"A Mass of Life", completed in 1905,  is one of Delius' greatest musical achievements.  Although its Nietzschean philosophizing may not appeal to all listeners (particularly those of us who are professing Christians), the work demands appreciation as one of the grandest musical masterworks ever written for soloists, chorus and orchestra.

(Here are Eric Fenby's liner notes for the 1972 Angel/EMI recording
conducted by Sir Charles Groves.)

dedicated to Fritz Cassirer
Soprano, Contralto, Tenor and Baritone Soloists, Double Chorus and Orchestra: 3 flutes with piccolo, 3 oboes, English horn, bass oboe; 3 clarinets, bass clarinet; 3 bassoons, double bassoon; 6 horns; 4 trumpets; 3 tenor trombones; bass tuba; 2 harps; percussion and strings.

"It would even be possible to consider all 'Zarathustra' as a musical composition", wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, pondering the great riddle-like prose-poem he had finished in 1885. Be that as it may: clearly no sound-board was more attuned to deepen the ring of Nietzsche's metaphors than the musical imagination of Frederick Delius. The suggestive power of its first response to poetic fragments from Zarathustra - The Midnight-Song given at the Delius concert in London in 1899 and later to become the spiritual axis of A Mass of Life - is so compelling that progression to the work in its present dimensions can now be seen to have been inevitable. Zarathustra is Nietzsche's conception of man at his highest as an individual. His sayings, biblical in style (and which in this recording are sung in German) affirm his doctrine of the man of the future; man as Superman; proud, energetic, strong, dominant, exceptional in his truthfulness, disdaining as weakness the old values of Christianity. Delius, though a man after Nietzsche's heart, had no place for preaching in his music. Through Fritz Cassirer's careful selection of passages suited peculiarly to Delius's musical temperament, a balanced sequence of eleven soliloquies was ultimately devised. Nevertheless, A Mass of Life - and I can imagine Delius's dry remarks on framing the title - is a choral celebration of the Will to say Yea! to life in the joy of the "Eternal Recurrence of all things" - Nietzsche's perennial theme - rather than in desistance from life, a slaying of self to gain the promise of "life-eternal". This is the music of Delius's full manhood - the music of a virile, healthy, fastidious man, a restless adventurer and climber of mountains: not yet the perpetual harper on transcience. The Mass is divided into Two Parts; the singers share the words of Zarathustra, personified in the baritone soloist, now declaiming, now meditating, now mingling dynamically as human instruments in the orchestral texture. The first complete performance was directed by Sir Thomas Beecham in London in June 1909.


Part One opens without preamble in a passionate choral address to the Will, Zarathustra's ruling compulsion in life. He pleads that he may transcend in his soul all the pettiness of life, so that in his prime he may face whatever his inmost Will may demand. The music implies a tremendous purposefulness; a gathering and holding of massive strength and determination - with brief relaxings - then sterner effort which Delius cannot always sustain; he leans rhythmically momentarily on Wagner, but braces himself for the final assault.

In a short baritone recitative Zarathustra urges all higher men to consecrate laughter and dance. This is one of the more difficult movements to 'bring off' in performance for much of the dancing in the orchestra revolves round pedal-points, real or implied; lightness and lilt present problems, too, with triple brass doubled with woodwind at pace depicting Zarathustra's 'sacred laughter'.

 Tenor, soprano and contralto soloists now comment on Man as lover, pursuing
his loved-one - Life. Life dances enticingly before Zarathustra to a descant of
women's voices; the pulse quickens and the chorus join in fugue-like impetus rare
in Delius. Zarathustra is elated, but the chase gives way to more thoughtful mood
and, in a moving contralto solo, Life doubts Zarathustra's faithfulness. An old
bell rings and the basses intone The Midnight-Song (to which reference has
been made): "O Man, mark well, what tolls the solemn midnight bell"- Life and
Zarathustra look on each other, not without tears; at no time was Life, dearer
to Zarathustra; the music fades in exquisite accord.

Violent misgivings, even despair, follow upon this haunting bell. The music suggests a strange unease in its dark, questioning figurations, the choir reinforcing Zarathustra's heart-searchings. In a telling transition from B minor to F major, Delius calms the troubled man.

