Although Elgar, now in his early thirties, had to return to Worcestershire (Malvern) and resume the modest career of a provincial music teacher, he did not abandon composition, testifying to his and his wife's strong belief in his latent genius. He wisely turned to the late Victorian market for festival cantatas and oratorios, and, returning to chivalry for his subject matter, composed The Black Knight (Uhland, trans. Longfellow, 1892), to be followed by the short oratorio The Light of Life (1896) and the cantatas Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf (Longfellow/H. A. Acworth, 1896) and Caractacus (Acworth, 1898), the latter set partly in the Malvern Hills and Severn valley. Drawing on his expanding knowledge of the nineteenth-century orchestral and operatic repertoire, gained at the Crystal Palace concerts when living in London and on visits to Bayreuth and Munich to hear Wagner's later operas (1892-3), Elgar reached an intensity in his developing style in King Olaf that heralds maturity, as it does in the slow movement of the Serenade for Strings (1892) and parts of the Organ Sonata (1895).
However, it was not until the orchestral Variations on an Original Theme ("Enigma") (1899), dedicated to "My Friends Pictured Within", that Elgar reached musical maturity, significantly in the company of his wife (Variation 1) and supported by his friends (Variations 2-13), with Elgar himself as the final variation. More enigmatic than the variations was the sacred cantata The Dream of Gerontius (John Henry Newman, 1900), its Catholic text (Elgar was Roman Catholic) unsympathetic to some music lovers and especially to those members of the Anglican establishment who had the text's doctrinal infelicities expunged before performance in their cathedrals. Because of its difficulty and problems at rehearsal, the premiere at the Birmingham Triennial Festival (1900) was a failure, but a performance at the Lower Rhine Festival, Dusseldorf, in May 1902, conducted by Julius Buths, revealed the work's true stature. Gerontius was followed by the oratorio The Apostles (Elgar, after Bible, 1903), an advance on the former work in chromatic language and architectural grandeur, and The Kingdom (Elgar, after Bible, 1906), although the final oratorio in the planned trilogy was never completed. Elgar's faith wavered; his duties as the first Peyton Professor of Music at Birmingham University (1905-8) sapped his energy.