One of the Truly Great Stories of Musical History

This is another one-off interjection into my current series of posts on my religious ‘paradigm’, triggered by this beautiful little 20 minute film cum podcast based on the story of one of the most poignant and inspiring happenings in the history of music. It tells how a very young man became the means of helping a now blind and almost totally paralysed composer, to bring to completion the music he could still hear within him.

That composer is the one who is top of my list of favourites, Frederick Delius. One of his great champions, the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, called him, “The last great apostle in our time of romance, emotion, and beauty in music.” He was a ‘one off’, in that he followed on from no one, and no one from him. His music has its own distinctive ‘sound’ which, if it captures you, does so for life. It’s the music of a man who was an enemy of institutionalised religion, but who was deeply spiritual, a ‘nature mystic’, writing works such as the ‘Song of Summer’, the ‘Song of the High Hills, and ‘In a Summer Garden’.

As a young man, he spent a year or so in Florida, tending (supposedly) an orange plantation. His listening to the spontaneous and deeply moving harmonies of the musically untutored black plantation workers, awoke in him the awareness that music was to be his vocation, but not the music of academia, of “scales and arpeggios, paddings and fillings” in his estimation. Music, for him, had to “flow” from the heart. When it flowed, he wrote it down, and if the flow stopped so did he, and went outside to tend his garden, until the flow returned.

In Florida, there’s evidence that he formed a relationship with a black girl, the love of his life, with whom he fathered a child, but he had to leave to further his musical career. A dozen years later, he returned to Florida, but failed to find the girl, and never saw the son who had been born to him. Much of his music explores the theme of love and loss, such as ‘Songs of Sunset’ (“They are not long, the days of wine and roses”), and ‘Sea Drift’, a setting of Walt Whitman’s poem about a seabird’s loss of his mate, (“O past!  O happy life!  O songs of joy! In the air, in the woods, over fields, Loved! loved! loved! But my mate no more, no more with me! We two together no more”). Perhaps some don’t like the music of Delius because they’re uncomfortable with this painful exploration of inescapable love and loss, but these are transmuted by the sheer emotive beauty of the music, to find their necessary place in the ‘natural’ order of things. 

In the 1890s, Delius enjoyed all the pleasures that Paris had to offer, but the downside was syphilis, which traumatically caught up with him in the last dozen years of his life. He became blind and paralysed, having to be carried from room to room in his house. Eric Fenby was the very young musician who was moved to offer to help Delius to dictate the music he still had in him to write. Together, they eventually achieved what had seemed almost impossible, as graphically and movingly described in one of the treasures of musical history, Fenby’s book, “Delius as I knew him” (Raincliffe Books, 2019). This is the book on which Ken Russell’s incomparable film, “Song of Summer”, is based.

Here is a link to his “first cuckoo in spring”, complete with beautiful spring landscapes. Enjoy !

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