The man who gave opera a filmic edge
There speaks a true fin-de-siècle artist. Tradition is respected only in as much as it might serve personal vision, writes MARTIN ADAMS
FOR MOST classical-music fans, the name Frederick Delius will primarily be associated with concert or chamber music of distinctive style and rare beauty. Yet he also wrote six operas, the last four of which were generally well-regarded, even if that has never translated into frequent performance. Most authorities agree that the finest is A Village Romeo and Juliet, that premiered in Berlin in 1901, which was the composer’s fourth opera, and is one of the three main works at Wexford Festival Opera this year. One section of that work, the orchestral interlude The Walk to the Paradise Garden, has acquired fame in the concert hall; and another operatic extract is perhaps even better known – La Calinda from the preceding opera Koanga, which premiered in Elberfelt.
These German connections highlight the fact that, although Delius is almost always described as an English composer, he was in temperament and practice far more internationalist than any of his English contemporaries. He was born in Bradford in 1862, emigrated at the age of 22, returned rarely, and lived in France from his late 20s until his death in 1934. His eventual burial in Limpsfield, Surrey, in the same grave as his long-suffering, loyal wife Jelka Rosen, was not quite a homecoming.
According to Eric Fenby – the amanuensis who helped Delius compose during his final years, when he suffered from blindness and paralysis brought on by syphilis – Delius wanted to be buried in England because its country churchyards “had always reminded him of those he had loved up in Norway”.
Delius’s parents were German immigrants. After frustrating years in the family’s wool business, and two years running an orange plantation in Florida, he took up full-time musical education in Leipzig at the age of 24. In later years, he claimed that nothing Leipzig had to offer had a deeper impact than the combination of traditional musical discipline and eclectic thought he had previously learned from the Florida musician Thomas F Ward.
Eric Fenby reports him saying that “Ward’s counterpoint lessons were the only lessons from which I ever derived any benefit . . . he showed wonderful insight in helping me to find out just how much in the way of traditional technique would be useful to me.” And on another occasion he said that musical form is “nothing more than imparting spiritual unity to one’s thought”.
There speaks a true fin-de-siècle artist. Tradition is respected only in as much as it might serve personal vision. Rationalism, which was central to so much English musical thought, has no place; and spiritual vision has less to do with God in heaven than with the transcendent, redemptive power of art itself. Vision might be rooted in nature, as in rhapsodic orchestral works such as Brigg Fair (1907), Summer Night on the River (1911) and A Song of Summer (1930); or it might be concerned with philosophy, as in Delius’s largest concert work, A Mass of Life (1905), which sets texts by Nietzsche.