Delius and Norway
by Andrew J. Boyle
Published June 2017
ISBN: 978-1-78327-199-3 The Boydell Press
In 2015 I reviewed a biography of Frederick Delius, which was a joint venture between Martin Lee-Browne, Chairman of the Delius Society, and Paul Guinery, a pianist. Up until then, detailed, comprehensive biographies of the composer and his music were markedly absent, and the book was warmly welcomed. Fast forward two years and another scholarly publication from The Boydell Press has hit the stores. Dr. Andrew J. Boyle, who gained a PhD on the music of Frederick Delius, focuses his attention on the composer's relationship with Norway. Delius travelled to Norway on twenty occasions during his adult life, usually to the south-eastern coast and central mountains for periods of between one and three months. His visits were a source of inspiration and spiritual uplift, a place where he could recharge his batteries, so to speak. Jelka Delius, his wife, said that Norway was 'the land of Fred's constant longing'. It inspired thirty-three of his compositions. Boyle has the advantage of having lived in Norway since 1980, and is conversant with the language.
Delius's Norwegian sojourns brought him into contact with some of the leading native composers of the day. Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) was a notable influence, later helping advance the younger man's career and acting as a mentor. Significantly, it was Grieg’s recommendation that secured acceptance from Delius’ father for a career in music for his son; initially his father had disapproved strongly. The two, together with Grieg's wife Nina, remained friends throughout their lives. Their friendship began in 1887 when Delius returned to Leipzig after his first Norwegian trip, strengthened by tales of his adventures. Other composers who became friends were Christian Sinding (1856-1941) and Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935). It was Sinding who first introduced Delius to Grieg.
Colourful characters, too, came into Delius' life, and Boyle paints vivid portraits of them. One such was the violinist Halfdan Jebe (1868-1937), who was a fellow student at the Leipzig Conservatory. His name crops up throughout the book. His wanderlust meant he frequently came and went. There's a poignant anecdote near the end when the violinist turned up at the composer’s home in Grez at the start of 1931. By this stage, Delius was blind and paralysed and hadn't seen his friend since 1906. Filthy, dishevelled, odorous and incontinent, Jebe had obviously fallen on hard times. It was left to Jelka to sort him out, take him to hospital and from there dispatch him off to Norway, where he had a brother. Sadly, he died of alcoholism in 1937. Sinding was another eccentric. A difficult character and somewhat intransigent, he could be absent-minded too. It was not unknown for him to go out in odd shoes, and he even attended a gala banquet in his old work overalls, not realizing his faux pas until he returned home.
The composer also moved in artistic circles, and got to know many painters, the most significant being Edvard Munch. The two met around 1889, when Munch was studying in Paris. Their friendship lasted for forty-five years and during this time the artist made several studies of Delius. Boyle weaves into the narrative the many complications that beset the painter’s love life as well as his health problems, which resulted at one point in a complete physical and mental breakdown.
In 1895, at the age of thirty-three, Delius’ Bohemian lifestyle caught up with him and he was diagnosed with syphilis, and by 1910 the disease had reached the tertiary stage. His illness ultimately left him blind and paralysed. The progression of the disease and how it affected him and those around him is an ongoing thread throughout the book. In 1903 he married Jelka Rosen, having already moved into her house in Grez-sur-Loing. Her modest fortune provided the composer with financial security initially. As the disease began to show marked symptoms he sought treatments from various clinics at great expense. An ardent mountain trekker all his life, on his last visit to Norway in 1923, Percy Grainger, Jelka and their maid Senta Mössmer carried the frail, ailing composer to the summit of Liahovdane on an adapted chair to glimpse the view for the last time. The whole enterprise, related in Grainger's diary, was nothing short of an eight hour marathon. In 1928, when Delius was blind, paralysed and incapable of composing any longer, Eric Fenby offered his services as an unpaid amanuensis. In five years he assisted in the realization of several new compositions and the revision of earlier works.
Set within the biography is the music inspired by his love and travels to Norway. The mountains ignited his creativity and the music poured forth. He used texts by Norwegian poets in his music, one such being Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906). His first major Norwegian work for orchestra was the early symphonic poem Paa Vidderne (On the Mountains), which anticipates the later Song of the High Hills, his masterpiece in my view (remarkably it’s still awaiting a first performance in Norway!). It’s curious to read that On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring is actually based on a Norwegian folk song. Boyle discusses these works and others in detail, including A Mass of Life, Brigg Fair, In a Summer Garden and Eventyr, providing insightful analysis and numerous score fragments to illustrate his points. The debacle surrounding Delius’ Incidental Music for the play Folkeraadet (The People’s Parliament) is discussed at great length. The play the music is based on hits out at inept politicians, and the parodying the Norwegian national anthem led to a storm of protest, resulting in the composer eventually withdrawing the score.
Boyle’s study is set against the evolving political situation of the time. After 400 years of domination by Denmark, on May 17, 1814, a new Constitution was signed, resulting in union with Sweden. From this date a quest for independence was begun, which was finally secured May 17 1905. The capital Kristiana reverted to its original Norwegian name of Oslo in 1925.
This superbly produced and eminently readable book has been well-researched and is generously illustrated. An advantage is having detailed footnotes at the bottom of each page rather than listed at the end of the book, which can prove burdensome. The author has provided two appendices. The first documents the composer’s visits to Norway, including dates and principal places visited. The second lists the compositions associated with these Norwegian sojourns, including information on the authors whose texts Delius used. The comprehensive bibliography and archival sources also prove useful.
The book’s value lies in the fact that this is the first in-depth study of the influence Norway and its artists had on the composer's creative life. Boyle's research has thrown up much new material on Delius’ personal relationships with composers, musicians, artists, political figures and other Norwegian notables, plus hitherto unknown facts regarding his travels to the country. It makes for an absorbing read.