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.
Delius has never been a widely popular composer; and, like Elgar, he was at first more admired in Germany than in England. His music was taken up by friends and enthusiasts, including front-rank musicians. German supporters included the conductors Hans Haym and Julius Buths, the latter also being a passionate supporter of Elgar. In England, Henry Wood and Thomas Beecham went out of their way to programme his music in concerts they conducted. Beecham was to prove especially important, both for his unusually deep insight into Delius’s music, and for the range of his support, which culminated in a six-concert festival in 1929 that he financed and conducted.
The libretto for A Village Romeo and Juliet was adapted by the composer from a short story by the Swiss writer Gottfried Keller, into what Delius described as six pictures or scenes. It is a tale of ill-starred young lovers in a rural village, who encounter the opposition of their feuding families, and who perish together in the river in a sort of love-death that, although owing something to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, seems driven by darker forces. In particular, there is the Dark Fiddler – a sinister intensification of one of Keller’s characters, always present as a sort of evil magus, drawing the lovers toward a destiny as tragic as it is inevitable.
Early reviews of A Village Romeo and Juliet epitomise the sometimes fierce critical debates surrounding Delius. The London Times’s review of the English premiere in 1910 acknowledged that the composer’s “healthy desire for originality of form and expression marks him as one of the factors to be
reckoned with”. But it also remarks that “Mr Delius seems to have remarkably little sense of dramatic writing for the voice”. A review of the 1920 revival in Covent Garden reveals puzzlement, wondering whether it is an opera at all, and saying that the orchestra’s role is to suggest, to fill space, and that (in an age when instrumental music usually accompanied silent cinema) it is more like film. That was not lost on Petr Weigl, who has made cinematic versions of several operas, and in in 1991 made a striking film of this one.
We might now find the concept fascinating rather than puzzling; but it is still a distinctive kind of musical drama. I cannot agree with Robert Anderson’s claim that A Village Romeo and Juliet is “a Tristan und Isolde for the young and innocent”, for this is no rural idyll. There is something nightmarish about the story’s portrayal of innocence doomed by dark powers, all carried by sumptuous orchestral sounds that are more dreamy than dramatic.
Delius told Eric Fenby that in his music and even Wagner’s: “Never mind so much about the singers, or even what they are singing about; the narrative is in the orchestra.”
So it is; and the beauties of Delius’s music, allied to the tale’s mysterious ambivalence, can make A Village Romeo and Juliet a powerful experience.
A Village Romeo and Juliet is at Wexford Festival Opera on Friday, Monday, and November 1st and 4th. 053-9122144, wexfordopera.com