But that controversy is long a thing of the past, and nowadays Gerontius is performed at cathedrals such as St. Paul’s in London and in concert venues such as the Royal Albert Hall, where in 1991 it was performed at the BBC Proms in the presence of the Prince of Wales, now known as King Charles III.

Music Played in Today's Program

Edward Elgar (1857-1934) — The Dream of Gerontius (John Shirley-Quirk, bar.; London Symphony Chorus; King's College Choir, Cambridge; London Symphony Orchestra; Benjamin Britten, cond.) London/Decca 448170

On This Day


  • 1923 - Polish-born American composer and conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, in Lwow;

  • 1936 - American composer Steve Reich, in New York;


  • 1931 - Danish composer and conductor Carl Nielsen, age 66, in Copenhagen;

  • 1953 - English composer Sir Arnold Bax, age 69, in Cork, Ireland;


  • 1822 - Beethoven: "Consecration of the House" Overture, Op. 124, for the opening of the Josephstadt Theater in Vienna;

  • 1860 - Brahms: Serenade No. 1 in D, Op. 11, in Hanover, conducted by Joseph Joachim;

  • 1888 - Gilbert & Sullivan: operetta, "The Yeomen of the Guard," at the Savoy Theatre in London;

  • 1900 - Elgar: oratorio, "The Dream of Gerontius," at Birmingham, Hans Richter conducting;

  • 1929 - Walton: Viola Concerto, by the Queen's Hall Orchestra conducted by the composer, with Paul Hindemith the soloist;

  • 1963 - Ginastera: Violin Concerto, by the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein conducting, with Ruggiero Ricci the soloist;

  • 1968 - William Schuman's "To Thee Old Cause" at New York Philharmonic concert conducted by Bernstein (dedicated to memory of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy);

  • 1971 - Copland: "Duo" for flute and piano, in Philadelphia, by flutist Elaine Shaffer and pianist Hephzibah Menuhin;

  • 1984 - Corigliano: "Creations" for narrator and chamber orchestra, in Milwaukee, Wisc., with Lukas Foss conducting;

  • 1996 - James MacMillan: Cello Concerto, at the Barbican in London, by Mstislav Rostropovich with the London Symphony, Sir Colin Davis conducting;

  • 1997 - Anthony Davis: "Jacob's Ladder," by the Kansas City Symphony, Bill McGlaughlin conducting;


  • 1833 - Berlioz marries Irish actress Harriet "Henrietta" Smithson at the British embassy in Paris; Liszt acts as one of the witnesses.

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

About Composers Datebook®