Listening to Delius

I grew up in a house full of recorded or broadcast music, largely classical – the Third Programme on the kitchen radio as my Mother cooked up a storm or records booming out of the monolithic walnut radiogram in our front room.  Not all of it was to my taste; both my parents had a terrible weakness for Gilbert & Sullivan and light opera of the ‘Merry Widow’ variety.  Yeucchh….  However, some of it stuck.  I can still remember a friend of my Mum’s giving her a copy of Sibelius’ 2nd Symphony as a birthday gift  and  what struck me most was the visceral force with which Sibelius was able to evoke the impact of a storm in a far northern forest and, to this day, I suppose that my favoutite classical music is that which somehow evokes nature.

Given that viewpoint, it was probably inevitable that I would encounter the music of Frederick Delius at some stage.  Bizarrely, the man responsible for that encounter was Ken Russell, who in the late 1960’s was a young whippersnapper making what might today be referred to as ‘dramatised documentaries’ for the BBC.  Russell had already achieved considerable acclaim for a similar BBC film about another English composer, Edward Elgar, and his Delius project was created with substantial involvement from Eric Fenby, like Delius, a Yorkshireman, who had acted as Delius’ amanuesis in his declining years.

Russell’s film – ‘A Song of Summer’ (1968) – has now finally emerged on DVD and can once again be appreciated for all of its considerable verve and style.  Apparently, delays in its release were down to a short sequence near the start of the film (removed from the DVD version) that showed Fenby playing a cinema organ in his home town of Scarborough prior to his journey to France to meet Delius.  He was accompanying a Laurel & Hardy short in this sequence and there were copyright problems with the Laurel & Hardy estate that prevented the release of Russell’s film for many years.

Starring Max Adrian as Delius and Christopher Gable as Fenby, with Maureen Prior portraying Delius’ German wife, Jelka, the film concerns itself mainly with the period between 1928 and 1934 where Fenby relocated to Delius’ home at Grez-sur-Loing, some 40 miles south of Paris, to act as his amanuesis.  Delius was by this point both blind and paralysed, yet retained the desire to compose.  Between them, the duo managed to produce a small handful of late compositions, among them the wonderful  ‘A Song of Summer’ and ‘Idyll‘, for baritone and orchestra.

Christopher Gable as Fenby (L) and Max Adrian as Delius (R)

Fenby was a Scarborough Methodist who’d turned to Catholicism, whilst Delius was a Bradford-born atheist from a wealthy background.  It’s miraculous that they found any common ground at all, but they did – and they bonded over those two bastions of  knuckle-headed Yorkshire-ism; cricket and a shared Yorkshire identity.

The Delius family were of German descent and were solidly established in that most traditional of West Yorkshire industries – wool.  Young Fritz (Frederick was a deed-poll change he made as an adult) was born in 1862 and marked down as the heir  to all the Delius business concerns, but it was quickly apparent that he had neither the aptitude or the appetite for such a role.  He demonstrated musical talent at an early stage, studying both violin and piano at school.  After an ill-fated period where he was apprenticed within the family business, the 22-year old Delius persuaded his father to allow him to take on the management of a Florida orange plantation at Solano Grove, some 35 miles south of Jacksonville.  He was never to spend any substantial amount of time resident in England from this point onward.

 Delius showed no greater business acumen when it came to growing oranges, but the Florida period was a crucial one for him.  He was profoundly affected by Florida’s sub-tropical climate, its lush landscapes and the stately pace of life in a beaten-up old shack  at Solano Grove.

 A sketch of Delius’ shack at Solano Grove

He took theory lessons and began to write his own music, producing the ‘Florida Suite’ in 1886.  This, along with a subsequent opera – ‘Koanga‘ (1895)  – borrowed heavily from the spirituals and field songs he heard across the St John’s River in the evenings from the encampments of the black workers.  It is also fairly certain that Delius fathered a child here with a black girl; the story is that he returned some years later in an attempt to acknowledge the child, but the mother, thinking that he had come to take it away, took the child and fled.

Abandoning orange-growing, Delius moved to Virginia and began teaching music but was to make a swift return to Europe when his father agreed to bankroll his son’s musical ambitions by enrolling him at the Leipzig Conservatory, where Delius studied between 1886 and 1888.  Among his teachers there was Edvard Grieg and Delius was also exposed to Wagner, another major influence.

