The life of Frederick Delius (1862-1934) has been beset with controversy. There has hardly ever been a composer who has polarized so much opinion.
As Sir Mark Elder points out in his Foreword to this impressive volume, Delius has unjustly earned the epithet ‘bad boy’ of English music, as ‘an eccentric, odd-ball rebel with limited craft’. Noted for his originality, and residing in his own particular sound-world, he abandoned the traditional forms and structures. To the casual listener, his music gives the impression of drifting without direction and destabilizing one’s aural orientation. This is further reinforced by his complex harmonic system, constant key-changes and the resulting unease elicited. ’Delius belongs to no school, follows no tradition and is like no other composer in the form, content or style of his music’, one Times critic wrote in 1929. The answer is to go with the flow, and for the performer to act intuitively.
A cosmopolitan through and through, he was born in Bradford, England, but in 1884, aged twenty-two, was sent to Solano Grove, Florida to manage his father’s orange plantation. Yet his true vocation lay in music and, despite paternal opposition, he eventually won his corner. With his father’s reluctant blessing he travelled to Germany to enroll at the Leipzig Conservatory in 1886. Later it was on to Paris where, as a young composer, he became enmeshed in amorous adventures. Later, he and his wife Jelka settled in Grez-sur-Loing, near Fontainebleau, south of the capital. Throughout his life he had close ties with Norway, visiting it many times. He made many friends there, most notably Edvard Grieg and Edvard Munch. He even had a cottage built at Lesjaskog. Early on he utilized Norwegian titles for his compositions and a Nordic aroma flavours some of his works.
Major threads running throughout this book are Delius’s depressions and illnesses which plagued his life from middle-age, the fruit of a misspent youth. He had developed a penchant for prostitutes and mistresses. Even his marriage to Jelka in 1903 didn’t dampen his flirtatious ways or put an end to his affairs. The question of whether he fathered a child in those early days in Florida to a native seventeen year-old girl called Chloe Baker remains unanswered. In 1897 he travelled back to America to seek her out, but without success.
In 1909, when in his mid-forties, the syphilis, which was to have a devastating effect on his later life, was first diagnosed. Whether this had been contracted in America, or was the result of later Parisian dalliances was never ascertained. By 1915 the symptoms were becoming apparent, and seven years later he was walking with sticks. 1928 saw him paralyzed and blind. The loss of use in his hands necessitated his dictating both his music and letters to Jelka. His suffering was immense, and was graphically portrayed in Ken Russell’s 1968 film ‘Song of Summer’
, which charts the last six years of his life. He was nursed by a succession of German male nurses ‘bruders’, who came and went. Yet the crotchety and irascible character of the later years was not characteristic. When younger, he was affable, fun-loving and made friends easily. His life ended in appalling agony and, at the time of his death in 1934, Jelka herself was confined to a wheelchair. Delius did not believe in an afterlife — he was an avowed atheist.
He had tried his hand, unsuccessfully, at conducting. In 1908, he was offered the opportunity to conduct the first performance of ’In a Summer Garden’ for a fee of £25. He was nonplussed at the ungenerous offer. Granville Bantock proffered this advice: ‘Better £25 than nothing – Eh? Don’t beat 4 however in a 6/8 measure’. A year later Delius requested to conduct his Dance Rhapsody No. 1. The outcome was a disaster, with Hubert Parry commenting that his efforts were ‘stiff’ and ‘amateurish’. Eventually the composer came to realise that conducting was best left in more capable hands.
Sir Thomas Beecham’s role in championing Delius is discussed at length. The importance of his advocacy in bringing the composer’s music in front of English audiences was crucial. This was at a time when his music otherwise was only really heard in Germany.
A chapter chronicling the final years includes a discussion on the role of Eric Fenby, the composer’s unpaid amanuensis for his last five years. Fenby offered his services in 1928, and surprisingly was accepted. He remained with Delius until the end of the composer's life. As a result, Delius extended his creative output for another four years.
Unusually, Delius was in the habit of frequently changing publishers. He had an astute business sense, and his demanding nature meant that he didn’t tolerate laxity in any shape or form. Disagreements loomed large with disputes over copyrights and royalties. Prior to 1906, he had used six publishing houses. Between that year and 1934 he entered into contracts with another eight, usually for small works and songs. This adversely affected his reputation. In the case of his sixty or so songs, many went out of print and became problematic to source. Fortunately, Robert Threlfall’s Collected Edition has helped rectify the situation.
The inclusion of concert and recital reviews, in conjunction with the works discussed, provides some indication of the contemporary critical temperature. These, remarkably, cover a wide spectrum of opinion. A chap called Mr. Baughan of The Musical Standard penned a vitriolic review following the first London performance of A Mass of Life
, in June 1909. At the end of the concert he had ‘a feeling similar to that produced by having eaten something extremely indigestible’, and then went on to remark about the ‘misplaced enthusiasm’ of the audience. Yet, this negativity was countered by a German reviewer in Die Musik, who praised
the work ‘… that can be regarded as one of the most important additions to the contemporary musical scene ...’. He later complimented the composer as ‘a master of mood painting’. This is hardly surprising as Delius’ earlier music was more enthusiastically received in Germany than in England. By the end of the composer’s life we are told: ‘His music had not become universally popular, nor would it ever’.
This splendid and long-awaited biography is a joint collaboration between Martin Lee-Browne, Chairman of the Delius Society, and Paul Guinery, a pianist, who has worked many years introducing music broadcasts for the BBC. Guinery has done a sterling job in providing detailed discussion and analysis of the entire Delius oeuvre. For those who read music, pertinent illustrations are included, with short–score reductions of full orchestrations where applicable. The book contains a cache of well-reproduced black and white photographs. Page-by-page footnotes as opposed to annotations consigned to the end pages offer a reader-convenient arrangement, eliminating the irritation of constantly having to turn to the back of the book or chapter. A comprehensive bibliography provides a useful resource for those wishing to delve deeper, and an appendix chronologically listing the composer’s works offers an easily accessible visual perspective.
This is the first time that such a comprehensive survey of the composer’s music has been documented, chronologically sequenced and analyzed within a biographical framework. As such it will be avidly welcomed by Delius devotees.
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