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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



DELIUS Song of Summer.
A film by Ken Russell.
Written by Ken Russell and Eric Fenby and based on the book Delius as I knew him by Eric Fenby. Produced and directed by Ken Russell. Starring Max Adrian as Frederick Delius, Maureen Pryor as Jelka Delius, and Christopher Gable as Eric Fenby.
Black and white. 72 minutes. British Film Institute.
DVD version: BFIVD518
(with director's biography and commentary).
Amazon UK £18.99
Video version: VHS BFIV101
Amazon UK £11.99


Available now at long last on commercial release is one of the finest music documentaries ever made. Song of Summer is a film produced and directed by Ken Russell for BBC Television's arts programme Omnibus and first shown on 15th September 1968. But it is more than a film about Delius: it is a vivid and deeply moving account of how the 22-year-old Eric Fenby worked with the blind and paralysed composer, an ordeal and an achievement surely without parallel in the history of music. Through a painfully slow process of dictation emerged, amongst other works, the magnificent Songs of Farewell, the orchestral tone-poem A Song of Summer (from which the film takes its title), and the third violin sonata. More harrowing still is how Fenby nursed the dying Delius during the three weeks that Jelka Delius was absent, undergoing an operation in hospital, with Delius dying only two days after her return. All this is wonderfully portrayed through direction and performances of incomparable quality.

Whatever may be said of Russell's later work either in the cinema or for television, his early BBC films culminating in Song of Summer represented the work of an exciting and extraordinary talent. After serving in the Merchant Navy and the RAF, Russell unsuccessfully ventured into ballet and acting before taking up photography. On the merits of some short films that he had made, in 1959 he was offered a job at the BBC, succeeding John Schlesinger. Before tackling Delius, with the encouragement of Huw Weldon, Russell had made films on Elgar (1962), Bartók (1964), Debussy (1965) and other subjects, not exclusively related to music such as Le Douanier Rousseau (1965), Isadora Duncan (1966) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1967). Here an imaginative mind either benefited from or worked cleverly within the Corporation's restraints. It was with the excesses of his next film, on Richard Strauss (1969), that he parted company with the BBC. The policies governing BBC arts programmes over thirty years ago were strange indeed. When Russell came to make his earlier Monitor documentaries on Prokofiev, Bartók and Elgar, no actor was allowed to speak the composer's words. While in the Elgar film three non-speaking actors portrayed the composer at different stages of his life, no close-ups were permitted. It is fortunate that such attitudes no longer prevailed when Russell came to make his Delius film in 1968.

In the director's commentary that is spoken in the DVD version over a replay of the film, Russell explains how he had wanted for some time to make a film on Delius but his previous treatments had been either too romantic or too melodramatic. He had been drawn first to the young Delius in his Florida days and had even tried filming an impressionistic Spring sequence for which he took a crew to the Lake District, with an actor portraying Delius and a girl who would jump naked into a lake. Fortunately, one might say, it rained for five days and he was forced to abandon that idea. It was only when he read Eric Fenby's book, Delius as I knew him (which was re-issued in 1966) that he found the ideal basis for a script.

Whereas Huw Weldon's commentary roots the Elgar film firmly in the realms of documentary, Song of Summer, with its limited use of narrative, extends the boundaries into drama. Russell's great skill is not just in the camera work but in the images he created, and even more importantly in his extraordinarily successful fusion of music and image. Who can ever forget in the Elgar film the sound of the Introduction and Allegro accompanying the composer as he cycled vigorously through Worcestershire countryside? Images such as the crucifixes on the Malvern Hills are indelibly etched on the viewer's mind, just as in the Bartók documentary the sad picture of the old composer straining an ear as he listened to his folk-song cylinders is not easily forgotten. Song of Summer is full of such brilliant touches. With the photography of Dick Bush combined with Russell's imaginative directing, Song of Summer surely represents a golden era in television documentary. Arts programmes of this calibre are just not being made today.

The one question anyone watching this film will want to ask is whether, by and large, it is accurate. In 1986 I put this question to Eric Fenby and he picked out only three details that had troubled him:

Unfortunately I was ill throughout the whole filming and saw the film for the first time at home. Had I ever been on the set, several things would have been quite different. Ken Russell was very anxious to be faithful to the script. Jelka would not have appeared slightly dotty, nor giggly in describing her mountain descent. She was a highly intelligent woman who came from a family of German diplomats, spoke several languages from childhood fluently, and was remarkably equable in character considering the sustained daily pressures on her. My father was portrayed without collar and tie playing chess. I never saw him without collar and tie; he was something of a dandy and couldn't play chess. I was shocked when the scene with the priest was included for it is not in my book. Russell, like me, being a Catholic, it was meant for his ears alone. Otherwise it was a remarkable representation.

