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Composer (MIDI)

Frederick Delius (1862-1934); ENG

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Frederick Delius

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Frederick Delius' singing lines and rich harmonies evokes such sensuous moods and feelings that he is usually associated with the French Impressionists rather than with his English compatriots. Although the subjects of his works were often specific, Delius' music expresses, instead, the composer's emotional reactions to those subjects. This can be easily heard by listening to his On Hearing the First Cuckoo of Spring, or by reading the composer's own words in this regard, "Nothing is so wonderful as elemental feeling; nothing is more wonderful in art than elemental feeling expressed intensely."

Born in England in 1862, Delius' sojourn in Florida, studies in Germany, travels to Scandinavia, and eventual residency in France provided such diverse sources of musical inspiration that there remained little English flavor to his music. Delius' music evokes, instead, the immediacy of Black American folk songs, the passionate harmonies of Wagner, the romantic vistas of Grieg, and the evocative impressionism of Debussy. At the same time, Delius' music inhabits a world very much of its own. He is best known for tone poems, such as: Karanga, Summer Night on the River, Koanga, Walk to Paradise Garden; and his works for voice and orchestra, including: Sea Drift, Songs of Farewell, Songs of Sunset, and A Mass of Life.

Delius' eclectic life and aesthetic, however, had simple beginnings. His father was a wool merchant who had moved to England from Germany, didn't consider music to be a proper profession for any of his fourteen children, yet attended concerts regularly and hosted chamber music evenings in his home. It was through him that Delius met, early on, the great Norwegian composer who would so strongly influence his life and music, Edvard Grieg. Delius' father also provided violin lessons for his son, while, at the same time, sending him to business school to prepare him to enter the family business.
Although the younger Delius preferred music, he and a friend convinced his father to back an orange grove business in Jacksonville, Florida (an area not particularly known for its wool production). Delius spent more time studying violin and absorbing the music of the local black population than tending his grove, however, for he soon abandoned the oranges for music. "In Florida," he wrote, "I gradually learnt the way in which I should naturally find myself...and hearing the Afro-Americans singing in such romantic surroundings, it was then I first felt the urge to express myself in music." His decision to return to Europe and resume his violin lessons at the Leipzig Conservatory was supported by Grieg, and Delius began composing shortly thereafter. One of his earliest compositions was the Florida Suite, written in 1888, in which he recalls the music heard during his Florida experience.

In the same year, he moved into the home of his future wife, near Fontainebleau, France. The same town where Marie-Antoinette's "little castle near Paris" was located, Fontainebleau was also to become a musical gathering-place in the 1930's and 40's, where the classes of Nadia Boulanger attracted composers such as the Americans, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, David Diamond, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, Roger Sessions, and Virgil Thomson. Here, his composing flourished as he met Maurice Ravel, Paul Gauguin, and other musicians, artists, and writers, whose work inspired and influenced his own. Delius' music, in turn, influenced other composers, and, although he did not meet Duke Ellington in France, it is a matter of record that the jazz legend loved, and was influenced by, his musical style. The title of Ellington's "In a Blue Summer Garden" is a clear tribute to Delius and his work of a similar name.

An especially important event took place in 1907, when the great British conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, hear Delius' Appalachia at a London Concert. As a practical matter, it is conductors who often bring success to composers; they hear the composers' works, like them, and perform them. This was the case with Delius and Beecham, who became the composer's champion and remained so until the conductor's death in 1961.

The First World War interrupted Delius' work, and he and his wife left France to live in England and Norway. Delius' health declined severely during this time; blindness and paralysis had overcome him by 1910, but his mind and speech remained unimpaired. His efforts to continue composing were given a great assist when, in 1928, Eric Fenby, a Yorkshire born composer and lover of Delius' music, moved in. Fenby became the composer's amanuensis, and took down his musical dictation until Delius' death in 1934.

In 1956, Beecham wrote in his biography of Delius, "I cannot do other than regard him as the last great apostle in our time of romance, emotion, and beauty in music."

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