The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
7.4 (Fall 2007)
The High Hills: Frederick Delius and the Secular Sublime
Thomas F. Bertonneau
Of the higher realms of spiritual exploration music has said very little, of the highest realm, next to nothing at all. This is strange, yet not strange. Strange, because music is of all the arts the one and only art that can give expression to the mystery of heavenly things, the one language in which the inexpressible is expressible, and not strange in that the creation of the kind of music that I am trying to define, and in which Delius would have excelled, would demand rare qualities of mind and disposition in the soul of the creator.
Eric Fenby, Delius as I Knew Him
Others might have known the Bradford-born, Dutch- or German-descended composer Frederick Delius (1862-1934) longer than did Eric Fenby, the old man’s amanuensis for the late flowering of his music in the last six years of his life, but none save his wife Jelka (née Rosen) knew him so plainly, or, as an artist, so intimately, not even old friends like Balfour Gardiner or Sir Thomas Beecham. Fenby lived through most of the period 1928-34 in the Delius household at Grez, a village on the river Loing, some forty miles north of Paris. While working out the daunting problem of how to take full-score musical dictation from a creative artist blind and paraplegic, he saw daily his idol in the idol’s unscreened candor. Transparent to Fenby, who in his saintliness of dedication overlooked the rudeness habitual to the self-proclaimed disciple of Friedrich Nietzsche, Delius remained largely opaque to himself, a supreme egotist, and now and again an insufferable bigot in the prejudice and tenacity of his views. To read Fenby’s beautiful, tactful first-person account of his residency chez Delius, written and published soon after the master’s death, is to confront in particularly high relief the paradox that a great artist need not be a great man. When one speaks of greatness in a man, one usually means magnanimity or largeness of soul. Fenby has magnanimity—a capaciousness of spirit that opens itself to other spirits—but Delius rarely if ever reveals this quality, as a person. He occasionally reveals it, as an artist, but his receptivity to others remains confined, even in his art, to a narrow range of types close to his own. Indeed, Delius appears detached from other human beings generally, rather like an Ibsen protagonist or the central figure of a Knut Hamsun novel. Consider the man’s relation to his wife.
Jelka, a granddaughter of the Romantic-era piano virtuoso Ignaz Moscheles, had made for herself no little reputation as a painter and sculptress before meeting Delius. She obviously devoted herself to the man, loving him in a more or less uxorial way, and sacrificing a big measure of her own artistic ambition in doing so. In the composer’s final years, Jelka nursed her husband unselfishly. Yet Delius could tell Fenby, who was young, shy, Catholic, morally orthodox, and susceptible of being shocked: “You must never marry… No artist should ever marry… If you ever do have to marry, marry a girl who is more in love with your art than with you.” It would be better, as Delius advised, to “amuse yourself with as many women as you like” because in such affaires libres “the physical attraction soon plays itself out” (Fenby 185). Delius’s conviction corresponds to the human detachment of rigorous Epicureanism or Stoicism. More a Romantic or a Decadent than a classicist—he belongs to the chapter of music history known as Late Romanticism wherein one finds also not only Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler but Arnold Schoenberg as well—Delius found poetic and philosophical justification for his ideal of the passade in two of his favorite writers, the aforementioned Nietzsche and Walt Whitman. With Fenby’s invaluable help, Delius had set Whitman’s lines in the vocal-orchestral Idyll (1932), where the anonymous male voice tells, “Once I passed through a populous city, / Imprinting my brain with all its shows. / Of that city I remember only /A woman I casually met, / Who detained me for love of me” (Fenby 119). Women “casually met” and soon discarded populate Delius’s biography, from a probable black girl during his time in Solano Grove, Florida, to his Parisian years, when, a frequenter of brothels, he contracted the syphilitic infection that blinded and paralyzed him when he was still in his fifties.