The erring priest was played by Russell himself.

Another moment in the film that might seem to have the mark of Russell was confirmed by Fenby as being genuine: 'I have often been asked whether or not the sprinkling of rose petals over his body was a touch of Ken Russell's fantasy. No, that actually happened at daybreak that morning. Strange, perhaps, to English ways, but it was Jelka's wish, and she did it herself from a wheel-chair.' As for Max Adrian's Delius, Fenby commented: 'Max Adrian was exactly as I remember Delius. I coached him in the inflexions of Delius's voice, and the way he sat, the way he held his hands. And, of course, what really I think was the most remarkable piece of acting in that very remarkable film, to my mind, was the speed of the dictation, because I had given them various samples from my book Delius as I knew him of how to do it. But I didn't think it would be possible for them to do it so remarkably because Delius dictated with the very greatest rapidity.' Asked about the representation of himself in that film, he replied: 'I can only say from what one can judge from that kind of experience, which must be something unique and a great privilege, was to find somebody so sensitive chosen by Ken Russell as Christopher Gable.'

One of the film's many strengths is the convincing performance by Christopher Gable in his first television acting role. Gable had previously made his name in ballet, resigning from the Covent Garden Royal Ballet in 1967 in order to pursue an acting career. Russell had wanted to use him in a film on Vaclav Nijinsky that never materialised. After Song of Summer he appeared in Russell's films The Boyfriend (1971, also with Max Adrian) and The Rainbow (1989). In 1982 he went on to found the Central School of Ballet, London, and five years later was appointed Artistic Director of the Northern Ballet with which he will be remembered by many in the role of L. S. Lowry in Gillian Lynne's ballet A Simple Man. He died in 1998, from cancer.

Another question that viewers will want to ask is 'Was the film made in France at Grez-sur-Loing?' Those who have visited Grez will know that the answer is quite definitely no. But France had been considered. Fenby related how he and Ken Russell had gone on a scouting trip to Grez when the making of the film was being discussed.

We had been sent for the week-end by the BBC to see if the original settings might be used in making the proposed film. We met the new owner of the house, Madame Merle d'Aubigné, who had asked us to tea in the garden. She was somewhat alarmed at the prospect of a film being made on her doorstep, but I saw at a glance she had no cause to worry. My old quarters had been pulled down, the music-room had been made into bedrooms, the out-buildings and studios had been renovated and the garden bore evidence of much attention. From that moment I accepted the change. The tale of the Deliuses was over, and with it the place where it was lived. And as we walked up the village street with its television aerials on every chimney and modern sports cars parked by the verge, I felt a great relief of mind as if I had laid some ancient ghost.

Budgetary considerations soon put France out of the question and instead somewhere within easy reach of London had to be chosen. A suitable location was apparently found in Surrey. The opening sequence was, however, filmed in fields near Scarborough and - another touch of authenticity - the gramophone used in the film was Delius's.

Eric had other memories of the making of the film:

I little thought, when I was struggling to take down Delius's music at Grez, that one day I should see the scene enacted in my own home. Ken Russell's film was disturbingly life-like. I had not seen it before its public showing, being myself out of action during the weeks of shooting. Even so, Christopher Gable, playing me, had asked me to spare his feelings and keep away from the set. Eventually I was called to the studios to record the music of the scene where Delius, propped up in bed, listens to Percy Grainger and me playing The Song of the High Hills in the music-room. On my arrival I found Russell immersed in directing a 'retake' of my first meeting with Delius which, apparently, had not satisfied Max Adrian. I was ushered into the studio to wait, and was just in time to hear that deliberate and unforgettable greeting 'Come in, Fenby!' I had mimicked Delius weeks before at Russell's suggestion as a guide to Adrian to learning his lines and behaving like Delius, but this was too much for me - the voice, the inflection, the image of Delius sitting there, a rug over his knees, with a great screen about him, slowly extending his hand in welcome. I lived that momentous moment again, I am unashamed to say, and not without a tear. Max Adrian told me later that of all the roles he had ever played he had never before had such difficulty in ridding himself of involvement.

The recording proceeded with some interjections addressed to a mysterious character called 'Spud', who functioned unseen behind the sets, in charge of the sound equipment. In shots of the actor playing Grainger, otherwise excellent in the part, the poor fellow's lack of rhythm in simulating a keyboard technique contrived an ingenious solution from Russell. He instructed me to lie on the floor, out of range of the camera, and work 'Grainger's' arms from below appropriately in time with a 'play-back' of the music which Gable and I had recorded previously. Then, when shots of his hands were required, Russell asked me to take his place. The camera revealed a further incongruity as yet unnoticed by us all. His trousers were checked and mine were plain. So mine were whipped off and his put on, and camera and music resumed in unison. This was my active contribution to the film, apart from collaborating with Russell on the script.

