Sunday, January 29, 2017

Frederick Delius And His Unbound Landscapes From The Soul

The composer, 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 - woolen textiles - to pursue a love for the arts, in this case, music. The break first took him to Solano Grove and an citrus 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, and devoted his life to composition.

Delius is an interesting character in western music. He patterned much of his style 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 American working on the Florida plantation.  The result was a vivid soundscape so unique that this quote appeared in the New York Times in 1929:

Delius belongs to no school, follows no tradition and is like no other composer in the form, content, or style of his music.

Almost a century later I think that quote remains intact. The impressionistic style may align him with the English school but he has a significant place in American music history having been the first classical composer to use musical themes of black Americans in the South. Those themes appear in several of his composition more than forty years before George Gershwin and Porgy and Bess. All of his work is rich, melodic, and complex. It is demanding music for the conductor, performer and listener alike, and music that demands an acquired appreciation. Today, his appreciation and popularity continue to grow but I believe he remains a relatively obscure figure in 20th century music outside of Great Britain.

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. Here is Song of Summer, a piece from his late period. 

The occasion of the 150th birthday of the composer in 2012 gave rise to several special programs, concerts, and documentaries. The best of the lot in my opinion is filmmaker John Bridcut's BBC documentary, Delius: Composer, Lover, Enigma. Granted it is ninety minutes long but it is first-rate work in every respect and a far better way to explore Delius than to read about him. I hope you will take the time to watch even if you have to do it in two or three segments. If you enjoy the classics and American music history you will not be disappointed.

Years ago, I had the opportunity to sit alone on a dock watching the evening move over the St. Johns River landscape not far from Solano Grove. Delius's music was in my head and all the beauty of "Old Florida" was in my heart. He had likely walked the river's edge at that very place, watched the same sun glistening on the water, heard the worker's songs blending with those of insects and the wind rustling the reeds and nearby palmettos. It was an immersive experience for me. Events like that become fixed in memory. They emerge as compelling memories meant to be shared. I'm more than happy to share this one and encourage readers to continuing exploring its subject.

Happy listening!

Music is a cry of the soul. It is addressed and should appeal instantly to the soul of the listener. It is a revelation, a thing to be reverenced.
                                                                                                   Frederick Delius


Photos and Illustrations:
Delius portrait, by his wife, Jelka Rosen, painted in Grez-sur-Loing, France, 1912. Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne, Australia

The Delius Society, website and Facebook page
Before the Champions: Frederick Delius' Florida Suite for Orchestra, Mary E. Greene., M.A. Thesis, University of Miami, 2011
Radio Swiss Classic, Frederick Delius,, Frederick Delius

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