A Mass of Life is based upon Also sprach Zarathustra, discovered by Delius on a trip to Norway: is a purely humanistic liturgy.
Frederick Delius composed A Mass of Life in 1904-05, the same period in which he saw the birth of splendid works like Appalachia or his Piano Concerto. The texts come from Also sprach Zarathustra, discovered by Delius on a trip to Norway, and for such reason A Mass of Life is a purely humanistic liturgy; one in which mankind’s joyful thoughts and actions have replaced a heavenly Paradise.
In the words of Eric Fenby, a close friend of Delius: “When, one wet day . . . he was looking for something to read in the library of a Norwegian friend with whom he was staying during a walking tour, and had taken down a book, Thus Spake Zarathustra . . . he was ripe for it. It was the very book he had been seeking all along.”
Delius is commonly defined as an impressionist composer, in light of the innovations introduced by composers such as Claude Debussy after passing the romantic and late romantic model; his work, substantially meditative and introverted, melancholic and evocative, naturally inclined to a non-trivial form of musical descriptive style, is influenced by Edvard Grieg, who was a friend of Delius.
The discovery of the work of Delius is mainly due to the great conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, who in 1907, during a London visit by Delius, was impressed by his music, and soon after recorded and played great part of his production, bringing it to public attention.
Beecham himself conducted the full premiere of A Mass of Life in London, in 1909.
Written for a massive ensemble – 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 – A Mass of Life is constituted by two blocks of respectively 5 and 6 sections.
It's a massive humanistic liturgy, a masterpiece among secular choral works, well worth of the spotlight in today's season programming.
To dig deeper into int and listen to Sir Thomas Beecham talking about Delius and this work, take a look at this article: