Although Elgar himself disapproved of the term "oratorio" being applied to this work, it was consistently referred to as an oratorio throughout Elgar's lifetime, and is usually called such in studies of the work today. It is widely regarded as Elgar's finest choral work, and some consider it his masterpiece.
The work was composed for the Birmingham Music Festival of 1900 and the first performance took place on 3 October 1900, in Birmingham Town Hall. It was badly performed at the premiere, but later performances in Germany revealed its stature. In the first decade after its premiere, the Roman Catholic dogma in Newman's poem caused difficulties in getting the work performed in Anglican cathedrals, and a revised text was used for performances at the Three Choirs Festival until 1910.