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The Triennial Musical Festival and The Dream of Gerontius

The Triennial Musical Festival started in September 1768, with the purpose of securing funds for the new General Hospital based on Summer Lane. This charitable spirit remained with the festival until its final event nearly 150 years later.

The early festivals were held either in the New Theatre (later renamed the Theatre Royal) on New Street or St Phillip’s Church. The Festival secured a permanent home in 1834, when the purpose built Birmingham Town Hall was opened.

The Highs and Lows

While early Festivals concentrated on Handel, more diverse programmes soon developed. The 1834 festival is also notable as the first to feature a specially commissioned piece - Sigismund Neukomm’s David oratorio. The success of this work encouraged the Festival Committee to continue to commission new works with composers such as Mendelssohn, Gounod, Dvorak – and Elgar. There were great successes. The 1846 festival is notable for the Premiere of Mendelssohn’s Elijah oratorio, while the 1900 Festival is remembered for the Premiere of The Dream of Gerontius.

Interestingly, Dvorak was approached to commission a piece for the 1887 Festival. While he declined this invitation, whilst he was in Birmingham, he was handed a copy of Cardinal Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius for possible use in a future commission. He decided not to develop this idea any further.

Later, in 1889, Elgar was given the poem as a wedding present – and the idea was planted. At a meeting with Committee member Charles Beale at the 1898 Leeds Festival, he was persuaded to accept a commission for the 1900 Triennial Musical Festival.

Following some thought about a possible Apostles theme, Elgar decided to build his commission around the The Dream of Gerontius text.

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