This movement is pure Delius. The slow flow in trochaic chords, the extended phrases of the soloist, the evocative use of cold timbres to conjure up the eerie night; the range of imaginative treatment of string tone, the choral interjections to heighten tension, the superb disposition of instruments sustaining the whole arc of movement; the sensitive interplay of diatonic and chromatic elements in its textures - all are perfect examples of a craftsman's skill, artistry and insight in a glorious, logical sweep of sound that spreads itself before passing its peak and falls, hovering, to end where it began.


Zarathustra is alone with his thoughts in the stillness of high Mountai ns; horn calls echo over the distant valleys. Suddenly a great surge of sound is unleashed in praise of Man's 'Noon-tide' - his prime - in music, I think, of finer quality than the opening paean. Quieter passages in which soprano, contralto and tenor soloists add a brief trio on the sorrows of their 'Spring-tide', now left behind, lead to a return of the 'Noon-tide' music which culminates in a call to all artists: "Wax hard!"

Again pure Delius, but this time more revealing than the Night-Song. The distinct flavour that emanates from this most enigmatic of songs deepened in Delius's spirit with age and saturated his later work. What can one say of its emotional coda beyond the obvious remark that the same feeling recurs in the codas of Brigg Fair, In a Summer Garden, An Arabesk, the violin, cello and double concertos - and so on - like the plaintive airs' on the briefness of bliss strummed by father and again by son on Zarathustra's old 'drunken-toned' lyre ? But Zarathustra sees joyful meaning in life - for Joy longs to Recur!

It is evening. Zarathustra is wandering in the forest. Presently he comes upon a meadow surrounded by trees and bushes where young girls are dancing together. The charming intricacies of step and gesture are conveyed in swaying rhythms of four-part song, wordless in laughter and fluttering delight. On seeing Zarathustra the girls scatter - but, reassured, they resume in wilder dance, then tire, leaving Zarathustra to muse in the cool dusk. The girls' voices waft through the woods and increase his tender melancholy. Night falls and muted strings close his reverie magically with a wisp from the distance of the girls' dance.

 Again another aspect of Delius's art-his gift in suggesting the sense of
serenity and timelessness of pastoral peace. Zarathustra, now come of age at the
noon-tide of life, relishes solitude and is rapt in his happiness. With the sun over-
head he rests under a gnarled tree and dozes off to the sound of shepherd pipes
(oboe, English horn and bass oboe). Chorus and tenor soloist comment quietly
on the scene. Zarathustra stirs, and soloists, chorus and orchestra stretch their
limbs joyously. How sensitive the visionary winding passages for strings which then
ensue! Bemused, Zarathustra refuses to be roused. The myriad voices of Eternity
seem to live again in the suspended pianissimo chords of the choir's "O bliss! O
bliss! O bliss!" Zarathustra knows complete content.

Zarathustra, now in the even-tide of life, reflects on the past and the indifference of men. The chorus continues this mood of regretfulness with apt quotations in the orchestra. One from No. IV in cellos and basses then horns and bassoons at the mention of Midnight ("O, how she sighs!"); the other, the horn motive that clinches the climax in No. V recurs in full brass fortissimo preparing the crowning choral unison: "Joy is deeper still than heart-felt grief!" A drum roll leads into the final movement.

The drum roll ushers in Zarathustra's motive (quoted from the introduction to the Dance-Song, Part Two No. III) heard again in the string basses. The dark tones of the orchestra and bell-like octaves of the harps (that keep recurring in a four-note figure) tell of the approaching hour. Zarathustra calls his men friends and, to the tolling of the bell in the lower strings, tells what Midnight has revealed to him. They join in by snatches, then take up the song filling the night with this descant to Joy. Soloists, double chorus and orchestra end this most singular of all Masses with a peroration of overwhelming grandeur.

A Mass of Life
Delius' important and lovely score in a welcome, new recording from Angel
by Donal Henahan
(A Review in High Fidelity Magazine, July 1972)

