September 2010 was the first ever papal state visit to the United Kingdom. Pope Benedict XVI’s four day tour culminated in a visit to Birmingham on 19 September, where he conducted mass for over 50,000 followers at Cofton Park.
The Papal Visit
An important feature of the ceremony was the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman. This would take the Cardinal a step closer to becoming recognised as a saint. To celebrate the beatification, on the eve of the Pope's visit, a performance of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius was given at Birmingham Town Hall.
A notable figure in the religious landscape of 19th Century Britain, Cardinal Newman also played a central role in the development of the Catholic University of Ireland (now University College, Dublin) and oratories in London and Birmingham. He was a significant literary figure, and published several noted works, such as his autobiography Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1865 to 1866) and The Grammar of Assent (1870). Cardinal Newman is closely linked to Birmingham, having lived at the oratory for almost forty years and was buried at a small cemetery in Rednal.
Between 17 January and 7 February 1865, he also wrote the poem, The Dream of Gerontius. The poem describes the journey taken by the soul of a pious man, from death to judgement by God.
Elgar and The Dream of Gerontius
Edward Elgar was a respected composer, published by Novello and Co. In 1900, he composed a choral work based on the poem written by Cardinal Newman. Elgar was commissioned to create the work for performance at the Birmingham Triennial Festival. This was a choral music event which was regularly staged in the city from the 18th Century until the early 20th Century. Although Gerontius is now a well-respected piece of choral music, its origins were not without incident.