To celebrate, to commemorate : Frederick Delius (29th January)

An earlier MusiCB3 blogpost about musical anniversaries prompted me to think about which anniversaries I would celebrate / commemorate this year. One immediately sprang to mind: the 150th anniversary of the birth of Delius on January 29th. The reason that I had been thinking of Delius was because of the death towards the end of 2011 of the film director, Ken Russell. Russell, a former dancer and photographer, had a particular passion for musical subjects. His work on the BBC arts strands Monitor and Omnibus would propel him to fame with two notable docu-dramas on Elgar and Delius (Song of summer (see clip on YouTube above)).

Song of summer, which was based on Eric Fenby‘s Delius as I knew him, follows Delius through the last five years of his life, as Fenby becomes Delius’ amanuensis, enabling the paralysed and blind composer to unlock the music that is inside him. Fenby worked closely with Russell on Song of summer, so although there is a certain amount of license and dramatisation it remains fairly faithful to Fenby’s memory and to the spirit of that time.

The period leading up to Delius’ association with Fenby had been a difficult one for the composer. From 1916 onwards Delius had become progressively frailer, and by the 1920s needed help from Percy Grainger and Peter Warlock to complete and copy the score of Hassan.

Grez-sur-Loing, taken from under Creative Commons 3.0 licence, taken by Kurillos77

Fenby initially wrote a fan letter to Delius; and after reading about the composer’s plight became obsessed with a desire to help him. He writes in his biographical work “…..the real tragedy of it all, or so it seemed to me, was to hear that the composer was worried and unhappy because it was physically impossible for him to continue and finish his life’s work….He could bear with his misfortunes if only he could finish these scores.” Fenby wrote once more to Delius offering any help he could give. There was a swift reply “I am greatly touched by your kind and sympathetic letter and I should love to accept your offer.” So began a relationship that would continue until Delius’ death. Fenby settled into Delius’ home in Grez-sur-Loing, 45 miles south of Paris, and set to work.

It wasn’t an easy task – at their first attempt to get notes down on paper, Delius droned out a tune on one note, much to Fenby’s horror. They eventually developed a method of dictation in which Delius would describe his music as though looking at a score, Fenby would then write it down and play with Delius suggesting corrections as necessary. It was a difficult and time-consuming way of working but resulted in the completion of  major works including A song of summer, Songs of farewell, and the third violin sonata.

The UL has many first editions of Delius works including A song of summer and Songs of farewell (both published by Winthrop Rogers in 1931), and the 3rd violin sonata phrased and edited by May Harrison (the dedicatee) and Fenby. Sadly we don’t have any Delius manuscripts, although we do have an arrangement of the Serenade from Hassan in the Peter Tranchell Archive – probably arranged by Tranchell himself. We also have some much later correspondence from Eric Fenby in the William Alwyn Archive, although there are few details of his time with Delius.

While writing this post I was chatting to a colleague, who commented that with modern technology, life for Delius would have been very different. An insight into this is provided by some intriguing research at the University of Plymouth which demonstrates what can now be achieved without an amanuensis – as in the YouTube video above of “Guy plays piano with his brain”. However long before technology was able to perform miracles, the partnership of Fenby and Delius resulted in a late flowering for the composer much to his wife’s delight. She commented to Fenby that “You cannot know what it means to me to see Fred full of his music again.” After years of his music being locked within, Delius was once more free to compose…


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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3 Responses to To celebrate, to commemorate : Frederick Delius (29th January)

  1. sw508 says:

    Happy Birthday Delius! Great blog post…


  2. Elaine Skidmore says:
  3. Philip Glass lover says:

    Happy Birthday, Philip Glass! (Today’s his 75th! Someone else to celebrate!)


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