Delius’s Worldliness · LRB 19 January 2023

Delius’s Worldliness · LRB 19 January 2023

Reviewing​ a festival of Frederick Delius’s music in 1929, the Times declared that his ‘strength and weakness … is his solitariness. He belongs to no school, follows no tradition, and is like no other composer’ in form, content or style. When Delius died in 1934, his obituaries described him as ‘a dreamer’ who ‘lived in a world of his own’. Over the years, the story of his singularity was repeated so often that in 2014 his biographers Martin Lee-Browne and Paul Guinery could still claim that ‘Delius would spend his life composing music that bore no relationship to anything, good or bad, that had been written before.’

Delius has been perceived this way in part because he wrote music that was not easily associated with any national school, at a time when codifying ‘Englishness’ in music was thought to be of real importance. When in 1904 a German critic denounced England as ‘the land without music’, it hit a nerve. The lack of a composer to compete with Beethoven and Brahms had for decades been the source of national anxiety, widely discussed in the musical papers. Music wasn’t only a form of soft power, but was believed to be a way of shaping the nation’s morals – and England was dancing to Germany’s tunes.

Delius seemed at first a promising candidate. He was born in Bradford in 1862 to a respected middle-class wool merchant. Many of his later works refer to his Yorkshire origins, conjuring up an idealised North of England. His enduringly popular orchestral piece Brigg Fair (1907), for example, is based on an English folksong of the same name, about a fair in a Lincolnshire market town. When it was performed in 1908 under the baton of Thomas Beecham, it got rave reviews: ‘Mr Delius sees poetry and sentiment,’ the Daily Telegraph wrote, where ‘to the conventional eye all is harshness and frivol … The result is a work of intense feeling, pregnant with rare emotion and serene beauty.’

But he didn’t quite fit. His parents were German, and he spent much of his life travelling. He lived in the US, France and Germany as well as in Britain, and incorporated a wide range of cultural influences into his work. Among his operas, A Village Romeo and Juliet (1901) was based on a Swiss story, Fennimore and Gerda (1910) on a Danish novel, and The Magic Fountain (1895) is about Juan Ponce de León’s ‘discovery’ of Florida. Even Brigg Fair, the Times commented, ‘does not sound like an English folksong when Delius harmonises it’. Delius’s ‘Englishness’ sounded very different to that represented by his contemporaries Elgar, Vaughan Williams or even Ethel Smyth, who, like Delius, studied in Leipzig and travelled widely.

Delius’s music has a distinct and identifiable sound. He drew on Debussy’s French impressionism and Wagnerian harmony so that his works are often described as ‘meditative’ and ‘atmospheric’. Modulation between keys is one of the main ways in which composers can create tension within tonal music, but Delius favoured key relationships that don’t, relatively speaking, generate a sense of momentum and forward drive. This is heightened by his tendency to undulate between keys rather than dramatise his key changes. When added to his heavy focus on string and woodwind timbres, these musical characteristics create an opulent, seemingly static sound world. Delius’s rhapsodic works often have an ethereal, almost otherworldly quality. His career spanned six decades of musical upheaval: at the start of his life Wagner had yet to premiere Tristan und Isolde; by the time he died in 1934 Bing Crosby was dominating the US charts. Yet his style remained relatively constant. His technique developed and his palette expanded, but in contrast to the careers of, say, Schoenberg or Strauss, Delius’s early works bear striking similarities to his last, moving beyond Wagner but never embracing jazz or the more experimental paths of 20th-century music.

All this has made him a divisive composer. According to the Times, reviewing his memorial concert in 1934, ‘whatever else he may be Delius is not an acquired taste.’ His music either ‘captivates at once and those who have been captivated may go on to discern new varieties within the rather limited range of emotions it represents’ – or it does not, in which case even a small amount of Delius can be too much. His lyrical, allusive and sometimes whimsical works have been upheld as the best and worst of early 20th-century music, characterised as both the visionary utterances of a prophet without honour in his own country, and as the ramblings of a figure who represented the last gasp of a dying age. In the years after Delius’s death, opinion moved against him. Writing at his centenary in 1962, Deryck Cooke lamented that ‘Delius’s admirers have to face the fact that … the general attitude of English musicians to his art has been one of strong moral condemnation: to declare oneself a confirmed Delian today is hardly less self-defamatory than to admit to being an addict of cocaine or marihuana.’ Thanks to the sustained efforts of musicians such as Cooke, however, the tide has gradually turned. Delius may still be divisive, but his fans have grown in number. There is now a Delius Society dedicated to promoting his music, and a journal publishing research about him. Various books about his music have been published over the last twenty years, and while he’s still far from being a fixture of concert programmes, most of his major works have been recorded, often to favourable reviews.

