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ClassicsOnline Home » DELIUS: On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring
The ten short orchestral works by Frederick Delius that are performed in chronological order on this recording span the whole of his creative life. They also illustrate the cosmopolitan aspect of his art, his love of the four countries that most inspired him - England, America, Norway and France - and his love of nature in all its bitter-sweet transience. Displaying to the full Delius’ late Romantic mastery of chromatic harmony and orchestration, they constitute a perfect distillation of his very personal kind of genius.
By Scott Cantrell
The Dallas Morning News
Frederick Delius (1862-1934)
On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring and other orchestral works
The ten orchestral works by Frederick Delius that are performed in chronological order on this disc span the whole of his creative life. They also illustrate the cosmopolitan aspect of his art and his love of the four countries that most inspired him, England, America, Norway and France.
Marche Caprice, which can now be heard with its extra flute and cornet parts, was composed in Paris in 1889 when Delius was 27, and revised in the following year. Although clearly influenced by such works as Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants, its middle section already shows some typically Delian characteristics, with its wistful harmonies and haunting oboe solo. After side-tracking himself, Delius remembers just in time that he is writing a march, however capricious it may be.
It would seem logical that the Three Small Tone Poems (1888-90), presented here as a group for the first time, were originally four in number. Three of the four seasons are represented and there is documentation to confirm that a piece called Autumn (Tone Poem) once existed, though this has yet to be found. All three pieces display Delius’s instinctive affinity with nature and the open air. Summer Evening breathes the requisite relaxed sensuousness, though towards the end it reaches a surprisingly full and impassioned climax. Winter Night, which is also known under its original title Sleigh Ride, originated as a piano piece that Delius composed in 1887 while a student at Leipzig and first played at a party on Christmas Eve given by Grieg. The jingles of the sleigh are characterful and the music crisp, but one cannot help feeling that the two slower sections, depicting the quiet that falls over the moonlit landscape after the sleigh passes, are even closer to Delius’s heart. The atmospheric Spring Morning, a companion piece to Idylle de printemps of the previous year, remained unpublished until 1989.
Delius spent from March 1884 to June 1886 in America, first managing a citrus plantation in North Florida and later giving violin and piano lessons in Virginia. The improvised harmonies of the singing of Negro workers in both places were a lasting influence on his art. American Rhapsody of 1896 is an early, much shorter, version of the extended orchestral and choral work that in 1902 became Appalachia, and features the haunting old Negro slave song which served as the theme for variations in that work. Scored for a large orchestra, it opens in typically ruminative Delian fashion. The Negro theme is then announced in a dance-like section over a lively banjo (harp and pizzicato cello) accompaniment, and then restated in a slower tempo in the minor by strings and wind in the most expressive chromatic harmonization. Soon the minstrel-show song Dixie and Yankee Doodle make their appearance, and suddenly it seems as if we are watching and hearing a procession of American marching bands in all their raucous glory, complete with random thwacks on the bass drum. There is a wistful, poetic coda. American Rhapsody was first performed as recently as 1986.
Although Delius composed his fourth opera A Village Romeo and Juliet during the years 1899-1901, the extended entr’acte played between the last two scenes, later known as The Walk to the Paradise Garden, was not composed until the rehearsal period before the opera’s staged première in Berlin in February 1907. Delius originally wrote a relatively short orchestral interlude, which started with the first fifteen bars of the present version. He extended and greatly enriched his score when he was required to supply extra music to cover the scene change from the Fair to the country inn known as ‘ The Paradise Garden’. After a few slow introductory bars, the Moderato ‘walk’ begins. This is the music of a young boy and girl who have recently found each other again after being separated by the bitter quarrel of their parents, and who have just enjoyed the simple pleasures of a local fair. They decide to escape from prying eyes and go to ‘The Paradise Garden’ inn, but on the way their newfound happiness overcomes them and they sit down on a bank and kiss tenderly (woodwind chords) as they had earlier in the opera, but now more lingeringly. This inflames the latent love they have for each other, and the music becomes passionate and ecstatic, only to subside gradually in a poignant dying fall. In his biography of the composer, Sir Thomas Beecham quotes a distinguished colleague’s apt comment on the opera and perhaps this interlude in particular: ‘This is the most heartbreaking music in the world’.
By the second decade of the twentieth century Delius had produced a succession of large-scale masterworks but, almost ironically, the appearance of the Two Pieces for Small Orchestra of 1911-12 were to set the seal on his fame. On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring develops in typically rhapsodic style a Norwegian folk-song (also used by Grieg in his Op. 66) that he had come to know through Percy Grainger. It achieved an instant success owing to the powerful combination of a haunting tune and the harmonic mastery with which Delius treats it. Marked In a flowing tempo it displays, right from its magical opening chord, the pantheistic identification with nature that lies at the core of this composer’s art. Much the same goes for the even more exquisite Summer Night on the River, though here the focus is more specifically on the river Loing at the end of Delius’s garden near Fontainebleau where, in the failing light, the fireflies and gnats skim the surface of the slowly flowing water. This is the exact musical equivalent of a nature painting by Monet, Pissarro or Sisley.
Another work scored for chamber orchestra, A Song before Sunrise (1918), the last of Delius’s orchestral studies inspired by the natural world, is one of his more bracing miniatures. The outer panels, marked Freshly, enclose a slower, more reflective, middle section. The only oddity is the title; a song at sunrise would be understandable, but before is more puzzling. One possible explanation is to be found in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, that Delius loved and drew on for A Mass of Life, which contains a chapter-heading Before Sunrise.
Finally, the last piece that Delius ever wrote. As is well known, the few works dating from the last years of the blind and paralyzed composer’s life (1929-34) were laboriously dictated to his young amanuensis, the Yorkshire organist Eric Fenby. For Fantastic Dance, cast in A-B-A form, Delius was able to draw on a short, fully orchestrated fragment (A) and a sketch of some contrasting material (B). It is not known when the second section was composed, but its treatment seems to hark back to the dance-like music of the fair scene in A Village Romeo and Juliet. The ‘fantastic’ element of the title may refer to the whole-tone scale heard in the opening bars, a feature that is not otherwise characteristic of Delius. Appropriately dedicated to the long-suffering Fenby, the work was first performed in London in January 1934. Delius listened to the broadcast in France; it was to be his last première, for the totally incapacitated but stoic 72-year-old composer died four months later.
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DELIUS: On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring