Thursday, November 10, 2011

At odds with classical music's middlebrow audience


With Remembrance Sunday approaching there are attempts elsewhere to breathe life back into John Foulds' World Requiem, a work that was certified dead four years ago. Quite why resuscitation is being attempted is a mystery, particularly as there is another neglected large scale choral work that deals with similar Gnostic themes, and which also has the distinct advantage of being rather a good piece of music.

The neglect of Frederick Delius' A Mass of Life (Eine messe des Lebens) is one of classical music's many mysteries. Like the World Requiem and that other twitterati favourite, Havergal Brian's Gothic Symhony, A Mass of Life is very loud with a score that calls for full orchestra, chorus and four soloists. In fact the forces match those in that ├╝ber fashionable work, Mahler's Eighth Symphony. And talking of musical icons, the final section of Delius' Mass sets Nietzche's 'O Mensch! Gib Acht!', as does Mahler's Third Symphony. In fact A Mass of Life is a setting of passages from Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra, which makes it a first cousin not only of a Mahler symphony but also of one of the most popular works in the repertoire, Richard Strauss' eponymous tone poem.

Despite this alignment of musical constellations A Mass of Life remains curiously neglected and its last BBC Proms outing was in 1988 under the grossly underrated Sir Charles Groves. It is available in CD format on a two disc overview of Delius' choral music conducted by Richard Hickox on Chandos. However there is no recording in the CD catalogue by Sir Thomas Beecham who was by far the most compelling advocate of the work. There is an MP3 download of Beecham's account available for £7.49 which I have not heard, but if any music cries out for hi-res sound it is this multi-layered Mass.

In Electric Eden Rob Young suggests that the neglect of A Mass of Life is because Delius' "visionary setting of Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra, and its uncompromising atheism, are at odds with the verities of classical music's middlebrow audience". Peter J. Piries' 1979 book The English Musical Renaissance, which provided a much more accurate preview of John Foulds' World Requiem than the social media pundits, is also worth reading on A Mass of Life. Pirie judges it to be "a mixture of styles" but declares that "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts" and suggests that it should be taken up by "a young university choir of today, who would take the sensuous and libertarian sentiments and sing in the uninhibited way Delius wanted..."

Let’s dispel the myth once and for all that merit accumulated by trending on Twitter somehow reincarnates a minor piece of music as a masterpiece. But as classical music struggles to reach out beyond its traditional middlebrow audience there is a case for reassessing Delius' A Mass of Life, a work eloquently described by Rob Young as celebrating "the supremacy of humankind, as it conquers Time and gains entrance to Eternity". And talking of Remembrance Sunday, why no Requiem atonal?

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4 comments:

Pliable said...

There seems to be a hi-resolution download of Beecham's recording of A Mass of Life available from Pristine Classical -

http://www.pristineclassical.com/LargeWorks/Orchestral/PASC270.php

Gavin Plumley said...

I entirely agree about both the Foulds and the Brian... the latter is a particularly otiose piece of nonsense. But, dear Pliable, you and I both have to be careful of these sorts of protestations:

Let’s dispel the myth once and for all that merit accumulated by trending on Twitter somehow reincarnates a minor piece of music as a masterpiece.

If it's put on a blog, it ain't no guarantee either. That Olde picture is, however, wonderful.

Pliable said...

Thanks for that contribution Gavin.

I entirely agree about both the Foulds and the Brian... the latter is a particularly otiose piece of nonsense. But, dear Pliable, you and I both have to be careful of these sorts of protestations:

Let’s dispel the myth once and for all that merit accumulated by trending on Twitter somehow reincarnates a minor piece of music as a masterpiece.

If it's put on a blog, it ain't no guarantee either.


That is precisely why I listed Peter J Piries' constructive criticisms of A Mass of Life. And it also why I avoided promoting the work as great music, but instead suggested there is a case for reassessment.

Gavin Plumley said...

Well, Piries may be moderately critical, but he's generally pro... and I note that Rob Young is described as eloquent, whereas the crowd that hail the Brian are mere 'twitterati'. Being partisan is fine, but sacred cows shouldn't rise on the back of other people's fall (to mix metaphors). Now, excuse me, I've go to return to my Mahler 8!