 A Leipzig card school, 1887 – Delius second from right, Grieg, second from left

After Leipzig came Paris and another critical period in Delius’ life.  He based himself here for 10 years, mixing socially with other emigrés like Strindberg and Munch , but -significantly – not with his French contemporaries.  This meant that his music never became known in France, but more significantly, meant that Delius rarely heard his own works played.  His Parisian years were also notable for his indulgence in more earthly pleasures and it is generally assumed that it was here that Delius contracted the case of syphilis that was to reduce him to blindness and paralysis whilst still in his 50’s.

Delius’ time in Paris came to an end when he became friendly with a young German painter, Helene Jelka Rosen.  The two were initially drawn together thanks to a mutual affection for the work of Friedrich Nietzsche.  Jelka came from a moderately wealthy Schleswig-Holstein family and owned a house at Grez-sur-Loing.  Delius moved in with her and they were married in 1903.

With Jelka effectively abandoning her own career to promote Delius and with her money to support him, there now ensued a 20-year ‘golden period’ during which Delius’ powers were at their peak.  During this time, the couple travelled extensively, particularly in Scandinavia & Germany, but retained the house at Grez as their anchor.  ‘A Village Romeo and Juliet’, ‘On hearing the first cuckoo of spring’, ‘Brigg Fair’, Sea Drift’ ‘A Song of the High Hills’, ‘A Mass of Life’ – these and numerous other key works date from this fertile period during Delius’ 40’s and 50’s. 

The Delius house at Grez-sur-Loing

Another critical event occurred in 1907, when Thomas Beecham, then an up-and-coming conductor, heard his first Delius performance – of ‘Appalachia’  – in London and rapidly became a champion of Delius’ music, bringing it to a wider audience than ever before.  A group of German conductors, led by Hans Haym, were similarly popularising Delius’ music in Germany, resulting in an elevated profile and improved income.

This happy state of affairs was brought to an abrupt end by the onset of the  First World War.  Due to the proximity of German forces to Paris, Delius & Jelka temporarily abandoned Grez and relocated to England.  During this period, Delius produced his ‘Requiem’ (1916), which, like the ‘Mass of Life’ was non-Christian and based on the works of Nietzsche, something that provoked some hostility when it was performed in London in 1922.

Once the couple returned to Grez after the War, Delius began to suffer from steeply declining health as his syphilis entered a less dormant and more debilitating phase.    Despite lengthy and expensive treatments at various sanitoriums and spas across Europe, Delius was walking with two sticks by 1922 and was both blind and paralysed by 1928.  The relative prosperity of the pre-war years had disappeared for good and with Beecham absent from concert halls in the early 20’s and added expenses due to Delius’ medical bills, the house at Grez was sold to a benefactor who then allowed Delius and Jelka to continue to live there rent-free.

Jelka and Delius in the late 1920’s

It was at this point that Eric Fenby entered the picture, offering to work unpaid as Delius’ amanuesis in order to assist him to compose.  The subject matter of Ken Russell’s ‘Song of Summer’ film is based heavily on Fenby’s own recollections, many of which he set down in a book called ‘Delius as I knew him’, published in 1936.  It’s probably safe to assume that Fenby’s admiration for Delius’ music made him less critical of Delius the man, but it’s equally safe to say that the Delius of later years was a cantankerous and awkward individual,  an egotist and  often a bigot,  with a whole repertoire of fixed opinions and little regard for the sensitivities of others – least of all those closest to him.  Despite their work together, Delius would frequently castigate Fenby for his Catholicism and he showed even less mercy to Jelka, loudly advising Fenby not to marry; “No artist should ever marry” but that if he must do so, he should marry a woman who ” is more in love with your art than she is with you.”, further advising him to “amuse yourself with as many women as you like…the physical attraction soon plays itself out…”

Delius in his final years

Delius’ illness entered its final phase in 1933 at a time when Jelka herself was undegoing major surgery for bowel cancer.  Fenby returned to Grez to help nurse Delius through his final days and he died on 10th June 1934.  He had wished to be buried in the garden of the house at Grez, but the French authorities would not agree.  His second preference was for “some country churchyard in the south of England, where people could place wild flowers”, but Jelka was too unwell to make the journey, so he was temporarily interred in the churchyard at Grez.  For Jelka, there was to be one final frustration, though thankfully,  it’s unlikely that she was aware of it.   In May of 1935, she had recovered sufficiently to honour Delius’ wishes and travelled to the Channel coast with his exhumed coffin.  However, she fell ill on the crossing and was admitted to hospital in Dover suffering from pneumonia, then taken by ambulance to Kensington, where she died on the 28th, two days after Delius had been re-interred at a midnight service in St Peter’s Church at Limpsfield, near Caterham, in Surrey.  She was buried alongside him.

