Delius: On the Heights


Frederick Delius (1862 – 1934)

Sir Thomas Beecham described the English-born, German-descended composer Frederick “Fritz” Delius (1862 – 1934) as the last great advocate of beauty in music.  About a decade ago, I contributed an article to the website of the International Delius Society entitled “On the Heights: Frederick Delius and the Secular Sublime.”  What I denominated “the secular sublime” holds this interest to Traditionalists” The “secular sublime” is a concession by materialists to the apologists for another world, the Platonic world of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.  Delius, who thought of himself as a Nietzschean, and who set excerpts from Thus Spake Zarathustra in his musically magnificent Mass of Life (1906), nevertheless devoted his art to beauty, setting himself in contradiction with the implication of materialism, that beauty is an illusion. Delius lived in Florida in the 1880s, nominally managing an orange grove. He is the first serious composer to incorporate Negro tunes and harmonies into symphonic music — beating Gershwin to it by fifty years.

I link my article here.  My articles from more than fifteen years ago tend to embarrass me, but this one eschews the first person, is reliant on evidence throughout, and manages to be fairly well-written.  I reproduce below the first two paragraphs of the article followed by a number of Delius’s works in performances uploaded to (the loathsome but unavoidable) YouTube platform.

Others might have known the Bradford-born, Dutch- or German-descended composer Frederick Delius (1862 – 1934) longer than did Eric Fenby, the old man’s amanuensis for the late flowering of his music in the last six years of his life, but none save his wife Jelka (née Rosen) knew him so plainly, or, as an artist, so intimately, not even old friends like Balfour Gardiner or Sir Thomas Beecham.  Fenby lived through most of the period 1928 – 34 in the Delius household at Grez, a village on the river Loing, some forty miles southeast of Paris.  While working out the daunting problem of how to take full-score musical dictation from a creative artist blind and paraplegic, he saw daily his idol in the idol’s unscreened candor.  Transparent to Fenby, who in his saintliness of dedication overlooked the rudeness habitual to the self-proclaimed disciple of Friedrich Nietzsche, Delius remained largely opaque to himself, a supreme egotist, and now and again an insufferable bigot in the prejudice and tenacity of his views.  To read Fenby’s beautiful, tactful first-person account of his residency chez Delius, written and published soon after the master’s death, is to confront in particularly high relief the paradox that a great artist need not be a great man.  When one speaks of greatness in a man, one usually means magnanimity or largeness of soul.  Fenby has magnanimity – a capaciousness of spirit that opens itself to other spirits – but Delius rarely if ever reveals this quality, as a person.  He occasionally reveals it, as an artist, but his receptivity to others remains confined, even in his art, to a narrow range of types close to his own.  Indeed, Delius appears detached from other human beings generally, rather like an Ibsen protagonist or the central figure of a Knut Hamsun novel.  Consider the man’s relation to his wife.

Jelka, a granddaughter of the Romantic-era piano virtuoso Ignaz Moscheles, had made for herself no little reputation as a painter and sculptress before meeting Delius.  She obviously devoted herself to the man, loving him in a more or less uxorial way, and sacrificing a big measure of her own artistic ambition in doing so.  In the composer’s final years, Jelka nursed her husband unselfishly.  Yet Delius could tell Fenby, who was young, shy, Catholic, morally orthodox, and susceptible of being shocked: “You must never marry…  No artist should ever marry…  If you ever do have to marry, marry a girl who is more in love with your art than with you.”  It would be better, as Delius advised, to “amuse yourself with as many women as you like” because in such affairs libres “the physical attraction soon plays itself out.”  Delius’s conviction corresponds to the human detachment of rigorous Epicureanism or Stoicism.  More a Romantic or a Decadent than a classicist – he belongs to the chapter of music history known as Late Romanticism wherein one finds also not only Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler but Arnold Schoenberg as well – Delius found poetic and philosophical justification for his ideal of the passade in two of his favorite writers, the aforementioned Nietzsche and Walt Whitman.  With Fenby’s invaluable help, Delius had set Whitman’s lines in the vocal-orchestral Idyll (1932), where the anonymous male voice tells how, “Once I passed through a populous city, / Imprinting my brain with all its shows. / Of that city I remember only /A woman I casually met, / Who detained me for love of me.”  Women “casually met” and soon discarded populate Delius’s biography, from a probable black girl during his time in Solano Grove, Florida, to his Parisian years, when, a frequenter of brothels, he contracted the syphilitic infection that blinded and paralyzed him when he was still in his fifties.


One thought on “Delius: On the Heights

  1. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 08/04/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores


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