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Frederick Delius had a strong champion in the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, who praised the composer as “the last great apostle of romantic beauty in music”. This rhapsodic intensity of feeling is nowhere more evident than in the luscious harmonies of his exquisite idylls, The Walk to the Paradise Garden and On Hearing The First Cuckoo In Spring. La Calinda, from Delius’ second opera, Koanga, has achieved worldwide popularity.
Frederick Delius (1862-1934)
The Best of Delius
Frederick Delius was born in the northern English industrial town of Bradford in 1862 into a family of German extraction, and joined his father’s business once his schooling was over. Unsuited to the career his father had intended for him, he borrowed from his father enough money to set himself up in a business of his own as an orange plantation owner in Florida. Here he was able to further his musical interests, notably with lessons from Thomas Ward in Jacksonville and by contact with various musicians either living there or visiting the town in the winter months.
He later moved to Danville in Virginia, abandoning his plantation and seeking now to earn his living as a musician. It was at this time that his father agreed to allow him musical training at Leipzig Conservatory, which Delius entered in the summer of 1886, studying with Reinecke, Jadassohn and Sitte and forming an important friendship with Grieg. It was through the latter that paternal support was extended to Delius, allowing him to move to Paris and settle there as a composer. His meeting with the young painter Jelka Rosen led to a liaison. In 1897 they set up house together in Grez-sur-Loing and married in 1903.
Delius spent much of the rest of his life at Grez-sur-Loing. During the war years it was necessary to take refuge in England, a time of some difficulty in the absence of the usual royalty payments from Germany. After the war he returned to France, but gradually succumbed to the effects of syphilis, possibly contracted in America, suffering blindness and paralysis. For the last six years of his life he was assisted in his composition by the young Yorkshire musician Eric Fenby, who served as his amanuensis. He died in 1934.
As a composer Delius won considerable support from influential musicians, among whom the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham was of great importance. Three of his early operas were performed in Germany in the years before 1914, and orchestral works, in a very personal idiom that owed something to Wagner and even more to Grieg, found an audience there, largely through the advocacy of Hans Haym, the young Music Director in Elberfeld (Wuppertal). Beecham proved a strong ally in England, where at first Delius was relatively neglected. Nevertheless his Concerto for Violin and Cello for May and Beatrice Harrison had its first performance at the Queen’s Hall in London in 1920, conducted by Henry Wood, while Albert Sammons had already, in 1919, introduced the Violin Concerto to the London public in the same concert hall, with Adrian Boult. It is paradoxical that much of Delius’s earlier reputation had been built in Germany, although his music seems, for whatever reason, essentially English in feeling, as his wife later maintained. As English a work as Brigg Fair, however, was first heard in Basle in 1907, Sea Drift, with words by Whitman, in Essen, and Appalachia and the Piano Concerto in Elberfeld.
The strong advocacy of Sir Thomas Beecham, who had introduced a number of the compositions of Delius to English audiences, culminated in 1929 with a Delius Festival, an event that the composer himself attended. He was appointed a Companion of Honour in the same year, a mark of official approval of his achievement.
Among the best loved of Delius’s compositions must be the Two Pieces for Small Orchestra, written in 1911 and 1912. The first of these, a characteristically idyllic evocation of an English spring, is On Hearing the First Cuckooo in Spring, in which Delius makes use of a Norwegian folk-song that Percy Grainger had brought to his attention. The second piece, Summer Night on the River, is equally evocative, this time suggested By the River Loing that lay at the bottom of Delius’s garden near Fontainebleau, the kind of scene that might have been painted by some of the French painters that were his contemporaries.
The opera Irmelin, written between 1890 and 1892, and the first attempt by Delius at the form, had no staged performance until 1953, when Beecham arranged its production in Oxford. The libretto, by Delius himself, deals with two elements, Princess Irmelin and her suitors, none of whom please her, and the swine-herd who eventually wins her heart. The Prelude, designed as an entr’acte for the later opera Koanga, makes use of four themes from Irmelin.
