Published online by Cambridge University Press: 18 June 2021
A NIETZSCHEAN LIBRETTO
The notion of a large-scale work based on Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra had probably been gestating in Delius's mind since the end of the 1890s, after completion of Mitternachtslied Zarathustras and the four experimental Nietzsche songs. As we know, after the one flirtation with Mitternachtslied Zarathustras in 1898, his creative energies were still very much diverted by his attraction to the Tristan myth, whether in Koanga or in A Village Romeo and Juliet, and, as we have seen in Sea Drift, the need to sublimate his obsession with love, death and ecstasy. Also the orchestral modernisms of Richard Strauss required some form of assimilation in Paris, Lebenstanz and Appalachia before a work such as Sea Drift was allowed to emerge with a new assurance. As mentioned previously, choral music was not an instinctive milieu for Delius. He had no practical experience of running a choir, nor participation in a choral society; indeed, Delius came more readily to the chorus through its role in opera. However, after the experience of Sea Drift, in which those facets of the opera house happily found a home in the concert room, it is not surprising that he soon came to the conclusion that choral music – on an epic scale – could, and should, be the most apposite symphonic vehicle for the expression of his concordance with Nietzsche’s Weltanschauung.
Having Mitternchtslied Zarathustras already to hand may well have been the initial incentive to proceed with his grand Nietzschean choral project. Indeed, as Threlfall has pertinently commented, the revival of the work in Basel in 1903 under Suter (after its original hearing in London under Hertz in 1899) may well have provided the critical stimulus to begin work in earnest. As we have seen repeatedly, Delius was never averse to the cannibalisation of his earlier music for new compositions, and the whole was taken over, save the final sixty bars, to be, as Fenby noted, the ‘spiritual axis’ of A Mass of Life. Even the original dedication, to his cousin Arthur Krönig, was retained in the score (while the Mass in its entirety was dedicated to Fritz Cassirer.