DELIUS' A Mass of Life is of course not a Mass in any traditional sense, no more than is his Requiem. In the album notes accompanying this welcome and generally quite splendid Angel release, the composer's onetime amanuensis, Eric Fenby, strongly suggests an ironical intent (". . . I can imagine Delius' dry remarks on framing the title"), though Fenby goes on to call the work "a
choral celebration of the Will to say Yea! to life." Perhaps this seemingly equivocal approach, which accurately reflects the text's Nietzschean contradictions and ambiguities (Delius drew his words from Thus Spake Zarathustra), partly explains the neglect this important and exceptionally lovely score has suffered. Only the Beecham recording, made in 1952, ever has entered the catalogues, and live performances fall squarely in the hen's-tooth category. Musical and physical problems do exist of course; a score that calls for six horns, four trumpets, and double chorus with soloists presents more than ordinary obstructions. But more difficult pieces are regularly performed and recorded - think only of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony with its ten horns, five clarinets, eight trumpets, and armies of singers. Then why such reluctance about A Mass of Life, Delius' most ambitious and in many ways his most satisfying work? The Nietzchean philosophy that permeates the score no doubt is partly responsible: Nordic Supermen dropped out of fashion in art some twenty-five years ago and have not really been back since. But people do listen to the Ring, despite Wagner's distressing philosophy, don't they? Could Delius be suffering - one raises the possibility with great diffidence - not because of any unattractiveness in the Mass itself, but from the persistence of the Beecham legend?

Indeed, it must have taken some gumption on the part of Charles Groves and Angel to pitch into a fresh recording of this work. Even though the old Columbia (SL 197) mono recording has been unavailable in this country for years, the reissue in 1970 by British  CBS gave any new version something extraordinarily difficult to match: major Delius, Beecham at his mature best, and sound that could hardly be better for its early-LP time. Sir Thomas did, after all, conduct the first performance, in 1909, and his recording should never be out of circulation. His reading of the Mass is consistently more alive to subtleties of atmosphere and drama than that of Groves, and the tension of the sustained big line never leaves the Beecham performance, even though it is on the whole a broader and more leisurely conception, Actually Groves goes his own way in the matter of tempos - faster in The Night Song, more deliberately in The Dance Song, for instance - and moves over the ground more quickly in the final portions, when interest is in danger of running down; exactly where Beecham, with his keen instinct in these matters, slows down and luxuriates over details. At Noon in the Meadows, heard through a mist that at times turns almost opaque,  is quintessential Beecham and Delius.

But is there another Delius, one whom Beecham does not own in perpetuity? Charles Groves in this richly recorded version suggests there can be. His vocal soloists are on the whole more accurate and more in focus than Beecham's, and they adopt a more intimate style that contrasts interestingly with some of the quasi-operatic singing heard from Charles Craig, Monica Sinclair, Rosina Raisbeck, and Bruce Boyce in the original. The most significant gain in the Angel version, however, is in cleaning up the orchestral and vocal picture so that one actually can hear Delius' score in proper balance.

 For a telling instance of the new recording's virtues in this respect, listen to The Midnight Song, where the basses intone the portentous "O Mensch! Gib Acht! Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht!" while the contralto continues her nostalgic apostrophizing of Zarathustra. In Beecham, the solo voice rises as in an aria, and the chorus is so muffled that the text does not emerge. In Groves, both solo and choral parts come through, and the marvelous complexity of the passage can be heard. (An unreconstructed Beechamite of course could contend that Delius intended a muffled effect here, but it is undeniably fascinating to hear such interweaving detail in this composer's music, so often smothered under impressionist gauze by Beecham imitators.) Angel's soloists all make exceptionally pleasing sounds, and Benjamin Luxon brings to Zarathustra's musings both a wide-ranging baritone and much sensitivity to the text's nuances. (One hears that Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau had been scheduled as the baritone in both the Beecham and Groves recordings, but took sick each time.)

So here is a major milestone in the Delius revival, done with love and care, sumptuously played and elegantly sung. Will it help give this exercise in music and philosophy some deserved circulation? If not, we may have to agree with Nietzsche that "philosophy is not suited for the masses. What they need is holiness."  Delians may also hope that Columbia will be jogged into reissuing the Beecham performance in this country so that we may consult the Rosetta stone, if we wish.

DELIUS:  A Mass of Life. Heather Harper, soprano; Helen Watts, contralto; Robert Tear, tenor; Benjamin Luxon, baritone. London Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra, Charles Groves, cond. Angel SB 3781, $11.96 (two discs).

Hear Sir Thomas Beecham's spoken comments on A MASS OF LIFE with musical examples

"A Delius Discography" contains  information on other recordings of A MASS OF LIFE

Download full score of A MASS OF LIFE (Google Books site) - LARGE PDF FILE (56 MB)

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