Delius's Song of the Earth


by Lionel Carley

(Published in 1994 in Fanfare, the journal/newsletter of the Royal Philharmonic Society)

The final concert of the Society's 181st season will be given by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and the Halle Choir, with soloists Joan Rodgers and David Whelan, conducted by Vernon Handley, marking the 60th anniversary of Frederick Delius's death. The distinguished Delius scholar introduces the Requiem, which forms the second half of the concert. 
(NOTE: Per Stephen Lloyd of The Delius Society, Martyn Brabbins replaced Vernon Handley as conductor for this concert on short notice.)

Delius by Edvard Munch


BEGUN IN THE SUMMER OF 1913, DELIUS'S Requiem was to all intents and purposes completed in little more than a year. ' "My "North Country Sketches" are ready & also my "Requiem",' was the composer's report from his French village home of Grez-sur-Loing to Philip Heseltine on 26 October 1914.  'I shall take them with me to America & perhaps conduct them myself.'   Henry Wood, who had in July enquired after the Requiem, had been promised the work – provided it could be finished in time – for the winter season.  Beecham, slower off the mark, had asked for it at the beginning of October, also with a view to performing it during the winter.  But the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914 was to put paid to any hopes of a London performance in the foreseeable future, and with the theatre of war rapidly widening to take in the Atlantic, Delius was before long forced to abandon his American aspira­tions.  What the order of these events makes abun­dantly clear is that the later proposition that the Requiem represents a consciously anti-war statement on Delius's part – a response to the events of 1914-18 – is very much wide of the mark.  Even the dedication 'to the memory of all young artists fallen in the war' is an afterthought, dating as it does from the spring of 1918.

We do know that the finished draft score of October 1914 underwent a modicum of revi­sion.  Beecham, for example, records at least some work on the Requiem while Delius was in England for a time in 1915.  And the composer returned once more to his last at the beginning of 1916, doing some work on the ending of the piece before reporting to Heseltine on 15 March that his composition was 'quite finished in the com­plete full score'.  However, whether or not very much real revision was undertaken during the preparation of this 'finished' score, dated (as is the published version) 1914, remains unclear.

From a sketch for Part IV of the
Requiem 'To the memory of all Young
Artists fallen in the war' (reproduced
with kind permission of
The Delius Trust).

No documentation has yet been found to shed light on the consultative process that must have taken place, most probably in the earlier part of 1914, between the composer and his librettist, Heinrich Simon.  The shaping of the Requiem and its extraor­dinary text is, consequently, almost completely shrouded in mystery.  Simon, a wealthy German Jew then in his early thirties, was a quite extraordinary polymath: political economist, writer and translator, art historian, musicologist and practising musician and, finally, editor and proprietor since 1910 of the Frankfurter Zeitung, an important and long-estab­lished daily.  We do not even know how he and Delius met, but they were quite possibly first brought together through the agency of their mutual friend, the artist Ida Gerhardi.

As to the text of the Requiem, there can be little doubt that its general shape and content owe much to Delius himself.  Indeed, until very recently it was actually ascribed to him, with no mention of Simon either in the autograph manuscript or in the published score.  Only the bringing to light of the composer's contract with Universal Edition for this particular work has served finally to make it clear that Simon was the author.  More recently still, a letter of Ida Gerhardi's from 1915 has been published in which she mentions possessing a copy of 'the Requiem by Heinz S.'   Final confirmation, if needed, is offered by a letter from Simon to Universal in 1921, for there is an exchange between Delius and his publisher recording some surprise at Simon's apparent request for a royalty on his text in connection with a planned German performance.  In England it was Philip Heseltine's translation that would be used for the very first performance: this was at a Royal Philharmonic Society concert conducted by Albert Coates at Queen's Hall on 23 March 1922.  The English text has some incidental felicities and sings well, but it is on the whole an embarrassing piece of work, even if executed by one of Delius's greatest admirers, and its use ought now to be discontinued. Requiescat in pace.

