Even Sir Thomas Beecham, who championed the music of Frederick Delius for more than half a century, could work up little enthusiasm for the composer's "Requiem" (1916), completed amid the carnage of World War I.
"Ostensibly a lament for the youth of all nations, fallen and still falling in Europe's greatest tribal war, it is in reality an attack on Christian doctrine and the generally accepted Christian way of life," Beecham wrote in his biography of the composer. "That Frederick was not a Christian was generally known. That he was entitled to hold the opinions he cherished so tenaciously was his uncontested privilege but that he should now and later rarely cease to force them upon others was an unattractive manifestation of growing egotism." Eric Fenby, who served as Delius's assistant in the last years of the composer's life (an association commemorated in Ken Russell's tender, underrated early film "Song of Summer"), was less censorious. He called the "Requiem" Delius's own "singularly personal lament for all that in his judgment cramps the human spirit in its all too brief, meaningless life here on earth" -- the "tale of falsehoods and golden visions," the "house of lies" of religion as Christian and Mohammedan cry in vain for God. The love of woman, courage to live fearlessly and then, still more, die fearlessly, though death be total extinction -- this for Delius was the crown of life."
As far back as 1968, Fenby called the "Requiem" the "most neglected" of the composer's important works. It still is, and I don't predict a rise in its stock anytime soon. The work's blunt agnosticism makes it unsuitable for presentation in houses of worship, and even many secular choristers -- and audience members -- will find the words offensive.
I happen to love the piece. It is not that I am necessarily in agreement with Delius's Nietzschean sympathies. But his bleak pessimism does not seem an inappropriate response to World War I, especially since -- almost 85 years after the cessation of hostilities -- nobody has ever quite managed to tell us what it was all about.
Moreover, much of the music is original and beautiful. The "Requiem," which lasts a little more than half an hour, is a work both austere and impassioned, scored for a huge chorus and orchestra but employing them both sparely. There are solo parts allotted for both man and woman (typically, for Delius, he gives the male solos to a baritone rather than a tenor). The music is, by turns, stoical, anguished, lyrical, exhilarated (in its rapturous affirmation of "eternal renewal") and finally imbued with a meditative calm that, paradoxically, calls to mind nothing so much as the biblical "peace that passeth all understanding." These closing moments, scored for celesta, harp, glockenspiel, winds and strings, may also remind listeners of the chiming, mantric music of the Far East -- even, at times, of the minimalism of Steve Reich.
There have been two recordings of the "Requiem." The easiest to find has long been the performance with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, under the direction of Richard Hickox, with soprano Rebecca Evans and baritone Peter Coleman-Wright, as part of a two-CD set on Chandos, released in 1997, that also includes Delius's grandest choral work, "A Mass of Life." But now the first recording of the "Requiem," from 1968, featuring the young Heather Harper and John Shirley-Quirk with the Royal Choral Society and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, under Meredith Davies, has been reissued as an import by EMI Classics. It is equally fine and also contains the early duet "Once I Passed Through a Populous City" and one of Delius's splendiferous Whitman settings -- the aching, elegiac "Songs of Farewell" for double chorus.
Beecham disliked the "Requiem" so much that he never even conducted it, let alone ventured to record it. Fortunately, he left many other performances of the composer's works -- including complete recordings of "A Mass of Life" and of the opera "A Village Romeo and Juliet." Now Naxos has brought out a three-CD set with a good sampling of Beecham's earliest Delius discs, at an unusually attractive list price of $23.99.
Much of the Delius we know best -- gently melancholy and not at all controversial -- is contained within, whether the lush, evanescent nature pieces such as "In a Summer Garden," "On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring," "Summer Night on the River" and "La Calinda" from the "Florida Suite" or the celebrated place portraits "Appalachia" and "Paris: The Song of a Great City."
Best of all is the recording of "Sea Drift," perhaps Delius's most affecting composition, in a 1936 performance with the American baritone John Brownlee. This setting of a portion of Whitman's "Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking" tells the story of a young bird-watcher; his distant, lyrical fascination with a certain mated pair of migrating "guests from Alabama"; the subsequent disappearance of the she-bird and the male's bewilderment; and a final, awed acceptance of loss -- "We two together no more." It may sound corny; it couldn't be more wrenching and lovely.