Frederick Delius: The Composer-Violinist Who Loved Nature

May 10, 2018, 10:03 PM · By the time I had been in an orchestra for twenty years, I had played Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations and other ethereal warhorses numerous times. After forty years, I won’t say the music had gotten stale, but familiarity had left a monotonous imprint. Fifty years brought on the suffocating cloak of hour-long pieces merging with hour-long commutes. I didn’t know which was worse-taking the repeat in a Schubert Symphony or facing stop-and-go traffic at 10 p.m.

Obviously, there was a gigantic hole in my musical life, and I wasn’t consciously trying to fill it. While I was so busy playing the same traditional music over and over, it didn’t even occur to me the lack of connection I was feeling with the pieces. Playing in an orchestra filled many needs: desire for precision, organization, camaraderie, striving to excel inside the musical system that defines any particular orchestra, making money. However, the need for experiencing the wonder and magic that music offers went unfulfilled in the orchestral setting. I was spending too much time figuring out the musical and human mechanics that were at play. It would take other means to remember how music affected me when I was a child. What I found was better than I expected, because the new feelings that music would inspire were unlike anything I had experienced before.

The most mysterious thing was how I ended up with a two-CD set of the orchestral music of Frederick Delius (1862-1934) conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. The memories leading up to that are vague. I had never heard “On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring.” The title simply sounded like a joke to me, being a somewhat cynical orchestral player. I had actually played “The Walk to the Paradise Garden” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic one week with Sir Andrew Davis. It doesn’t surprise me that it left little impact on me. I wasn’t ready for it.

Frederick Delius
Violinist-Composer Frederick Delius.

Walk to The Paradise Garden

My connection to Delius was made during solitary walks with views of trees, sunrises and sunsets, and mountains. There were no radio announcers, audience members, conductors or colleagues. Compared to being at one with nature, all other opportunities to hear music feel as if I’m in a laboratory. On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring and Walk to the Paradise Garden have a rhythm and a narrative that made nature’s serenity more vivid.

"The Walk to Paradise Garden," with paintings by Atkinson Grimshaw.

The way the music and the scenery blended together produced an aura of nostalgia and comforting memories. As much as I enjoy Elgar, there was none of his occasional outbursts of imperial swagger in Delius’ music. He loved nature so much that he found a way not to intrude on it, nor to impose anything romantic or formalistic. I cannot describe it in words, but it felt transcendent.

Lars Forssell, a distinguished Swedish poet, said, “Delius believed in melos, in melody that flowed like a stream whose source no one can discover and in which song plays a part. There is hardly any music that is more beautiful than Delius’ but at times one must ask oneself, submerged in these swelling waves of luminous, undulating sound: what is it for?

But in the very next moment one is seduced, helplessly seduced, inexorably drowned in the swells, in the billows, in a never-broken note – la musique fleuve”.

A Unique Vision-An Incredible Biography

Delius found his musical voice not just in spite of, but because of the fact that he disdained any formal training in composition. With the help of his close friend Edvard Grieg, he talked his father into sending him from their home in Bradford, England to tend to their family’s orange groves in Solano Grove near Jacksonville, Florida. There he found the one teacher, Thomas Ward, who spoke a musical language that he loved and accepted. The luscious environment provided a beautiful setting which was the perfect backdrop for Delius’ musical vision.

Delius was an excellent violinist and was especially fond of the Mendelssohn Concerto. He performed it in Danville, Virginia, where he had moved to sing in a synagogue and teach music.

He particularly loved the songs of the African-Americans who were living in nearby plantations. He composed the opera Koanga, a tragic story of the deep south, in which an African voodoo prince is sold into slavery. When Delius was living in the south, there was an awareness among some of his contemporaries that he was in love with an African-American woman and fathered her child. Although he left America, there is an excellent documentary which explores the belief that he returned in order to look for her and the child. Produced by the brilliant violinist Tasmin Little, the two-part video, The Lost Child can be found on YouTube. She is one of the foremost interpreters of his music. Her recordings of the violin concerto and four sonatas are dramatic and intimate, and her pacing brings out the spaciousness and harmonic splendor.

Ken Russell’s Greatest Movie

Sometimes the love for a composer is based on listening to his artistic output and knowing his life and hardships. Delius spent his final years in Grez-sur-Loing, a village 65 km outside of Paris. He was in the final stages of a syphilitic infection, and was debilitated by blindness and paralysis. The eccentric and visionary British film maker Ken Russell created a classic film about how Delius continued to compose with the help of Eric Fenby, who was hired to be his amanuensis. Song of Summer – Frederick Delius can be seen on YouTube.

A very touching YouTube video is Delius: Idylle Printemps and Summer Night on the River (BELOW):

It combines two of his most touching pieces with photographs and paintings of Grez. There is a wonderful connection between music and still photos, similar to that of music and movies.

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May 12, 2018 at 02:41 PM · Thank you for writing about a composer I have long admired and who doesn't seem to garner the respect he deserves. I had the fortune to play "On Hearing the First Cuckoo" when I was in college, and then in graduate school performed scenes from "A Village Romeo & Juliet." Both pieces were magical. I had not, however, made the connection to nature in the way that your beautiful writing did. Now I plan to take Delius with me on my morning walks!

May 12, 2018 at 04:15 PM · I’m so pleased that you will walk with Delius in your ear. I wish I had been able to play “On Hearing the First Cuckoo” with an orchestra, but no one would program it. I asked my friend Eric Herdan to arrange it and Idylle Printemps for unaccompanied violin, and he did a wonderful job. It’s like playing unaccompanied Bach. To hear Delius’ harmonies come to life is a beautiful experience every time.

May 13, 2018 at 05:26 PM · Thanks for this wonderful tribute to the special world of Delius! Besides Grieg Delius was close to Grieg's favorite pianist Percy Grainger, whose music is another aspect of what might be the lighter side.

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