Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Frederick Delius: Painting With Music

Frederick Delius                                         Jelka Rosen Delius, 1912

Years ago, I had the opportunity to sit alone on a dock immersed in a Florida sunset across the St Johns River not far from Solano Grove. This music was in my head:

I'd be perfectly honest saying that all the beauty of La Florida was in my heart that day. The sensations were obvious; the music of Frederick Delius made them sublime. A century earlier, he had likely walked that very shoreline, watched the same sun glistening on the water, heard the insects and the wind rustling the reeds and nearby palmettos, and felt the evening move over the landscape. 

Frederick Delius was born on this day in Yorkshire, England, in 1862. At 24, he lived the classic story of breaking away from the family business - wool, no less - to pursue a love for the arts, in this case, music. The break was interesting for it took him first to Solano Grove and an orange plantation on the banks of the St. Johns River south of Jacksonville, Florida. Later, he would teach music in Danville, Virginia, before returning to Europe for formal education in Germany. He took the sounds of American culture with him. In 1888, he settled in Paris, later married the painter, Jelka Rosen - she painted the portrait above - and devoted his life to composition. In his last sixteen years he was tortured by the pain of a slow death from syphilis contracted during his early years in Paris. In the four years before his death in 1934, he was blind and essentially paralyzed from the neck down. He composed and completed some of his most significant work during this period, all of it reaching paper through the notations of his loyal amanuensis, Eric Fenby.

Delius patterned much of his music after that of his friend and fellow composer, Edvard Grieg, but tempered it with English impressionism, his love of naturalism, and folk themes he heard among African Americans working on his father's grapefruit plantation near Solano Grove. The result was a unique and demanding music for performer and listener alike and one that almost demands an acquired appreciation. From his death until the 1970's many in the classical music industry thought his compositions were "too sweet" and trapped in immature cliches. Today, his popularity continues to grow but I believe he remains an underappreciated figure in 20th century music.  

Forty years have passed since that first sunset near Solano Grove. That's a long time to explore and mature in one man's music. It remains a most satisfactory experience - brushstrokes of sound. Different, immersive, and timeless.

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