Frederick Delius (1862 -1934), English composer of German extraction, was set up by his father, a Yorkshire fruit importer, to manage a citrus plantation in Florida. Instead, he studied music there, was to write one of his most popular pieces, the “Florida Suite” about his stay there and contracted syphilis there. In his mid-twenties he studied at the Liepzig Conservatorium before settling in Paris where he joined the bohemian set of Gauguin and others. In 1897, he and his wife moved to Grez-sur-Loing, a town and community south of Paris much favoured by artistic expatriates, where he stayed until his death after decades of increasing ill-health.
Most of his music was written at Grez despite his illness. During the last 6 years of his life, though paralysed and blind, he was able to dictate some of his greatest music to his young amanuensis, the composer Eric Fenby.
Delius is the most important English impressionist composer. Others pottered, but much of Delius’ music consists of seamless evocations of place and mood. He usually eschewed rhythm for atmosphere and was extremely lyrical with much harmonic colour but often seemed to lack a framework, a sense of order. Many of his works are entitled rhapsodies and even more of them are rhapsodic in fact if not in name.
He wrote in most forms, but no symphonies.
- He wrote a number of operas, all in his early years. They have all had some small success at varying times, but none has taken off. Some of the orchestral music from them – “The Walk to the Paradise Garden” [] from “A Village Romeo and Juliet” and the “Irmelin Prelude” [] - are popular.
- Much of his shorter orchestral music is popular. The conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, began championing this music in the 1920s. His shorter pieces, harmonically dense with descriptive colour, are, many of them, evocations of the landscapes he loved – in France, England, America and Scandinavia. Though frequently rhapsodic, they can seem static like a still life painting, but are no less effective for that. There are notable larger works: “Paris – the Song of a great City” and the “Brigg Fair” variations [] amongst them. One of his rare multi-movement works is the early “Florida Suite”; [] musical descriptions of his time there. His most played short work is the atmospheric “On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring” []; but there are many like it, 5 to 10 minute tone poems, with titles like “Summer Night on the River”, Summer Evening”, “Spring Morning”, “In a Summer Garden” and the like.
- He wrote concertos for violin, cello and piano], a double concerto and other concerto-like pieces, all of which have rhapsodic elements but can lack form in the wrong hands.
- His songs and choral works, like his orchestral pieces are a travelogue of his times in America, Britain and Europe. Two major works for voices and orchestra are “Sea Drift” to words by Walt Whitman and “Appalachia” – a set of variations on an old slave song. He wrote a number of songs, choral pieces, part songs - once again titles disclose his passion for the time and place – “To be Sung on a Summer Night on the River” is an example.
- Throughout his career he wrote chamber music mostly for violin or cello and piano, and string quartets. He wrote piano pieces and is one of the rare 20th century composers to have written anything for the harpsichord.
Delius is buried in the grounds of St. Peter's church, Limpsfield, Surrey, England. For one reason or another his resting place is shared by various musicians - among them Sir Thomas Beecham, the Australian concert pianist Eileen Joyce, the conductor Norman del Mar and the great Geordie classical clarinetist and teacher, Jack Brymer.