|About this Recording
8.572764 - DELIUS, F.: Appalachia / Sea Drift (arr. T. Beecham) (Williams, Tampa Bay Master Chorale, Florida Orchestra, S. Sanderling)
Frederick Delius (1862–1934)
Two major European composers were so smitten by American plantation song that their own music was instantly stamped by “Negro melodies”. One—as many Americans know—was Antonín Dvořák, who during his American sojourn of 1892–95 predicted that the songs and dances of African-Americans would spawn “a great and noble school” of American music. The other—a story much less well-known—was Frederick Delius. Born in England in 1862 to German parents, Delius was sent by his father to Florida to manage an orange grove at the age of 22. He showed no skill in that department. But he did encounter in Thomas Ward, an organist from Brooklyn, a formidable musical mentor. And the songs of the plantation workers that he heard were an epiphany in which he discovered “a truly wonderful sense of musicianship and harmonic resource”. Hearing this singing “in such romantic surroundings”, he later told his disciple Eric Fenby, “I first felt the urge to express myself in music”. A few years later, after Delius had resettled in Danville, Virginia, as a fledgling musician, his father finally agreed to allow him to study composition formally—in Leipzig.
Decades later, in 1928, Delius was moved to write a preface to the German-language edition of The Autobiography of an ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson, who crucially contributed to the Harlem Renaissance. “I believe that if America is one day to give the world a great composer”, Delius predicted, “he will have coloured blood in his veins”. Both Dvořák’s prophecy and Delius’s were fundamentally correct. Dvořák, in the 1890s, could not have foreseen jazz; Delius, in 1928, was possibly too much in his own world to learn about Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. But Porgy and Bess is the great American opera Dvořák anticipated. Far more than Aaron Copland, who sought to define American concert music after World War I, Dvořák and Delius gleaned that “Negro melodies” would prove the fundament of the music Americans would most call their own.
Dvořák’s American output, between 1892 and 1895, comprises a symphony, a cello concerto, and various piano and chamber works, all of which save the concerto strikingly evoke his “America”. At least four Delius compositions explicitly evoke the sounds of the American South: the Florida Suite (1887, revised 1889), the operas The Magic Fountain (1895) and Koanga (1897), and the present Appalachia (1896–1903). Coming last, Appalachia is music on the cusp of Delius’s mature chromatic idiom, which translates the harmonic world of late Wagner into a voice unlike any other, a voice whose central application would be the expression of loss of self in rapturous, solitary communion with Nature. (The intense eccentricity of Delius the man is unforgettably conveyed in the greatest of all film portraits of a composer: Ken Russell’s Song of Summer.)
When Dvořák returned to Prague in 1895, he dropped his American style. For Delius, by comparison, the American influence was formative and permanent. His frequent elegiac tone, his way of oscillating between sorrow and exaltation may be traced back to plantation song, as can be his frequent recourse to the vernacular. In his invaluable book The Search for Thomas F. Ward, Teacher of Frederick Delius (1996), Don Gillespie pertinently writes:
Appalachia is Delius’s New World Symphony, composed less than a decade after Dvořák’s. The title does not denote the Carolina region, but appropriates a Native American word for the whole of North America. The pacing of this 40-minute sequence of “variations on an old slave song with final chorus” is leisurely and expansive. Coming first is a preamble: an epic sunrise on virgin terrain. For Dvořák, the vast American landscape was the Iowa prairie, so vacant and flat as to seem (as he once wrote in a letter home) “sad to despair”. The elemental vacancy of virgin America is unforgettably limned in the Largo of Dvořák’s Symphony ‘From the New World’. For Delius, virgin America was Florida’s Solano Grove: lush, edenic. Sailing past Solano Grove around the time that Delius and Thomas Ward were there, Lafcadio Hearn (a writer of international reputation, cited by Gillespie in his Ward biography) observed “blue miles of water to right and left; the azure enormity ever broadening and brightening…the immortal beauty of the domed forests crowning its banks, the day-magic of colors shifting and interblending through leagues of light, a sense of inexpressible reverence…a sense of the divinity of Nature, the holiness of beauty”—imagery indelibly inscribed in the epic New World dawn with which Appalachia begins. For Delius, the American landscape here revealed is both physical and metaphysical: untrammeled, life-affirming. We next hear the first stirrings of nature, rising to a high pitch of elation; the orchestra fairly shouts “America!” Then the “old slave song” is sung—as in Dvořák’s Largo—by a solo cor anglais.
Fourteen variations follow. Four times, the chorus enters as a murmured pendant. This pianissimo echo remembers Delius’s first enthralled discovery, from the veranda of his Florida home, of distant black voices, a siren call floating across the water. A central series of slow variations comprises the work’s most hypnotically Delian episode: of forms half-seen, half-imagined in the hazy heat. Only with the penultimate variation does the chorus deliver, a cappella, the “old slave song”:
For the finale, a solo baritone joins the singers: “Aye! Honey, I am going down the river in the morning”. “Heigh ho, heigh ho, down the mighty river!”, the chorus retorts. Though the tone is robust, “going down the river”, in plantation song parlance, translates as a sold slave. But this sold slave is resilient:
Delius now builds swiftly toward a refulgent climax capped by wordless choral exhalations (“Ah!” “Ah!”). This pantheistic ecstasy may be the Delian equivalent of “crossing over into campground”. The complex affect—balancing the work’s ecstatic preface—is of a culminating dawn of the spirit. It is a gesture of New World freedom, of human liberation.
And so both New World symphonies—Dvořák’s and Delius’s—culminate in an apotheosis: in Dvořák, of the noble savage; in Delius, of the noble slave, or of enobling nature, or both. Solitude and sorrow, nostalgia and rapturous illumination would define Delius’s musical expression as he receded into a realm of pure experience. The potency of plantation song as a starting point for this singular compositional odyssey remains ponderable.
In later life, Delius absorbed a further American influence in the nature mysticism of Walt Whitman—and in 1904 (just after Appalachia) composed among the most telling of all the many musical settings of Whitman’s verse: Sea Drift, for baritone, chorus, and orchestra. To Eric Fenby, Delius confided: “The shape of it was taken out of my hands…and was bred easily of my particular musical ideas, and the nature and sequence of the particular poetical ideas of Whitman that appealed to me.” The outcome is considered by many as Delius’s masterpiece.
Whitman’s poem, from Leaves of Grass, begins with the poet observing mated birds—and the sudden disappearance of the female, no longer daily tending her nest. The he-bird’s bewildered loss transmutes into human loss. The poet imagines the voice of his beloved—“This gentle call is for you”—only to be disabused by the commenting chorus. The permanence of loss erases cherished memories: “O darkness! O in vain!”
Whitman’s imagery is of love, death, and the sea—and a tidal ebb and flow informs Delius’s setting. Though solo woodwinds evoke birdsong, and a solo harp the glitter of stars, the nature music of Sea Drift is wondrously interior. Its high arc peaks with the ecstasy of apotheosis, then descends to plumb the heartbreak of personal pain. Identifying with the grieving bird, the human sings: “Yes, my brother, I know”, a passage ushering distant memories of childhood—and also a distinct memory of a plantation song, wafted from a Florida orange grove long, long ago.
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