Jeremy Dibble is an admirer. Delius’s music was the soundtrack to his teenage years; he was drawn to its ‘lyricism and poetry’. His book focuses on Delius’s compositional processes. ‘We can only do true justice to Delius’s music by understanding how his music coheres,’ Dibble writes, opposing ‘the accusations of formlessness’ which were once levelled at Delius and contributed to ambivalence about his music. Describing a piece as ‘formless’ could prove fatal for its reputation – it implied incoherence and compositional incompetence, a lack of the structural rigour that has historically been thought of as a hallmark of ‘great’ music. Delius’s orchestral work Sea Drift (1904) came in for particular criticism on this front. By presenting an analytical study of Delius’s oeuvre, Dibble hopes to expose the allegation as being ‘demonstrably untrue’. He counters the Musical Times’s complaint in 1908 that the ‘comparative formlessness’ of Sea Drift made it ‘difficult to follow’, for example, by demonstrating that the work has a large-scale ternary structure in which the returning key of E major provides an anchor. His book will be a useful guide for those looking for a chronological overview that pays close attention to musical detail without getting into an unapproachable level of theoretical depth; it is especially insightful on Paris (1900), In a Summer Garden (1908) and A Village Romeo and Juliet. But on the question of Delius’s form, Dibble agrees with the academic consensus. The ‘accusations’ he cites come mostly from the thirty years after the composer’s death; few critics today would make this complaint about Delius’s music.

Dibble’s previous books include biographies of Charles Villiers Stanford and Hubert Parry, and in this one he approaches Delius principally as a British composer. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the sections on Britain are the strongest. Dibble shuttles between context, reception and analysis to illuminate his central question about musical form. Composers would usually be introduced to London’s musical public in concerts alongside more established figures (Smyth’s London debut at the Crystal Palace, for example, featured August Manns conducting her four-movement orchestral Serenade alongside the English premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto and works by Schütz, Wagner and Parry). Delius, however, opted to present himself in 1899 with a three-and-a-half-hour-long concert dedicated entirely to his own music, organised and paid for by himself. Solo concerts weren’t unheard of, but Dibble’s comparisons with similarly ambitious undertakings by Stanford and Granville Bantock help to explain why even within an unusual format, Delius’s music was considered peculiar. He incorporated influences from the US, Scandinavia and Germany in his work. Placing this debut in the broader context of more introspective British music-making shows why his work would have been perceived as ‘strange, unprecedented and cosmopolitan’. While many appreciated Delius’s newness, others ‘didn’t know what the devil to make of this music, and most of us were frank enough to say so’, as the critic John Runciman put it – an attitude that no doubt contributed to the perception that Delius’s music was formless.

Delius spent so much of his life abroad that the British context offers only a partial perspective. As a child he taught himself piano, having had violin lessons. He spent many of his early years resisting his father’s attempts to apprentice him into the family’s wool business, but couldn’t avoid, when in his early twenties, being sent to represent the firm’s interests abroad. On arriving in Chemnitz, however, he abandoned his business duties to make the most of Germany’s musical offerings – and the same happened in Sweden, France and America. Eventually, in 1886 his exasperated father granted him permission to study at the Leipzig Conservatoire. His time with the family business instilled a love of travel; he often visited Norway, but eventually settled in Grez-sur-Loing, near Fontainebleau, where he lived with his German wife, Jelka, until his death.

When trying to explain Delius’s impressionistic mise-en-scène in Fennimore and Gerda, Dibble mentions Wagner and the innovative Swiss lighting designer Adolphe Appia as possible influences. But just as significant was August Strindberg, whom he had befriended while in Paris. Delius’s whimsical approach to stage directions is also characteristic of Strindberg’s symbolist plays, particularly his Till Damaskus trilogy, and Delius’s letters show a keen interest in the debate around theatrical realism that dominated German and Scandinavian theatres in the early 20th century. The Austrian director Max Reinhardt may have been another influence. Delius would most likely have been aware of Reinhardt’s work; the set designer for the Berlin premiere of A Village Romeo and Juliet had previously collaborated with Reinhardt, as had Edvard Munch, with whom Delius was close friends. Dibble doesn’t explore the influence of this German-Scandinavian milieu on Delius’s approach to operatic form, nor does he consider Delius’s relationship to visual culture more widely – something that feels especially important given that Jelka was an artist, and that Delius often gave his pieces visually evocative titles.

Dibble’s​ narrow lens becomes most problematic in his discussion of Delius’s American works. He produced his first large-scale orchestral piece while running an orange plantation in Florida. When it became clear that he had no interest in the wool business, Delius’s father sent him to Florida in a last-ditch attempt to steer his wayward son towards a stable profession. In fact, this decision had the opposite effect, because it was there that Delius first encountered African American vernacular music. He attributed his ‘urge to express myself in music’ to hearing the family of his foreman, Albert Anderson, singing on the plantation. Delius incorporated some of this music into Florida (1887), which depicts across four movements a day on the plantation, and in later works such as Appalachia (1902) and his opera Koanga (1897). This was based on an episode from an 1880 novel, The Grandissimes: A Story of Creole Life, by the American author George Washington Cable. One central character is an enslaved prince, Koanga, who is killed after cursing his enslavers and attempting to escape from them. But Delius and his librettist, Charles Francis Keary, changed Cable’s original in crucial ways, altering the message and character of the story. The whole opera takes place as a flashback, and instead of Koanga’s curse incapacitating only the white slave-owners on the plantation it wreaks destruction on the enslaved as well.

