Some of you may remember, without necessarily owning to it, a popular television programme in the 1960’s called “Juke Box Jury”. It contained a panel of four mediocre celebrities of the day who discussed the merits or demerits of the latest release and then voted if it would be a hit or a miss. The chairman of these proceedings, David Jacobs, would then ding a bell if it were voted a hit or squeeze a rude motor horn if it were forecast to be a miss
I suppose one could say of Frederick Delius that in his time there were to be more misses than there were hits. This may explain a long ambivalence towards this composer. Born in Bradford where he went to the local grammar school his life was to become spent in Florida, Germany, Norway, and France where he lived and died.
Delius is one of those composers with whom some become enraptured whilst others are totally non-plussed. It is not that his music is difficult but he was certainly his own man with his own distinctive style . He was not a composer of structures like Beethoven or Brahms or Elgar, his British contemporary. His scoring is based on chromatic harmony. No need to be frightened of that expression. Chromatic is simply the Greek word for colour and the effect of colour is obtained by adding harmonies in a different key to that of the principal theme. Delius was a painter in sound not with the intention to produce visual images à la Richard Strauss but to evoke the “son et parfum” surrounding his subject. His music bore equally evocative titles. Brigg Fair, Summer Night on the River, Appalachia, Sleigh Ride, A Village Romeo and Juliet, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring . His Deux Aquarelles have more in common with the Summer Exhibition than the Conservatoire. Paris, The Song of A Great City, is a nocturne which owes more to Whistler than to Debussy. Debussy and Delius, both born the same year, are described as impressionists but in different ways. If Debussy’s music is said to be atmospheric, then that of Delius would best be described as aromatic
His father, Julius Delius, was a German immigrant industrialist in the wool trade. Delius, one of four brothers and ten sisters, was expected to follow in the family business despite his wishing to study music. He spent some time in the business in Stroud and then abroad without great success. He then went at his apparent request to manage an orange plantation in Solano Grove, Jacksonville Florida in 1884. There, he took lessons in music and was influenced by the surroundings and the songs and dances of the negroes. From this period there came first his Florida Suite, which included the original version of his famous La Calinda. Later on he wrote Appalachia, variations on a slave song, a big score indeed which would have won him an Oscar for its open prairie Western style music, except that the kinematograph had yet to be invented.
After 18 months he returned to Europe with parental sanction and support to study music in Leipzig coming under the spell of Wagner. Here he studied counterpoint and other tools of his trade but the really great influence there was his meeting with Edvard Grieg who encouraged and approved the early works of Delius. Through the Grieg set he established long standing friendships with Halvorsen and Percy Grainger who was to introduce to Delius the folk song, Brigg Fair. Delius was to return regularly throughout his life to Norway until ill health prevented him from doing so.
In the mid 1880’s, Delius moved to Paris where he moved in the circles of Gauguin, Munch and Strindberg. However he did not meet with many French musicians and his music was hardly ever to be recognized in France. It was in these late years of the 1880’s that he is thought to have contracted syphilis but its devastating effects did not incapacitate him till the late 1920’s when he became blind and paralyzed. In 1893, he met Jelka Rosen, an artist. She is variously described as Danish or German but she was in fact born in Belgrade and was the granddaughter of the famous 19th century Bohemian pianist and composer, Ignaz Moscheles. Jelka had exhibited at Salon des Indépendents. She had purchased a house at the artists’ colony of Grez sur Loing, near Fontainebleau, about 40 miles from Paris. Delius moved in with her in 1896 and they married in 1903. They continued to live at Grez except for a short period during the first world war when they stayed temporarily in England. Their marriage was described as unorthodox with Jelka the main breadwinner whilst Freddy played away from home too often for her liking.
The early compositions of Delius were first promoted in Germany with two or three conductors including his works. It was when this work was performed in England in 1907 that Sir Thomas Beecham first heard Delius. Beecham was bowled over. He was not a man to do things by halves and soon he had mounted A Villlage Romeo and Juliet at Covent Garden as well as including Delius whenever he could in his concert programmes. This was the making of Delius financially and without Beecham he would probably have sunk into oblivion.
There are few orthodox forms in Delius’ music but during the first world war he turned to writing concertos for violin, cello, double concerto and it is the violin concerto that Matthew Taylor will be considering. There is little point in this note trying to guide you through it. That can be left to Matthew. In any event even a satnav would lose its way in this particular work as it is not a conventional concerto but more a continuous rhapsody for violin intermingled with orchestra. Even the movements are difficult to make out although there is in the last “movement” a tune somewhat reminiscent of Brigg Fair. Still you should not even be reading this note. Far better to close your eyes and let the music take over.