Inevitably, in trying to compress into a seventy-five-minute film the events spanning (intermittently) over five years, the director required some licence in order to produce a satisfactory whole. This resulted in a few oddities. Delius and Fenby could not have listened to Appalachia on 78s: the work was not recorded until 1938. Jelka in reality may not have fumbled with the 78s quite as much as she does here (evidence of that 'dottiness'), but when Delius chides her for putting on the wrong side of The Walk to the Paradise Garden (the start of side 2 - one bar before figure 9) she corrects herself by putting on the 'other side' which starts a mere six bars further on ! The 78 side then runs out before the very end, obviously film time being too precious for the work to be heard to its conclusion. The mountain climbing sequence, in which Delius is carried to the summit to see one last sunset before his blindness became total, was for convenience shot in the Lake District, but it was surely a mistake to have Delius seen at one moment carried across so recognisable a beauty spot as Buttermere. And at the end the radio announcement of Delius's death gives the wrong year for his birth - 1863 instead of 1862 (an error that used to be found even in some music dictionaries).

Some moments are musically extremely moving: when, for example, Song of Summer swells up orchestrally after Fenby and Delius have successfully worked on a tiny section of the score at the piano, and again when all the passion in that work surges forth while Jelka is sprinkling rose petals over Delius's body. Then there is the clever music loop endlessly repeating three bars from 'Winter Landscape' in North Country Sketches to suggest the monotony of the Grez routine. The blending of two pianos playing The Song of the High Hills into the orchestral version is another neat piece of continuity, leading to that magnificent choral climax when, after so much cloud and mist, Delius actually witnesses a sunset. These moments never fail to stir. Percy Grainger provides a much needed few moments of comic relief, his feet-first entry being a delightful Russell touch.

Russell is comparatively sparing in the use of music: in the original film almost five minutes elapse before a note of Delius's is heard, and then so well chosen: the magical entry of women's voices from the Prelude to Act 111 of Hassan as Fenby enters the Delius house filled with canvases by Edvard Munch. 'I was now left alone,' Fenby described the moment in Delius as I knew him. 'A full-sized face of mad Strindberg by Munch frowned down at me over the foot of the bed, and over the head was a framed photograph of Nietzsche. More fantastic creations of Munch, dark with suicide, hung high up on the walls.' Russell seems to have assembled a veritable Munch museum. Visible in the house are such famous works as Puberty, The Dance of Life, Madonna, The Kiss, Jealousy, The Death of Marat 1, The Scream, and a portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche. There, too, is Gauguin's Nevermore (it would have been the copy made by Jelka), appropriately on full view in the final scene.

The version of Song of Summer available on video and DVD is a fraction shorter than the original Omnibus film which began with a masterstroke of deception: a 1'20" sequence showing part of a Laurel and Hardy film on a cinema screen and Eric Fenby improvising an accompaniment on a cinema organ. As he recalled in 1969 : 'I was a church organist before I went to Delius, but once when a cinema organist was ill I had to take his place. When I told Ken about this he immediately decided to put it in the opening of the film, so I had to improvise on the BBC organ to a Laurel and Hardy film, having not touched an organ for twenty-five years!' For copyright reasons this sequence had to be omitted in this commercial release, although the packaging states 'featuring music specially composed by Eric Fenby'. The video and DVD versions open with the title frame 'Ken Russell's Song of Summer' whereas originally the film's title 'Omnibus presents Song of Summer' did not appear until start of the railway journey. Another much shorter sequence has inexplicably been removed: the scene of Fenby, rosary in his hand, to the words 'Music had nearly led me to the church; it had certainly converted me to the Roman Catholic faith. It had also led me here.'

In the same way that the Elgar film provided a tremendous boost to the general public's interest in the composer and his music (then at a very low ebb), so Song of Summer introduced a large television audience to Delius. Just as with the familiar James Gunn portrait of Delius, the image it created was so strong that it is invariably the Delius of the last years to comes to people's minds whenever his name is mentioned. The release of the Elgar film, scheduled for Autumn 2001, should be imminent. In the mean time no-one interested in Delius should be without a copy of Song of Summer. It has not dated at all and it repays repeated viewing (in fact it has been the most repeated of all Ken Russell's BBC films) and remains a fine tribute to Eric Fenby's sacrifice and self-less devotion.

Stephen Lloyd

British Film Institute


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