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8.220452 - DELIUS: American Rhapsody / Paa Vidderne / Spring Morning

Frederick Delius (1862–1934)
Paa Vidderne (On the Heights) • Spring Morning • American Rhapsody


Frederick Delius was born in Bradford, in the North of England, in 1862. His family was of German descent with a possible fraction of Jewish ancestry, at least according to his friend Percy Grainger, who sought to prove this point by an unsuccessful investigation of birth-certificates at Somerset House. At home music was encouraged as a hobby, but not as a profession, so that he spent his early years working in the family wool business and later running an orange-plantation in Florida. Involvement in the wool trade brought visits to Norway and Paris that led to connections important in his subsequent career, while his time in Florida allowed instruction in music for six months that he later claimed were the only lessons from which he had learnt anything.

Eventually Delius persuaded his father to allow him to study at the Conservatory in Leipzig. There he claimed he learnt nothing from his teachers Salomon Jadassohn and Carl Reinecke, whose teaching was generally conservative. It was through Reinecke’s former pupil, Edvard Grieg, however, that Delius’s father was persuaded to allow his son to continue working as a composer. He moved to Paris where he mixed in a circle that included Gauguin, Strindberg and Muench. In 1896 he met the young painter Jelka Rosen and the following year settled with her at Grez-sur-Loing. The couple married six years later, their life in France only interrupted by the war, after which Delius’s health gradually deteriorated, with the increasingly paralytic effects of syphilis contracted many years before, probably during his years in Florida. He died in 1934.

The music of Delius is couched in an instantly recognizable harmonic and melodic idiom, apparent even in his early works. At the turn of the century he occupied himself with the composition of operas, including Koanga and A Village Romeo and Juliet, followed, in 1910, by Fennimore and Gerda, based on the work of the Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen, whose espousal of the ideals of free love, atheism and the supremacy of the emotions coincided with his own. His work found a redoubtable champion in the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, who introduced A Village Romeo and Juliet to English audiences at Covent Garden in 1910, and arranged the first English performance of Koanga in 1935, after the composer’s death. The earlier opera lrmelin had to wait until 1953, when it was given its first performance under Beecham at the New Theatre in Oxford.

The orchestral music of Delius has been generally accessible to a much wider public, again largely through the efforts of musicians such as Beecham, Percy Grainger and others. To some Delius has seemed to express in particularly English accents the feelings of nostalgia and sensual yearning for some unattainable ideal that found comparable, if different, expression in French music and poetry in the same period. For Delius music was a simple matter, in his own words “the expression of a poetical and emotional nature”.

The symphonic poem Paa Vidderne (“On the Heights”) was written in 1890 and 1891 and first performed at Christiania (Oslo) in the latter year. The work is based on a poem by Ibsen, which Delius had already used in a composition for reciter and orchestra in 1888. The original poem was written in 1859. In it Ibsen gives expression to a dilemma that confronted him, the necessity of reconciling ideas of nationalism with the creation of a contemporary theatre, whether, in fact, an artist should be committed or not. In the poem a young man leaves his mother and his home and sets off for the mountains. On the way he meets a girl and spends the night with her, but in the morning continues his journey, promising, Iike Peer Gynt, to come back and marry her. In the mountains he meets a stranger who teaches him a new wisdom and he turns to a new life and new ideals. At Christmas he looks down and sees his old home burning, his mother in it, but the stranger teaches him the beauty of the sight, the colour of the red flames in the Iight of the moon. At midsummer he sees the girl marrying another, and is able to admire the sight, the contrasting colour of wedding clothes and the white of the birch-trees. He has learned detachment from his old world, since “Up here on the heights are freedom and God”.

Spring Morning is one of three Small Tone Poems, completed in 1890. The others in the set are Summer Evening and Winter Night, the second of these derived from an earlier work. In style it suggests the course that Delius’s music was to take, rhapsodic, sensual and evocative, early evidence of the instinct which he chose as his guide.

It was in 1897 that Delius wrote incidental music for the comedy Folkeraadet (“The Council of the People”) by the Norwegian playwright Gunnar Heiberg. The composer conducted at the first performance in Christiania in October of the same year, the music giving rise to hostile reaction, because of its satirical use of the Norwegian national anthem. One member of the audience, indeed, fired several blank shots at the composer, who was observing the house from the proscenium curtains, unaware of such an apparently lethal possibility. The shooting succeeded, at least, in causing a hysterical reaction among members of the audience.

Gunnar Heiberg, distinguished as a writer and as a theatre-director, belongs to the generation after Ibsen, whose plays he staged with considerable success. The subjects of his own plays were often topical, as, for example, the very successful play Tante Ulrikka, the principal character of which was modelled on his own aunt, a woman of strong-minded independence. The music that Delius provided for the play Folkeraadet forms a suite of five pieces, opening with a cheerful introduction that sets the mood of the work, and continuing in similarly appropriate style.

Appalachia is a series of variations on a negro slave-song, written in 1896, with a final chorus which is omitted from the orchestral version of the work. Appalachia is the American Indian name for North America, and Delius’s rhapsodic treatment of a very well known melody introduces, in passing, other American material that is equally familiar.

Keith Anderson

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