As musicians have become more attuned to issues around representation and musical appropriation, Delius’s oeuvre has provided many opportunities for discussion. Works like these are difficult and obviously contentious. How does one stage an opera that is, as musicologist Eric Saylor puts it, ‘a product of its creator’s fascination with black culture that was fixed within fin-de-siècle attitudes and stereotypes about racial hierarchies’? What were the historical power imbalances that produced these works? How did Delius’s music contribute to cultural constructions of whiteness? These questions have prompted a flourishing literature on Delius and race. Daniel Grimley, for example, has considered Delius’s American works ‘as part of a much wider literary-artistic construction of the South’. Delius’s first encounters with American culture were not in Florida but in Bradford, through the blackface minstrel shows that played in the city. Grimley shows that Delius came to the plantation with a ‘colonial worldview’, which shaped both his behaviour and the music he wrote there. Florida adopted Jim Crow laws, and had America’s highest per capita rate of the lynching of Black citizens between 1882 and 1930. But the idyllic, peaceful image of the state conjured up in Florida ‘perpetuates a familiar colonial fiction’. In the opening movement, for example, woodwind bird calls and a modal oboe melody over shimmering strings give the impression of an unpeopled landscape. To Delius, Florida was a place of wonder, magic and relaxation. He was so preoccupied with composing that he seems not to have noticed that his neglect of the plantation risked the livelihood of the Black workers whose songs he used for his own music.

Dibble’s survey could have built on such studies, but beyond an acknowledgment that Delius’s interest in African American vernacular music was primarily as a ‘novel source of colour and fantasy’, The Music of Frederick Delius sidesteps the questions raised by this literature, and often treats complex issues as simple. Historical quotations that describe Delius hearing Black workers singing on the plantation as a moment of ‘ecstatic revelation’ stand without contextualisation or critique, while musical analyses rehearse familiar formulations about Delius using African American songs to generate an ‘exotic atmosphere’.

Delius was by no means unique among composers in the US in fusing European classical and African American vernacular idioms. He was composing during an era in which American, like English, musical identity was hotly contested. The pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-69) had found fame using Creole music in his compositions, and Delius’s Florida followed such pieces as John Broekhoven’s Suite Creole (1884) and Ellsworth Phelps’s Emancipation Symphony (1880), which incorporated spirituals and had a loose narrative celebrating the abolition of slavery. Delius may not have known Phelps or Broekhoven, but he would certainly have been aware of Gottschalk: a musical association in Jacksonville, not far from Delius’s plantation, was dedicated to him, and his popular memoir was published in 1881. As the musicologist Douglas Shadle has demonstrated, there was by the late 1880s a lively debate in the US about how music might combine the ‘aesthetic and national’, and what it meant to make African American music the foundation of the ‘national’.

This debate became significantly more bitter in 1892, when Dvořák was appointed director of the National Conservatory in New York and declared that ‘the future music of this country must be founded on what are called negro melodies.’ His pronouncement – followed by the premiere in 1893 of his Symphony No. 9, the ‘New World’, in which he put his theories into practice – caused a scandal. In Jim Crow America, many white Americans ‘considered the music of Native Americans, enslaved Africans, and Asian immigrants “barbaric”’, Shadle writes, ‘and therefore un-American’. In this context, Dvořák’s remarks were ‘explosive’; they were printed and discussed in newspapers across the US. Letters pages filled with racist invective as well as more measured responses acknowledging that Dvořák’s comments were only the latest in a long history of wrangling about what constituted ‘national’ American music.

Delius began writing Koanga in 1895, three years after the Dvořák furore – vital context for understanding his compositional decisions. Dibble’s observation that ‘negro melodies … imbue Koanga with a unique American flavour’ is far from being neutral. (Not least because the term ‘negro melodies’ was contentious even in 1893. As Shadle points out, the term’s broad-brush nature sparked disagreement about what music it included: was it ‘the music of Southern enslaved people, Creole music of the gulf coast, African music, blackface minstrelsy or some combination’?) Delius’s American works are saturated with the racial politics of the period in which they were composed. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t perform them, study them or listen to them. But it does mean that they need to be approached and programmed with care and attention to those politics.

The myth of Delius’s individualism may once have been a useful way of understanding his music. Positioning him as a man outside of his time, uninterested in and unanswerable to his surroundings, made him more attractive, more easily categorised. But Delius was just as influenced and shaped by the politics and culture of his day as any other composer. Acknowledging this means admitting that he was less innovative than some of his advocates claim. He was not the first white composer to show interest in Black music, nor even the first to use a wordless chorus, as Béla Bartók believed. (Delius’s Mass of Life incorporated a wordless chorus in 1905; to pick just one predecessor, Debussy used the technique six years earlier in his Nocturnes.) But it is exactly this worldliness that makes Delius interesting today. British music of the early 20th century is undergoing a reassessment – Ethel Smyth, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, John Ireland, Ivor Gurney and Rebecca Clarke are all gracing stages once again, and established historical narratives are being upended by new scholarship on their lives and works. Delius, in all his messiness, belongs to the same world.