As Christopher Gable’s Fenby observes in Russell’s film, it is hard to reconcile Delius’ acerbic and often unpleasant character with the glorious music he produced in his lifetime.  It’s also interesting that Delius is seen as an English composer when he spent so little time in this country after his first trip to Florida in 1884.  For all that, ‘Brigg Fair’ is for many people the  epitome of the English countryside and is often set alongside the works of Butterworth, Vaughan Williams and Elgar as a prime example of of ‘English’ classical music.   However, even the most cursory examination of his published works reveals him as a true cosmopolitan, drawing his inspiration from the mountains of Norway, the balmy waters of Florida, the night-time streets of Paris and the works of his favourite writers, Nietzsche and Walt Whitman.  In this respect, it would probably be more accurate to bracket Delius with other European Late Romantics, such as Mahler and Richard Strauss.

Another anomaly is that in this country, Delius is usually seen as a composer of miniatures – ‘Summer Night on the River’, ‘Brigg Fair’, ‘A Song of Summer’ and so on.  Yet this is a man who wrote six operas, a Mass, a Requiem, concerti for violin, cello and piano and a number of large -scale choral/orchestral pieces, such as ‘Sea Drift, ‘Appalachia’ and ‘En Arabesk’.    One thing is for sure, his music is unique – even as a non-musician, I can often spot a piece of Delius within 10 seconds of it starting.  The music , aided by Russell’s film,  has stayed with me all the long years since I first heard it and I remain a huge fan for reasons I would find it hard to define – all I can say is that when I hear the opening of – for example,  ‘A Song of Summer’, which would never have existed but for Eric Fenby’s selflessness, my spirit just lifts a couple of notches.  

As Fenby once said “The music of Delius is not an acquired taste. One either likes it the moment one first hears it, or the sound of it is once and for ever distasteful to one. It is an art which will never enjoy an appeal to the many, but one which will always be loved, and dearly loved, by the few.”  Amen to that.

3 responses to “Listening to Delius

  1. Richard Strelitz

    Another great column, and ever less surprising, another coincidence of taste. While incontrovertibly a yank, I have always had an affection for English composers of the early 20th century-Walton, Vaughn WIlliams and Tippett, especially in their luxurious use of massed strings, as well as their fine, I might even say, jazz inflected rhythms. By the way, have you ever caught Kate Bush’s homage to Delius?

  2. Hi Richard,

    Thanks for your comments; clearly we should congratulate ourselves and one another for having such impeccable taste! Whilst it was seeing Ken Russell’s film again that really inspired this piece, I was, by a strange coincidence, playing the Kate Bush song a couple of weeks back. Haven’t checked the YouTube link though – will do so.

    Another connection that I never got around to is with Duke Ellington – apparently another admirer. He wrote a tune called ‘In a blue summer garden’ that he recorded in 1950 on an album of piano duets (called ‘Great Times’) with Billy Strayhorn. It’s not particularly Delius-like, but the title surely cannot be entirely coincidental.

  3. Richard Strelitz

    Hooray for us!! Spurred on by your blog, I entered Delius into my Pandora radio seed box, and damn if it wasn’t one of the nicest collections. I tried the same with the composer Alan Hovhaness ( and that too emerged with an excellent collection, including Delius. I only wish that Pandora allowed for playlists. Michael Nyman figured in both, and, as a test of your range, please try to give a listen to the CD’s by the british ensemble “Piano Circus”, 6 pianists who delight in playing neo-minimalist (they do honor to Reich, Nyman, and so many other unsung (yes, no choral works) composers of today’s avant-garde. As I am in the distended process of converting all my LP’s and CD’s to hard disk, gambling to lose it all in an errant head crash, when I run across things I think you might like but lack, I’ll put them aside, either for transcription for you or for actual transfer of possession.

    Ask me some time about my love affair with Afro Jazz from London circa 1970-80. But you know all that, don’t you?

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