This edited article about Frederick Delius originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 715 published on 27 September 1975.
To be forced into a clerk’s job, in the office of a wool merchant, does not sound a promising start for the career of a composer of music, but it was what happened to the Yorkshire-born, musician Frederick Delius. And Delius, whose music always sounds so very “English” had a German father, a half-Dutch mother, and a Norwegian wife, and lived most of his life in France.
The wool trade was booming in the 1880s, when Delius was a young man. There was money to be made, and his prospering father could not understand why Frederick took so little interest in the family business.
Among the hard-headed business men of Bradford, there were also some disturbing rebels, and one of these appealed to Frederick. His name was Charles Bradlaugh, and one day he stood in the centre of the city square, and in front of a large crowd, called on his creator – to strike him dead in two minutes. Young Frederick was in that crowd, and watched in breathless fascination as Charles Bradlaugh stood there, defiantly looking at his watch till the two minutes had passed without anything happening. The scene made a deep impression on the young man, and perhaps drove out the last traces of religious feeling which he had.
Despairing of his future in the family firm, Frederick’s father set him up with a small estate at Solano Grove, in sunny Florida, America, where as an orange-grower he had little to do, and was well out of the way. Perhaps the father thought that boredom would bring his son to a different frame of mind! But music was the only deep interest of Frederick’s life, and in Solano Grove he was fascinated by the folk tunes of the native workers, some of which he used in his music written long afterwards. There he also found unexpected help of the kind he most wanted. An organist called Thomas Ward had come to Florida, for the sake of his health and for three months he gave Frederick a daily lesson in the basic art of composing music.
Armed with this training, Frederick came back to Europe, studied for a while in Germany, and then in Norway, where he met another great musician, Edward Greig, who gave him encouragement and advice. There too he met a beautiful painter, Jelka Rosen, who became his wife. They set up home in France where they lived for the rest of their lives.
In 1921 Frederick felt the onset of a disease which, within a few years, made him completely paralysed and totally blind.
One day he received a letter from a young Englishman who had heard some of the music of Delius, and on learning of the composer’s fate, felt he must go to his aid. He offered to come to France for a while, to see if he could take down, note by note, the music which the sick man was no longer able to put on paper, but which still flowed from his mind. The Englishman, Eric Fenby, spent in the end nearly five years, taking down music which Delius dictated to him, often only with immense difficulty, and in frequent pain. Like many invalids, Delius was moody and hard to please, but young Fenby struggled on, and in the end large-scale works of great beauty were written out, which have since become famous under the titles “A Song of Summer” and “Songs of Farewell”.
In the years between the World Wars, Delius lived the life of a recluse, seeing only his wife, the servants, and a few privileged visitors. But among the people who did come to see him, two are of special interest. One was the English composer, then at the height of his fame, Sir Edward Elgar, who insisted that Delius ought to come to London, crippled and blind though he was.
It was another famous Englishman, the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, who in the end persuaded Delius to visit London, as guest of honour at a festival of his own music, in 1929. Practically everything that Delius had composed was performed.
Although he died at his home in France in 1934, his body was brought to England, where it lies in the country churchyard of Limpsfield in Surrey.
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