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Classical Composers A-Z: (Fritz) Frederick Delius

Peter Wintersgill tells us something of the life of Frederick Delius, the Yorkshire-born composer.

29th January,1862, in Bradford.

Julius, wool merchant, music lover, stern autocrat.

Elise, dogmatic.

4th child and 2nd son of 14 children.

Learnt the piano and the violin. Better at the violin but preferred the piano.

He went into the family business, but not for long. Father was strongly against his studying music as it was not considered respectable at that time. He showed no interest at all in the business, spent all his time playing the piano and going to concerts.

Early adult life
He felt unsettled so went off to Florida (1884) to grow oranges. However he was no better at this than the business, spent all his time studying music and later teaching it. While there he spent much time listening to Negro hymns and spirituals which he heard on the plantations and was influenced by them.

Father eventually gave way and let him go off to Leipzig (1888) to study music. He soon left there and went to Paris, the great musical centre, where he met Ravel and other musicians. While on holiday in Norway he met Grieg, who became a life-long friend.

He wrote his first opera, Irmelin ( 1892) and his second opera The Magic Fountain in 1893, then Apalachia (choral work) in 1896. He was quite promiscuous as a young man and caught syphilis from a prostitute. This was why he did not want children in his later life.

Later adult life
He wrote the tone poems La Colinda (from Koanga) and Over the Hills and Far Away in 1895. He married the pianist Jelka Rosen in 1903 and went to live in Grez-sur-Loing, near Fountainebleau just south of Paris.

He wrote another opera A Village Romeo and Juliet in 1901, the Mass of Life in 1905 and the Requiem in 1916 for the war dead. This was based on the philosopher Nietche, of whom he was very fond.

On the whole his works did not become very popular in France, but did in Germany, they were later popularised in England by Beecham. Other popular choral works included Brigg Fair (1907) and Song of the High Hills (1911), a popular orchestral work was On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. He also wrote chamber music, eg.: violin and cello sonatas, violin and cello concertos and a string quartet.

During the war he went to live in London for a short time and later in 1929 went back for a season of concerts of his music, arranged by Beecham.

From 1920 onwards be became progressively blind and paralysed, so that by 1924 he was completely blind and confined to a wheelchair. This was due to Tabes Dorsalis, a form of tertiary syphilis of the nervous system. Another symptom of this condition are the 'gastric crises' consisting of severe abdominal pains, to which Delius was prone for the rest of his life.

In 1928 he procured the services of a young Yorkshireman, Eric Fenby, as amanuensis. Apart from nursing and other help, Fenby's main job was to take music down from dictation, a few bars at a time and play it back to Delius on the piano. Delius was dictatorial in manner, irritable, demanding and generally difficult to live with. It is therefore not surprising that Fenby had a nervous breakdown after two or three years, but eventually came back and stayed with Delius till he died.

Works they produced between them included Song of Summer and Fantastic Dance (orchestra) and Song of Farewell and Idyll (choral).

He had visits from other composers at intervals during his life including Percy Grainger, Philip Heseltine and, on one occasion, Elgar.

Delius died from the spread of his neuro-syphilis on 10th June 1934 at his home in Grez, aged 72. He was buried there, but re-interred at Limpsfield in Surrey in 1935.


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