Fritz Delius was born in the Northern English city of Bradford, where his father Julius had moved from Germany to take advantage of the opportunities offered there by the then flourishing wool trade. The family was a large one and established in comfortable circumstances. In ancestry it was once suggested that Delius was descended from Julius Caesar, but the more probable descent was from Dutch forebears, who had by the sixteenth century adopted the Latin form of the family name. Although Delius as a composer has often been associated with the essentially English, he boasted, in fact, a much wider genetic and cultural heritage, German, Dutch and by adoption French, with marked influence from Scandinavia and from Florida. It was to this last that his father sent him, when it seemed clear that he had no inclination for the family wool trade. Julius Delius saw a possible future for his son in the Florida orange groves and in 1887 Delius set sail from Liverpool, bound for New York and thence south to reach Solano Grove, a plantation of a hundred acres of orange orchards on the banks of the St Johns River. Here there was a substantial enough house and Delius, showing more inclination to music than to business, was able here to acquire a grand piano and to embark on lessons in counterpoint from Thomas Ward in Jacksonville. He later moved to Danville in Virginia, abandoning his plantation and seeking now to earn his living as a musician, teaching violin, piano and theory and taking part in local musical activities.
It was at this time, in the summer of 1886, that Julius Delius allowed his son to return to Europe to enter Leipzig Conservatory, where he studied with Reinecke, Jadassohn and Sitt and formed an important friendship with Grieg. It was through the last that his father was persuaded to continue to support him, allowing him, therefore, to move to Paris. His meeting there with the young painter Jelka Rosen led to a liaison. In 1897 they set up house together in Grez-sur-Loing and married in 1903.
Much of the rest of the life of Delius was spent at Grez-sur-Loing. During the war years it was necessary to take refuge in England, a time of some difficulty in view of the absence of the usual royalty payments from Germany, where he had already made something of a name for himself as a composer. After the war he returned to France, but gradually succumbed to effects of syphilis, possibly contracted in America, suffering blindness and paralysis. For the last six years of his life he was helped in his work by the young Yorkshire musician Eric Fen by, who served as his amanuensis. He died in 1934.
As a composer Delius owed much to the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham in England, while in Germany he had been helped in his early years by the particular support of Hans Haym, the young Music Director in Elberfeld (Wuppertal). His Florida Suite was written in Leipzig in 1887 and first played to a limited audience of Christian sinding, Grieg and the composer by the musicians of the band at Bonorand's restaurant in the Rosenthal Park, conducted by Hans Sitt, who taught violin at the Leipzig Conservatory and had succeeded Brodsky as director of the Conservatory Orchestra. The orchestra on this occasion was rewarded with a hundred marks and free beer. Delius hoped for a London performance, but in March 1889 August Manns returned the score and parts, claiming that his schedule left no time for rehearsal for inclusion of the Suite in the Crystal Palace concert season. In Paris in June Delius revised the work, ironing out what he described as unnecessary orchestral brutalities. It was published posthumously by Sir Thomas Beecham, who conducted the first English public performance of three of its four movements in London in 1937. The first movement, Daybreak leads to the well known La Calinda, that he was later to use in the opera Koanga. The second movement, By the River, much favoured by Beecham, relies on a repeated theme of less obvious provenance than the material of the third movement, Sunset - Near the Plantation, which makes use of a well enough known theme sung, it may be supposed, by the black plantation workers in Florida, the setting of the sun leading to a dance with elements of apparent Spanish origin, heard through the prism of black America. The last movement suggests Grieg rather than Florida, as the oboe leads into an evocative night-piece.
Over the Hills and Far Away, a fantasy-overture, was written between 1895 and 1897 and played in Elberfeld under Hans Haym. It was first performed in London in a concert at St James's Hall in 1899, paid for by Delius and under the direction of Alfred Hertz, who had served as a conductor in Barmen-Elberfeld and was early in the new century to move to America where he established himself as a conductor of German opera at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The work opens evocatively, looking towards the distant hills, before the Allegro, a joyful outburst of sound, before the flute leads into a series of variations. The overture ends with a passage in which much of the earlier thematic material is recalled.
ldylle de Printemps (Spring Idyll) was written in 1889, its content aptly conjured in its title, while La Quadroone, with the Scherzo, formed part of the Suite d'orchestre of 1889 and 1890, the first of the two pieces having the self-explanatory alternative title Rapsodie jloridienne. Memories of Florida and of
Virginia remained with Delius, particularly during these earlier years, in which he sought his own distinctive musical idiom.
The opera Koanga, a lyric drama in a prologue and three acts, was first heard in an incomplete concert performance at St James's Hall in 1899. It was first staged at Elberfeld in 1904. With a libretto by Delius and Charles F. Keary,
Koanga is based on the novel The Grandissimes by George Washington Cable.
The plot is set on an eighteenth century Louisiana plantation, where the slave-girl Palmyra is the object of the attentions of the overseer Simon Perez. Koanga, a new slave, is a prince and voodoo priest and the plantation owner, seeing the value of Koanga's cooperation, seeks to marry him to Palmyra, who is his own illegitimate daughter. During the celebrations that precede the wedding, as they dance La Calinda, Perez abducts Palmyra, to prevent the match, and Koanga strikes the plantation owner, Don Martinez, and lays a voodoo curse on the place, seeking refuge himself in the swamp-land. The opera ends in tragedy, when Koanga is captured and put to death and Palmyra takes her own life. The opera had opened with a prologue in which Uncle Joe promises to tell the story of Koanga to the planter's daughters. It ends with an epilogue in which the girls await the sun-rise and hope that all true lovers will find the happiness they deserve.
ReviewsLloyd-Jones, a renowned Delius scholar, conducts with due authority, spinning filigree-delicate textures and delicious pastel-coloured tones from his warmly expansive ENP forces. - Classic CD