1862 — 1934
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The British composer Frederick Delius was an important and beloved force in British music around the turn of the twentieth century. A contemporary ofElgar <>, he nevertheless distinguished himself for his incorporation of untraditional elements such as African American spirituals and Norwegian folk songs into his compositions.
Frederick Theodore Albert Delius was born to German immigrants in Yorkshire on 29 January 1862. His father, Julius, worked in the wool industry and was very successful. Growing up in a musical home, Delius was taught violin and piano. He was educated at Bradford Grammar School and at the International School near London. After school he became an apprentice for his father’s company.
Business would not prove to be the life for Delius. In 1884, the twenty-two year old convinced his father to send him to America where he could learn how to grow oranges on a plantation in Florida. Solano Grove plantation was up the St John’s River from Jacksonville, where an organist named Thomas Ward became an early music teacher and influence on Delius. After a year and a half, he moved to Virginia, where he began to teach music himself.
After an introduction to industry and then farming, Delius persuaded his father to allow him to study music seriously at the Leipzig Conservatory starting in 1886. While there he composed hisFlorida Suite, based on his time in the American South hearing the black workers singing. In Leipzig Delius met Norwegian composerEdvard Grieg. It would be Grieg who would convince Delius’ parents to support their son’s musical career, allowing him to move to Paris after his education in Leipzig.
Paris saw the beginning of his more serious musical output. After songs and smaller works, he advanced to his first operas, larger orchestral works, and a symphonic poem,Life’s Dance. He drew inspiration from a wide range of sources, including literature from England, and northern Europe, African American and American Indian cultures. He did not, however, have access to performance opportunities for his larger works. That changed in 1897 when he traveled to Oslo for a production of the playFolkeraadet, for which he had written incidental music.
In 1896, Delius met German painter Helene Jelka Rosen in Paris. They soon moved in together in a town outside of Fontainebleau called Grez-sur-Loing. This move would be, with few exceptions, a permanent one for Delius. The two were married in 1903.
Young Yorkshire composer Eric Fenby came to Grez-sur-Loing to live with Delius. The elder composer’s health had begun to deteriorate. He was, by now, blind and paralyzed. He needed to dictate his compositions. In this way he completedA Song of Farewelland Elegy for cello and small orchestra. On 10 June 1934, within four months of fellow British composersElgar and Holst, Delius died at home. His wife would only survive one more year without him and the couple would be buried together in Surrey, England.
Frederick Delius composed Appalachia from 1898-1903. Scored for baritone soloist, chorus, and orchestra, the work is a musical impression of his time in the American South. It gives the impression of the natural surroundings of the swamps with the human struggle of the black workers he heard over those years. The piece samplesDixie and Yankee Doodle to take the listener to the Mississippi and onto the plantations.
1901 saw the beginning of Delius’ most prolific period. For more than a decade he produced some of his most lasting works. His operaA Village Romeo and Juliet was completed in 1901. His works for orchestra and for voice included Appalachia, A Mass of Life,and Songs of Sunset, which débuted in close succession. The prolific and influential conductor Thomas Beecham was present for a 1907 London performance ofAppalachia. He would become a lifelong champion of the music of Delius in his native Britain.
As with most of Europe, World War I brought trouble to the Delius family. They moved away from their French home for the duration of the hostilities. While on the move, Delius was able to continue composing. He finished his second of two Dance Rhapsodies. He also wrote two concertos, for violin and viola, and chamber music. His finances were helped greatly by a production in London of the playHassan. Working with fellow composer Percy Grainger, Delius provided the incidental music for the play in 1923, bringing back some stability lost during the War.
From a pairing of two small orchestra pieces, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Springis the more popular. The short piece is scored for flute, oboe, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, and strings. There are two themes; first a clarinet gives a cuckoo’s call, followed by the strings. The second theme is a Norwegian folk song,In Ola Valley played in the first violins. It’s followed with a pastoral closing. All told, the piece’s duration is a short four minutes. It was premiered in Zurich in 1913.
Delius’ Cello Sonata was written for Beatrice Harrison (the cellist who performed in the first ever recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto). The two met in Britain when Delius and his wife temporarily left France during World War I. It is written in one movement but with three sections. As one might expect, the work is a showpiece for cello with the piano having only one solo moment shortly after the beginning. The sonata closes with a coda, a technique not often used by Delius. It was written in 1916 with a premiere by Harrison in 1918.
Delius’ career in music started later in life, owing to a lack of support from his family, but he was still able to become one of the best-loved British composers. He was not as groundbreaking as some of his contemporaries, like Elgar, but he nevertheless played an important part in bringing British music into the twentieth century. Thanks to the efforts of his champions, including Thomas Beecham and Eric Fenby, his music is a mainstay in repertoire around the world and looks to remain that way for years to come.
Header image courtesy of public domain Other image courtesy of The Telegraph and Argus