Both Sea Drift (1903-04) and Songs of Sunset (1906-07) belong to the fertile decade following the turn of the century when Delius had assumed complete maturity and was producing a string of masterpieces. Among these, Sea Drift is regarded by many as his greatest achievement. Setting words by Walt Whitman, and scored for baritone, chorus and orchestra, the work is cast in a single span, with seven internal subsections being dictated by the text. In all his works Delius attempted to achieve a ‘sense of flow’ and Sea Drift is the supreme realisation of this vision. The soloist’s melodic line is a supple mixture of recitative and arioso into which the chorus’s commentaries effortlessly intermingled.
If in Sea Drift it is the emotions of bereavement in the wake of tragedy that are explored, in Songs of Sunset it is the brevity of life as epitomised by the work’s original title, Songs of Twilight and Sadness. Thoughts of transcience haunted Delius, so it was natural that he was drawn to the fin de siecle of Ernest Dowson, with its symbols of ardent, sensual desire combined with those of decay, autumn and death.
Sea Drift and Songs of Sunset were written in the white heat of Delius’s vigorous maturity. Circumstances behind the composition of Songs of Farewell (1929-30), however, could hardly have been more different. By this time Delius was blind, crippled and helpless. As a composer he had been mute since the early 1920’s, until the offer from a young musician, Eric Fenby, to be his amanuensis kindled the sparks of creativity once more. Songs of Farewell, for double chorus and orchestra, was the finest achievement of this late harvest.