In Defence of Delius: Introducing the ‘Deryck Cooke Delius Bibliography’

For thirty years after WWII, Deryck Cooke (1919-76) was a leading advocate for the music of Bruckner and Mahler – and, in spite of his premature death, lived long enough to see both composers accorded a prominent place in Britain’s musical life. During those same years, however, Cooke was also an energetic supporter of at least one composer whose work has remained more of a ‘minority interest’ among the concert-going public. This composer is Frederick Delius (1862-1934) – the 80th anniversary of whose death falls on 10 June 2014.

A page of Cooke’s own copy of his programme note for Delius’s A Mass of Life – re-written for use in a talk or lecture.

A page of Cooke’s own copy of his programme note for Delius’s A Mass of Life – re-written for use in a talk or lecture.

As work continues on the materials comprising the Deryck Cooke Archive at Cambridge University Library, a picture is emerging of just how intense was Cooke’s commitment to Delius’s music – in an era when the composer was seriously out of fashion among critics and performers, and little studied academically. Of course, Delius-lovers have long acknowledged the importance of Cooke’s efforts (see, for example the posthumous tribute by R O Wright in the Delius Society Journal of January 1977); but with the official launch of the Archive’s Deryck Cooke Delius Bibliography the range and scale of his activities are made clear for the first time.

Surveying the list, the first thing that strikes one is likely to be the variety of different dimensions in which Cooke’s advocacy found expression: there are concert programmes, record sleeve notes, scripts for lectures and radio broadcasts, letters to publications, and reviews of performances and recordings (and – occasionally – of other people’s reviews!). Many of these items would not currently be known, had copies not been found among Cooke’s papers.

A page from the script of the radio talk ‘Delius: An Evaluation’ – showing deleted passages not broadcast.

A page from the script of the radio talk ‘Delius: An Evaluation’ – showing deleted passages not broadcast.

The second thing that becomes apparent from a chronological listing is the remarkable quantity of Delius-related work that was produced in the centenary year 1962: of the 53 Cooke items listed in total, no fewer than 23 appeared in those 12 months. Cooke’s determination to achieve as much as possible at this propitious time is evident: before the January was out, he had delivered the substantial, 45-minute radio talk ‘Delius: An Evaluation’ (Third Programme, 20 January); had scripted another radio talk on the composer (21 January); had re-written the first talk as a piece for The Listener (25 January); and had completed another article in which Delius was discussed (1 February). And when, a few weeks later, the BBC Third Programme broadcast Delius’s last opera, Fennimore und Gerda (1908-10), it was Cooke who provided the introductory note for the Radio Times (22 March); Cooke who wrote the introduction and narration for the broadcast (27 March); and Cooke who then reviewed the broadcast in the pages of Opera magazine’s May issue! Nor did his energies diminish as the year progressed: on 18 December Cooke presented a paper on ‘Delius the Unknown’ before the Royal Musical Association in London. (A reprint of the paper can be read free of charge in the Delius Society Journal, Spring 2005.)

Cooke’s notes for an unidentified Delius lecture; undated, but from May 1975 or later.

Cooke’s notes for an unidentified Delius lecture; undated, but from May 1975 or later.

Such devotion to the composer’s cause becomes all the more impressive when one recalls that Cooke – at that time in the middle of his six-year period as a freelance writer and broadcaster (1959-65) – had no BBC salary to rely on, and was required to produce a considerable volume of other paid work in addition.

Inevitably, given the relative obscurity in which Delius had come to languish by the end of the 1950s, much of Cooke’s early advocacy is dedicated to conveying basic facts about the composer and his ‘isolated, cosmopolitan, individualist’ style – the latter being adduced as a reason why Delius’s output ‘has never firmly established itself in any one country’: the music is ‘too French for the Germans, too German for the French, and too exotic altogether for many of the English’. (Radio script: ‘The World of Music No.4: Delius Centenary’, BBC [?General Overseas Service], 21 January 1962, p.7)

Cooke’s carbon for an unidentified encyclopaedia entry on Delius; undated, but from 1966 or later

Cooke’s carbon for an unidentified encyclopaedia entry on Delius; undated, but from 1966 or later.

At the other end of the spectrum there are the items in which Cooke discusses a work’s formal and structural basis in considerable technical detail. The most ambitious of these is undoubtedly ‘Delius and Form: A Vindication’, the large-scale discussion of Delius’s Violin Concerto (1916) that was printed in two parts in the imposing pages of the Musical Times in – again! – 1962. Yet the materials in the Archive show that Cooke was also concerned to take these analytic insights to the general music-lover: a script exists for a half-hour radio broadcast designed to show the interested listener that there is ‘just as much logic behind Delius’s way of composing as there is behind the methods of the classical composers – only the logic is of a different type’. (Radio script: ‘Studies in Form – Delius: Violin Concerto’, in ‘Study Session’, BBC Third Network, 30 March 1966).

In some respects, however, the most compelling aspect of Cooke’s advocacy is his readiness to discuss in unpretentious and non-technical terms the overpowering impact that Delius’s music has on him:

One of the hallmarks of a great composer, as far as I am concerned, is that he communicates through his music a vision of life so intense, that while I’m actually listening to his music, I believe that he’s the greatest of them all. it obliterates thoughts of all other music. And if this seems a funny way to begin a talk about Delius, I can only say that it’s for just this reason that I – very unfashionably – regard him as a great composer. When I’m listening to one of his major works, I’m convinced that this is the one I would take to a desert island, whatever else I might leave behind.
(Radio script: ‘Deryck Cooke on Delius’s A Mass of Life, BBC Radio 3, 21 June 1970, p. 1; handwritten emendation shown).

Sadly, only a few of these radio talks are held in the form of recordings: since it can be difficult or impossible to reconstruct an item’s musical demonstrations on the basis of a mere typescript, it is to be hoped that the ‘missing’ broadcasts survive in the hands of Delius enthusiasts – who are hereby invited to get in touch, once they have perused our Deryck Cooke Delius Bibliography.

MD

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About Mark Doran

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