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Born in England in 1852, Delany came to New South Wales in infancy with his parents. He studied with the Benedictine monks at Lyndhurst College, Sydney, and had music lessons from William Cordner, organist of St Mary's Cathedral.
After a stint as violinist in the orchestra of the Victoria Theatre, he was appointed choirmaster at St Mary's Cathedral in 1872 and organist in 1874, but resigned in 1877 to become chorus-master of the Lyster Opera Company. Nellie Melba made her Sydney debut under his baton.
From 1885 until 1897 he was conductor of the Sydney Liedertafel, and in 1886 he returned to St Mary's Cathedral as musical director (and from 1895 again as organist). He resigned from these posts in 1897 when the cathedral authorities prevented him from including women in the choir.
With Alfred Hill and Hugo Alpen, Delany was one of the conductors of the massed choirs at the inauguration of the Commonwealth on New Year's Day 1901 in Centennial Park. He conducted the Sydney (and Australian) premiere of Edward Elgar's great oratorio The Dream of Gerontius in Sydney Town Hall on 21 December 1903.
Delany composed at least two choral masses, which earned him the sobriquet 'The Australian Gounod'. His Mass in A Flat was first performed for Christmas 1892. Several of Delany's works are preserved in the Veech Library at the Catholic Institute of Sydney.
His most notable secular compositions are the cantata Captain Cook, to words by PE Quinn (its overture has been recorded), and his 'Song of the Commonwealth', composed for the swearing-in of the first governor-general in 1901.
Delany died in Paddington, Sydney, on 11 May 1907. The monument on Delany's grave in Waverley Cemetery is inscribed with a theme from one of his Masses.
EJ Lea-Scarlett, 'John Albert Delany', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 4, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1972, pp 41–42