Mitternachtslied Zarathustras (1898)

By Robert Threlfall, Advisor, The Delius Trust, London

Written for the concert Beyond Good and Evil: Nietzshe and Music, performed on March 8, 2000 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Towards the end of his life, Delius told Eric Fenby that he became acquainted with the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche in the 1880s during a holiday spent in Norway. In January 1896 he first met his wife-to-be, Jelka Rosen, in Paris, and her later reminiscences state that the composer was then already familiar with Zarathustra. She also recalled an occasion at her house in Grez-sur-Loing a year later, when he played his setting of the famous Midnight Song, Noch ein Mal, for baritone voice and piano. Among the manuscripts recently deposited in the British Library, London, by the Delius Trust is a scrap of paper bearing the words of this very piece in Jelka’s writing; there also is a manuscript copy, likewise probably in her hand, of the song in question (it has been published in the Collected Edition, Volume 18b).

From the following year (1898) date four more settings of Nietzsche’s words for voice and piano, but the texts then chosen are not drawn from Zarathustra. That same year, however, a much larger score entitled on the manuscript Mitternachts-Lied Zarathustras was completed—the present setting for baritone solo, men’s chorus and full orchestra, which expands the solo song already mentioned and prefaces it with an extended sequence for the solo voice using words also chosen from Das trunkne Lied, the chapter in question. It is of incidental interest to note that Book 4 of Zarathustra, in which this passage occurs, was only made commercially available in 1892 and therefore cannot have formed part of Delius’s initiation into Nietzsche’s work, which took place at a time when only Books 1-3 had been published. This Mitternachtslied, a work then specially cherished by its composer, was first performed in London on 30 May 1899 at a concert exclusively devoted to his music; further performances took place in Elberfeld in 1902 and Basle in 1903.

By then Delius was contemplating a definitive and much-extended setting of Nietzche’s words which was to become his A Mass of Life. An elaborate choral movement for women’s voices and orchestra had already been completed by May 1904 and later that same year, during a working holiday spent with Fritz Cassirer (who had recently introduced Delius’s opera Koanga in Elberfeld), a further selection of passages considered suitable for musical treatment had been chosen from Nietzsche’s book. Intensive work then continued until the bulky score was completed by Autumn 1905. At its close the music of the Mitternachtslied of 1898 was incorporated in its entirety, but women’s voices were then added to the choral sections and five bars of the original quiet ending were deferred by the introduction of an entirely new final episode for the whole vocal and instrumental forces.

Once the Mass of Life was completed, published and played the original performing material of the Mitternachslied section was no doubt placed aside and has apparently long since disappeared. For the present revival, however, it has proved comparatively simple to reconstruct the earlier movement by reference to its surviving manuscript score and by turning to the published material for the final movement of the Mass, eliminating the women’s voices from the choir and restoring the original 5-bar ending instead of the elaborate climax written for the later work. It appears that this revival is not only the first hearing of the original piece in the USA but is probably the first performance in this form anywhere for almost 100 years.

Delius’s richly orchestrated setting opens with a soft drum roll and a slow, rising scale in the basses which recurs a number of times. A four-note, bell-like figure is increasingly woven into the texture as the movement proceeds. It is this last which dominates the final entry of the chorus and underpins the quiet closing bars.

The program of the present concert gives and interesting opportunity for comparison between Delius’s setting and Richard Strauss’s almost-contemporary tone poem, both works inspired by the words of the same prose-poet, Friedrich Nietzsche.