Delius – Romance, Emotion and Beauty in Music

npg.org.uk

Since I’ve now written a fair number of blogs, it’s time I put in a word for one of my favourite composers, Frederick Delius, who was born in England of German parents in 1862. He knew he had to be a composer when he spent a year or so in Florida, and was utterly entranced, not only by the tropical surroundings of the St Johns river, but also by the natural, untutored harmonies in the spontaneous singing of the plantation workers. There was never to be a place for academicism in the music of Delius. 

He spent time in, and loved, Scandinavia, especially Norway, enjoying the friendship of Edvard Grieg. He studied for a time in Germany, at the Leipzig Conservatory, which he declared a waste of his time. He lived most of his life in France, at Grez-sur-Loing. All of these influences can be felt in his music, and he can’t be called an English, but very much a cosmopolitan, composer.

It’s sometimes said that there’s no middle way with Delius. You either love the sound of his music, or can’t stand it. It has a chromaticism which makes choirs new to his work protest that ‘no one could possibly sing that’, but they can and do. He’s still  condemned as a ‘rambling rhapsodist’, despite the eminent musicologist, Deryck Cooke, demonstrating how carefully, if unconventionally, structured his music is.

What do I like about him? He did his own thing. He doesn’t ‘follow on’ from any other composers, and none ‘follow on’ from him. He wouldn’t compose unless the music ‘flowed’ from within. If that ‘flow’ stopped, he didn’t do any mental wrestling, but went out and did some gardening instead. Although trenchantly anti-religious, his music has great spiritual depth. He has been called a ‘nature mystic’, writing pieces such as ‘In a Summer Garden’ through the middle of which flows the river Loing, and the ‘Song of the High Hills’, which rises to a peak of spiritual ecstasy, the influence of which remains despite the necessary descent back to lower levels. 

There’s evidence that, in Florida, he had a deep love relationship with a black girl who bore his child. Some years later, he went back to Florida to find his girl and his child, but the mother feared he’d come to take the child away, and disappeared. He lost the love of his life, and never saw his only child, and this experience may lie at the root of much of his music. He explores human love and longing and loss. He celebrates the beauty and wonder of life in this world, as a compensation for, and a transmutation of, its losses, sorrows, brevity and inevitable end in death.

Two of his most emotionally moving works are ‘Appalachia’, which recalls how much his Florida experience meant to him, and ends with the song of a slave who is ‘sold down the river’ and parted from his wife and family. Another is ‘Sea Drift’, set to words by Walt Whitman, exploring how a sea bird struggles to come to terms with the loss of his mate. The sadness of that loss is transcended, and made bearable, by the unsurpassable beauty of the music which gives it expression.

Sir Thomas Beecham called Delius, “the last great apostle in our time of romance, emotion and beauty in music.” If spiritual depth, and emotional candour are valued by you, then you may very well love his works. It’s not so much a case of ‘going’  places’ in his music, as of simply ‘being’, in every beautiful moment, as each of them unfolds.

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