Frederick Delius

Frederick Delius has been described as a “pastoral” composer whose singular vision transformed music beyond post-Romanticism and Impressionism, pointing toward American genres, such as jazz and blues. The son of German immigrants, Delius was born in the northern English town of Branford. While he received violin and piano lessons as a child, the household was otherwise not particularly musical, and he was expected to follow his father into the wool industry.

As a young man, Delius accepted an opportunity to manage an orange plantation in Florida. Though invigorated by the sensual climate and variety of culture, he ultimately found the rigors of plantation life unfulfilling. Choosing to dedicate his life to music, Delius enlisted a Jacksonville organist by the name of Thomas Ward to teach him theory and composition, and within a short amount of time, he was publishing his own works. The American South would fuel his inspiration for years, with the landscape serving as the inspiration for Florida Suite, and the work songs of African-American plantation workers echoing throughout his music, particularly the tone poem Appalachia.

Unhappy with life in the orange grove, Delius left Florida and became a music instructor, first in Danville, Virginia, followed by a brief stay in New York City. At last, his father relented and agreed to seriously finance his musical education, allowing Fritz, as he was then known, to enroll in the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany. Though dissatisfied with the curriculum, he befriended Edvard Grieg, whose enthusiasm convinced his father to support yet another move, this time to Paris, where his work as a serious composer would begin.

His music quickly evolved from small instrumentals to serious operas, beginning with Irmelin, The Magic Fountain and Koanga, featuring African-Americans in lead parts pre-dating Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess by forty years. Critics have claimed the best way to describe the music of Delius is visually; comparing it to a work of art or a lush landscape. His use of pentatonic melodies would become standard fare for blues musicians, while his chromaticism and continually evolving motifs gave his music a rhapsodic quality.

Though a prolific composer, Delius was virtually unknown in most territories, apart from continental Europe. Given the absence of practical recording technology and his lack of prominence, Delius found it impossible to hear his own music in person. After composing the incidental score to the play Floreaadet, he had the opportunity to hear his hard work come to life in an 1897 performance of the production in Oslo, Norway. That same year, Delius became romantically linked with German painter Jelka Rosen. Initially bonding over their mutual admiration of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, they settled in Rosen’s family home in the French village of Grez-sur-Loing, but did not marry until 1903. It was in Grez-sur-Loing where Delius created some of his most important pieces, including the opera A Village Romeo and Juliet based on a short story by Swiss author Gottfried Keller, and choral works Appalachia and A Mass of Life, based on Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra.

With his reputation on the rise in continental Europe, Delius’s music remained overlooked in his native country of England until he met Thomas Beecham. Beecham, the famed conductor and eventual founder of the London Philharmonic, became a tireless supporter of his music, and went on to organize the Delius Society, premiering and recording many previously unheard pieces through the mid 20th century.

Complications from a life-long illness ravaged Delius’s body, and by 1928 he was suffering from blindness and paralysis, confining him to a wheelchair. His mental capacity, however, never diminished, and Eric Fenby, an admirer and budding composer, was hired to assist him for the remaining six years of his life. With Fenby taking dictation, Delius continued to work on music, completing a variety of works, including A Song of Summer, a tone poem for orchestra.

Though Delius spent the last years of his life in relative seclusion, his popularity continued to rise. Among his best known pieces are a short Norwegian inspired tone poem, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring; an orchestral arrangement of the English folk song, Brigg Fair; and a large scale work, Sea Drift, based on the words of Walt Whitman. Finally succumbing in 1934 at the age of 72, Delius’s music would gain greater importance and acclaim with each succeeding generation.

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