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ClassicsOnline Home » DELIUS, F.: Mass of Life (A) / Prelude and Idyll (J. Watson, Wyn-Rogers, A. Kennedy, Opie, Bach Choir, Bournemouth Symphony, D. Hill)
Long an admirer of Nietzsche’s poetry, Frederick Delius composed A Mass of Life while at the height of his powers, blending passages from Also Sprach Zarathustra into orchestral textures of great expressive depth and striking beauty. Written in his final years, the Prelude and Idyll sourced music from a long discarded opera, transforming a story of lust and vengeance into one which emphasizes the transience of life and love. David Hill’s previous BSO recordings include a “perfectly judged” Dies natalis by Gerald Finzi (The Guardian on 8.570417), while his Vaughan Williams Sancta Civitas (8.572424) was described as “thrilling…a great case for a neglected work”. (Classic FM)
By David Threasher
Frederick Delius (1862–1934)
A Mass of Life
Although A Mass of Life in its entirety dates from 1904–5, most of the concluding section was written earlier and performed on its own at an all-Delius concert in London in 1899. After the score’s completion a substantial portion was heard at Munich in 1908, but it was not until the following year that the whole work was given for the first time when Thomas Beecham (1879–1961) conducted it in London at Queen’s Hall on 7 June 1909.
During that conductor’s lifetime, apart from two performances by Hamilton Harty in the 1930s, three by Malcolm Sargent between 1944 and 1954 and a handful of single performances by others, all the work’s hearings were at Beecham’s hands. Notable among them were those at the Delius festivals he organised in 1929 and 1946 and his last, in 1951, for which he brought from Germany the 23-year-old baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to make his English début. Beecham made the first-ever recording of the work in 1952–3.
At all these performances, except for the last and in his recording, the Mass was sung in the English translation of the German which Beecham himself had commissioned for the 1909 première to replace the hopelessly unidiomatic text by John Bernhoff printed in the original score. Beecham said he needed something that could be sung before an English audience ‘without creating either amazement or hilarity’, and he asked the composer and writer on music William Wallace (1860–1940) to provide it. In recent years, A Mass of Life has increasingly come to be sung in the original language. Wallace’s translation is printed here, alongside the German.
At the time he composed the work Delius was at the height of his powers. He had long been in thrall to the writings of the poet and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), but it was when the conductor Fritz Cassirer (a champion of his music who had premièred his operas Koanga and A Village Romeo and Juliet) assembled a selection of passages from Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (‘Thus spake Zarathustra’) that Delius felt impelled to pour his admiration for its author into music. He had no time for religions or creeds, and scorned Christianity with what he saw as its hopeful promises of ‘life-eternal’; he was as devoted as his hero to the concept of man as superman, energetic, strong, fearless and ultimately capable of domination.
All the same, his instinct was always for Nietzsche the poet rather than the philosopher, and he chose only such passages as suited his musical conception. Four soloists and large choral and orchestral forces are employed in a sequence of eleven movements divided into two parts. The singers share Zarathustra’s words, though he himself is embodied in the baritone soloist, who has by far the largest share of the work. The text, biblical in style and mingling poetry, metaphor and irony declaims, meditates but always blends into the orchestral texture, Delius’s favoured composing style.
Prelude and Idyll
In 1902 Delius completed a one-act opera, Margot la Rouge, hoping to win with it the Concorso Melodrammatico Internazionale, a competition for new opera sponsored by the Italian publisher Sonzogno. When it failed to do so he put it away, and it was destined never to be heard in his lifetime. In 1932, however, during the Indian summer of composition made possible through the assistance of his amanuensis Eric Fenby (1906–97) he decided to see whether any of its music might be adapted to another purpose. Discarding the opera‘s libretto (which told of a love-triangle set in 1899 Paris that ended in the deaths of both men involved, one avenged by Margot la Rouge herself) and retaining only those musical passages that particularly appealed to him, he produced an entirely different composition, a vocal work for the concert hall involving soprano and baritone solo singers and orchestra. The new words came from the poems of Walt Whitman, compiled for him by his friend, the poet Robert Nichols (1893–1944).
At its first performance the new work was simply entitled Idyll, but subsequently Delius decided to use the prelude to Margot la Rouge as a new orchestral introduction. The Whitman poem ‘Once I pass’d through a populous city’ (No. 13 of a collection entitled Children of Adam dating from 1860) sung by the baritone provided the opening lines, telling of the woman he casually met ‘who detained me for love of me’. His thoughts are echoed by hers…‘day by day, night by night, we were together’. Their mutual feelings reach impassioned heights before Delius’s recurring theme of the transience of life and love intrudes, and they part, their love becoming a memory. The work received its first performance at a Promenade Concert in London on 3 October 1933 when the singers were Dora Labbette and Roy Henderson with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Henry Wood.
The question of where the interval should be taken between the two parts of the Mass of Life has long been an arbitrary one. Both Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir Malcolm Sargent made the break between movements II and III of Part 2, and it is that tradition that is followed in this recording.
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