Delius wrote his Florida Suite in Leipzig in 1887. It was first played to a limited audience of Christian Sinding, Grieg and the composer by the musicians of the band at Bonorand’s restaurant in the Rosenthal Park, conducted by Hans Sitt, who taught violin at the Leipzig Conservatory and conducted the Conservatory Orchestra. The band on this occasion was rewarded with a hundred marks and free beer. In London August Manns rejected the work, which Delius later revised. It was published posthumously by Beecham, with the first three movements introduced to London in 1937. The second movement, By the River, much favoured by Beecham, relies on a repeated theme.
The two Aquarelles (Water-Colours) for string orchestra were intended for the violinist Albert Sammons, who had given the first performance of Delius’s Violin Concerto. They are in fact arrangements made after the composer’s death by Eric Fenby of two choral pieces, Music to be sung of a Summer Night on the Water, composed in 1917 and originally a textless work for six voices. The first piece has an air of dreamy tranquillity, to which the livelier second piece offers a contrast.
The Scherzo formed part of Delius’s Suite d’orchestre of 1889 and 1890, a work in which memories of Florida continue. His last orchestral piece was the Fantastic Dance of 1931, first heard in London at the Queen’s Hall in January 1934 under Adrian Boult and broadcast, enabling the composer to hear his work played. It is among the works dictated to Eric Fenby, to whom it is dedicated. In ternary form the opening section makes unusual use of the whole-tone scale, the central section providing a contrast. For this work Delius seems to have drawn on earlier sketches.
Delius completed his fourth opera, A Village Romeo and Juliet, its libretto based on a novel by Gottfried Keller, in 1901 and it was first staged in Berlin in 1907. It was for the stage performance that Delius wrote the entr’acte known as The Walk to the Paradise Garden, to cover a necessary scene change. The boy and girl at the centre of the plot walk together towards a country inn, The Paradise Garden, now reunited after the separation caused by the enmity of their parents and feeling the power of their love for one another.
There were originally four of the pieces surviving as Three Small Tone Poems, completed in 1890 and reflecting only three of the intended four seasons. Winter Night (Sleigh Ride), the second of the group, was in origin a piano piece that Delius had played at a Christmas party given by Grieg. The sleigh is heard at the start, before the music moves into a mood of gentler winter tranquillity, interrupted by the sleigh resuming its course. Moonlit stillness finally returns.
Idylle de Printemps (Spring Idyll) was written in 1889, its content aptly conjured in its title, while the popular La Calinda, with its oboe solo, first appeared as part of the first movement of Delius’s Florida Suite, a work of 1887, revised two years later. Based on a negro dance, it later served its purpose in the second act of the opera Koanga, the story of a voodoo prince sold into slavery, based on an episode in the novel The Grandissimes by the American writer George Washington Cable. The wedding dance La Calinda was originally a dance of some violence, leading to hysteria and therefore banned. In the Florida Suite and again in Koanga it lacks anything of its original character.
Koanga, a lyric drama in a prologue and three acts, was first heard in an incomplete concert performance at St James’s Hall in 1899. It was first staged at Elberfeld in 1904. With a libretto by Delius and Charles F. Keary, the plot is set on an eighteenth century Louisiana plantation, where the slave-girl Palmyra is the object of the attentions of the overseer Simon Perez. Koanga, a new slave, is a prince and voodoo priest and the plantation owner, seeing the value of Koanga’s cooperation, seeks to marry him to Palmyra, who is his own illegitimate daughter. During the celebrations that precede the wedding, as they dance La Calinda, Perez abducts Palmyra, to prevent the match, and Koanga strikes the plantation owner and lays a voodoo curse on the place, seeking refuge himself in the swampland. The opera ends in tragedy, when Koanga is captured and put to death, and Palmyra takes her own life. The opera ends with an epilogue in which the girls await the sun-rise and hope that all true lovers will find the happiness they deserve.
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