Simon's spare text is far more arresting and direct.  Interestingly, Delius had first asked Ernest Newman to undertake the task of translation (having earlier asked him for advice on how to characterize in musical terms various religions).  Newman's gifts as a translator from the German were considerable, but he had declined. Heseltine disliked almost eve­rything about the Requiem, but Delius did not know this at the time.  The younger man was perplexed by the confused message it seemed to be trying to convey and his heart was simply never in the task.

Any relationship between Simon's text and the conventional Mass for the repose of the souls of the dead is virtually impossible to discern. Delius made it abundantly clear to his friends that the work was'not religious', an understatement if ever there was one.  He apparently intended to call his piece 'Pagan Requiem', a title that, was not discarded until shortly before performance and publication. Pantheism would appear to be the nearest it gets to any creed, and the quasi-Nietzschean text is effectively a sum­mation of most of the principles by which Delius led his own life.  Indeed, it might be felt that there are more parallels with Das Lied von der Erde, first performed (and also published by Universal) in 1911, than with the overtly religious connotation of a requiem mass.  Might a score of Mahler's work have been seen by Delius or Simon?  Or, more conceiv­ably, could Simon have been present at one of the earliest performances of Das Lied?  The question is certainly begged by startling (but apparently hitherto unremarked) textual similarities between the two works.

Tragedy was to shadow Delius's Requiem.  Its dedication was formulated just months before the son of his favourite sister Clare was killed in action, shortly before the Armistice.  Heinz Simon, ever a great devotee of Delius's music, always ready to entertain the Deliuses regally when they came to Frankfurt and himself a frequent visitor to Grez-sur-Loing, was to be hounded from Germany in 1934. He settled in American in 1939, but fell cruelly victim to yet another European war when he was murdered on the orders of the Nazis in Washington DC in 1941.  His respected Frankfurter Zeitung, staple reading for years of the Deliuses (its musical columns frequently being written by Simon himself), was finally closed down by Hitler in 1943.

The Requiem, in five sections, is a cool work, taking its tone from the inherent solemnity of Simon's text. In the comparative astringency of its harmonic texture it may be said to be characteristic of the sound-world of Delius's late middle period (from 1909 to 1917), in other words from the time Delius immersed himself in his psychological music-drama Fennimore and Gerda right through until Eventyr was completed.  All the larger pieces for orchestra or for voices and orchestra composed during this period bear witness, in Anthony Payne's words, to 'a sug­gestion of autumn after the summer of the previous works.'  They have, in other words, a harder edge than the music that has gone before and than that which is still to come. Whatever warmth there is in the Requiem finds expression only in its final sec­tion, when the coming of spring and summer is hymned, in true Delian fashion, as exultantly as life itself is hymned in the Mass of a decade earlier.  The orchestral writing remains throughout as assured as ever, and the eight-part choral writing is Delius at his magical peak, from the swirling opening of the work to its exhilarating and triumphant climax, after which the orchestra dissolves into a Mahlerian Ewigkeit, the celesta imparting other-worldly echoes as the music recedes into unimaginable dimensions of time and space.

Of the two soloists, the soprano has the more grateful vocal line, while the baritone, not for the first time in Delius, is frequently asked to span awkward intervals and in places must find difficulty in projecting above the orchestra. But it has to be said that even if this apparent shortcoming, together with what was seen to be a puzzling text, was picked on by the critics at the first performance, there was also an awareness in some quarters that insufficient rehearsal of a difficult new work might have been partly to blame for its generally lukewarm reception.  The Morning Post, for example, was not alone, on the one hand, questioning the quality of the performance and, on the other, complimenting Delius on his Requiem: "The matter and manner are distinguished by the high originality that has never been wanting in Mr Delius's music."  The work was to enjoy a far more glowing reception in Frankfurt on 1 May of that same year, but was nonetheless to disappear from European concert platforms for over forty years.  More recent performances, most notably by Charles Groves and Meredith Davies, have at least revealed a work of great distinction and often thrilling beauty of sound.  It might not be possible to go all the way with him, but one can now perhaps at last under­stand why in 1918 Delius felt impelled to write of his Requiem: 'I don't think I have ever done better'.

Frederick Delius in 1912, by Jelka Delius

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