On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring sounds like a perfect celebration of the English countryside. In fact, its composer was probably not thinking of England, the land of his birth, when he wrote it.
Frederick Delius was born in Bradford, Yorkshire, on 29 January 1862, one hundred and fifty years ago this year. The family came from Germany, and his father, Julius, was a wool and textiles merchant. Julius loved music and encouraged his son’s interest in it, but expected him to enter the family business. Alas, young Frederick’s heart was not in commerce, and eventually Julius allowed him to travel to faraway Florida to manage an orange grove. With his mind more and more on music Frederick failed at this too and, aged twenty-four, he returned to Europe and to Germany to take up serious music studies at the famous Leipzig Conservatory.
Three years later, in 1888, and with a number of compositions already under his belt, Delius moved to Paris where he mixed happily with its artistic and bohemian society, counting the painter Paul Gauguin among his friends. There he also met the German artist, Jelka Rosen. Soon after, he moved with her into a house in the village of Grez-sur-Loing, on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau, about sixty kilometres south of Paris. They married in 1903, and the house became their home (with a short break during the First World War) for the rest of their lives.
Delius enjoyed his first successes as a composer not in France but back in Germany, where a number of his works were premiered. Then in 1907 the English conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, heard some of his music and became his greatest champion. Thereafter Beecham conducted and recorded his music whenever he could, staged one of his operas, and in 1929 organised a Delius Festival with a season of concerts at London’s old Queen’s Hall. In the same year Delius was made a Companion of Honour.
All this belated recognition softened Delius’s heart towards his native land. Tragically, however, he was by now a very sick man. Probably during his time in Paris he had contracted syphilis. This gradually destroyed his health, leaving him blind, paralysed and in great pain. Amazingly the disease had not touched his mind. With tremendous willpower Delius continued to compose, aided by Eric Fenby, a young musician, also from Yorkshire, who became his amanuensis, laboriously taking down note by note the music Delius dictated to him.
Devotedly nursed by his wife, Jelka, and by Fenby, Delius died at his home in Grez-sur-Loing on 10 June 1934, aged seventy-two. He was first buried in the village churchyard at Grez. But Delius had finally accepted England as his homeland, and the next year his remains were re-interred in the village churchyard at Limpsfield in Surrey, now close to the M25 motorway. There is also an impressive memorial sculpture to him in his hometown of Bradford.
Delius lived through what is called the Late Romantic period in music, which covered the last years of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century. It was notably marked by the music of the German- speaking composers, Mahler and Richard Strauss. They brought the whole nineteenth-century Romantic period to a close with their massive symphonies and other orchestral works, loaded with every kind of image, idea and emotion.
Delius did not belong with them. He was closer in spirit to the much more refined and impressionistic styles of his close French contemporaries, Debussy and Ravel. The delicate forms and soft harmonies of the Norwegian composer, Grieg, a close friend from their time together in Leipzig, influenced him more directly. Another lasting influence was the singing of the black plantation workers, with their sometimes quite jazzy harmonies, that he recalled from his early days in Florida. Beyond that, Delius composed in a musical world all of his own.
As well as On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, Delius wrote a number of other fairly short and descriptive orchestral pieces, including In a Summer Garden and Summer Night on the River. Other relatively short concert pieces have been taken from the composer’s plentiful music for the stage. The incidental music he wrote for the play, Hassan, has given us a lovely Intermezzo and Serenade. There is also the Prelude to the opera, Irmelin; an enchanting dance, ‘La Calinda’, from the opera, Koanga; and the haunting, ‘Walk to the Paradise Garden’ from the opera, A Village Romeo and Juliet.
With such well-known pieces in mind, many people think of Delius as a miniaturist, as someone who only composed in small musical forms. This is far from being the case. He put a huge effort into his operas (which, alas, have been largely neglected). Besides these, Delius wrote a number of big concert works, whose music is often full of energy and elation. Paris: the Song of a Great City is an orchestral piece that vividly conjures up his time in the City of Light, when it was the artistic and cultural capital of the world. Sea Drift is a setting of very sad words of abandonment by the American poet, Walt Whitman. A Mass of Life is an even more ambitious choral and orchestral work, this time setting to music words by the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, proclaiming the power of nature and of free will. A Song of the High Hills extols the grandeur of Norway’s mountains and fjords, which Delius came to love during visits to his friend, Grieg. And Delius returned in spirit to his native land with An English Rhapsody: Brigg Fair. This is a magical set of orchestral variations on a Lincolnshire folk tune, brought to his attention by another friend, the eccentric Australian pianist and composer, Percy Grainger. In addition, Delius composed several concertos, other instrumental pieces, and songs.
First and foremost, the music of Delius expresses his pantheistic love of the natural world, by turns ecstatic, mystical and sometimes full of a sense of longing and of loss. Despite all the enthusiasm of Beecham and others, it has never been widely popular and probably never will be. But for those of us on Delius’s very special wavelength, now is the time joyfully to celebrate this anniversary year.