Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Albert Delany (1852–1907)

by E. J. Lea-Scarlett

This article was published:

John Albert Delany (1852-1907), musician, was born on 6 July 1852 at Ratcliff, London, son of John Daniel Delany, journalist, and his wife Marie, née Walters. He went with his parents to New South Wales in infancy and had his first musical tuition at Newcastle where his father established a newspaper. Educated in Sydney by the Benedictine monks at Lyndhurst College, he began to study music with William John Cordner, organist of St Mary's Cathedral, and joined the orchestra of the Victoria Theatre as a violinist.

In 1872 Delany was appointed choirmaster at the cathedral and organist in 1874 but resigned in 1877 to join the Lyster Opera Company in Melbourne as chorusmaster. After some years with itinerant musical companies he returned to Sydney to take up a special appointment in September 1882 as musical director of the three-day celebrations marking the opening of the northern end of St Mary's Cathedral, in honour of which he composed his 'Triduum March'. After further travel he was appointed conductor at the Bijou Theatre, Melbourne, in 1884; next year he returned to Sydney to become conductor of the Liedertafel, a post which he retained until 1897; both Dame Nellie Melba and Ada Crossley made their Sydney débuts under his direction. In 1886 he was appointed musical director at St Mary's Cathedral where frequent changes in choirmasters had produced incongruities in choral standards. Delany set out to correct them by reintroducing plain-song and unaccompanied polyphony after years of neglect. His wide operatic training also qualified him to present polished performances of the concert Masses then popular. In 1894 Delany became a foundation member of the Sydney College of Music, a private conservatorium of which he later became chairman of the Board of Examiners. In 1895 on the death of Neville Barnett he added the post of organist to his other duties at the cathedral. On the inauguration of the Commonwealth in 1901 he conducted the massed choirs in Centennial Park and was one of the conductors at the State concert attended by the Duke of York. His greatest achievement was the presentation of the Australian première of Sir Edward Elgar's oratorio 'The Dream of Gerontius' in Sydney Town Hall on 21 December 1903, to mark the golden jubilee of the ordination of Patrick Francis Moran, archbishop of Sydney, who presented him with a papal decoration. Delany died at Paddington on 11 May 1907 and was buried in Waverley cemetery beneath a monument engraved with a theme from one of his Masses. His wife Jane Ann, née Sharp, whom he married in Sydney in 1872, had died in 1887 and he was survived by their two daughters, one of whom, Louisa Lilian Tridua, was named in honour of the Triduum of 1882 during which she was born.

Delany was a composer of considerable output, producing two Masses, many motets and a cantata, 'Captain Cook', to words by P. E. Quinn. Little of his work was published, although his 'Song of the Commonwealth', composed for the swearing-in of Lord Hopetoun as governor-general in 1901, was reissued in 1951 as a Catholic contribution to the Commonwealth golden jubilee. He was successful as a teacher and his best-known pupil, Harry Barton Dawkins, succeeded him as organist of St Mary's Cathedral. Delany's most important contribution to Australian music was as a conductor. The première of 'The Dream of Gerontius' showed both his skill and boldness in attempting so elaborate a work demanding unusually large orchestral and choral resources when its few performances in England had met with hostile criticism. His musical tastes were broad and even before the musical reforms of Pius X in 1903 he had advocated a re-evaluation of plain-song which he thought a superior form of church music to renaissance polyphony. He had great personal charm and was a witty and engaging conversationalist.

Select Bibliography

  • E. J. Lea-Scarlett, ‘The Music of St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney’, Organ Society, Sydney, Journal, 2 (1964), 3 (1965)
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 16 May 1907.

Citation details

E. J. Lea-Scarlett, 'Delany, John Albert (1852–1907)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 25 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


6 July, 1852
London, Middlesex, England


11 May, 1907 (aged 54)
Paddington, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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