Another item in the late flowering of Delius’s art, as Fenby midwifed it, is a vocal-orchestral setting of Ernest Dowson’s “Cynara”. The usual interpretation of Dowson’s poem is that it commemorates the poet’s infatuation with an underage girl, but with its conflation of sickness and passion, it could just as well be about syphilitic madness as the legacy of a sexual rencontre:
I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
In Whitman’s dialogue and in Dowson’s lyric alike, a palpable weariness weighs heavily in the words. Attachment exhausts the spirit as pleasure loses its flavor in the saccharine ennui of familiarity; not just eroticism but rather society in itself, as the world of other people, becomes a disease of life inimical to the sovereignty of the subject. Delius told Fenby, “There is little difference as far as I can see between animals and the great mass of humanity,” a sentiment derived, as Fenby remarks, “from the rhapsodic utterances of Nietzsche” (Fenby 182). In Zarathustra, indeed, Nietzsche’s prophet and protagonist says in the section of Book II called “The Rabble”: “Life is a well of delight; but where the rabble also drink, there all fountains are poisoned” (63). In both Idyll and Cynara, the music suits the poetic diction perfectly. The tempi of Idyll, as again of Cynara, correspond mostly to adagio; at the same time, the chromatic saturation of the chords hobbles the listener’s sense of harmonic change so that he gains the impression of onerous labor, as in a dream, against an affliction of immobility. Yet the music, constantly trying to free itself of paralysis, has its melancholy, laboriously striving beauty—of this one cannot doubt. With or without Fenby’s amanuensis, Delius knew how to enact a spell by suspending profane time in favor of esthetic time. This ability magically to alter the auditor’s perspective and to transport him beyond the everyday world appears already in quite early works, such as the Ibsen-inspired tone poem, På Vidderne (1888), and the somewhat later folklore-inspired fantasy overture, Over the Hills and Far Away (1897). The woodwind arabesques that relieve the sense of motionlessness in Idyll or Cynara also decorate the textures of På Vidderne (“On the Heights”), although with less deftness and surety than would later be evident; the Grieg-like, Norwegian-accented horn-calls of Over the Hills and Far Away return, wonderfully remote and sublimated, in the dark background of the later works.
In his Delius (1978), the late Christopher Palmer argues that an essential identifiable experience lies at the heart of Delius’s esthetic, which he traces back to the composer’s Floridian sojourn: the shock of being suddenly gripped—the event reserves itself for a nocturnal setting—during an access of undefined longing and Weltschmerz by “voices, distant, wordless and unseen” (6), sounding from across the landscape and achieving its highest poignancy when mixed with the acoustics of intervening water. Palmer finds echoes of this powerful “moment of illumination” (6) in the final scene of A Village Romeo and Juliet (1902), in the second dance song of the Nietzsche oratorio A Mass of Life (1899), and in the climacteric choral vocalise of The Song of the High Hills (1912), among other scores. In the precincts of his orange grove on the St. Johns River, living alone in his cottage, Delius often heard the songs of the black laborers at night, serenading themselves after their meal. The close harmony and plastic rhythms combining with the subtropical ambiance transfixed him. An erotic component soon wove its way into the texture. In a television documentary about Delius, violinist Tasmin Little propagated a story about the composer that stems from remarks in a letter by Percy Grainger. According to the story, to which Palmer alludes obliquely, Delius left behind at Solano Grove a love child by a woman of color. In the sole convincing demonstration of remorse in Delius’s biography (supposing the story’s truth), he returned to Florida in 1897 hoping to acknowledge his offspring; the mother and former lover misinterpreted the return, however, and thinking that Delius meant to take the boy away from her fled with him. When Delius married Jelka in 1903, he was forty-three and she was thirty-five; so whether it was by mutual agreement, Delius’s own stubborn resolve, or biology, the marriage remained childless.
Accelerated in the trend by his discovery of Nietzsche, Delius would from now on seek the response to and affirmation of the ego’s existence not in other egos, not in any promiscuity with the human-all-too-human, and certainly not in fatherhood and family life, but rather in the palpability of the earth and the rarity of high places; indeed, he would exert himself to dissolve and sublimate the ego in such natural, non-human aspects of the world. “The Superman,” says Nietzsche through his mouthpiece Zarathustra, “shall be the meaning of the earth… I conjure you, my brethren, and believe not those who speak unto you of superearthly hopes!” (3). On the other hand, the “higher man” who has broken the trammels of human involvement corresponds in his vivacity to “whatever is at home on a high place” (109). Rejecting human ties because they hobble creativity, locating significance in the mute, brute fact of matter or “the earth”, and aspiring—never mind the contradiction—to the noontide and light of “high places”: the works that Delius wrote beginning in the mid-1890s would reflect these formative biographical influences and produce a template for the full flowering of Delius’s art in the two decades after the turn of the century. An early opera, Koanga (1897), based on the novel The Grandissimes by George Washington Cable, incorporates Creole melodies and dance rhythms associated with Southern Louisiana and the Francophone regions of the Caribbean. A large-scale set of variations “on an old slave tune”, Appalachia (1897), scored for orchestra, soloists, and (mostly) wordless chorus, refines the sentiments of personal loss and redemptive absorption in nature further. Appalachia is a stronger and more affecting work than critics have admitted. Peter J. Pirie, for example, writes of its “barely digested influences”, including “the ‘Negro theme’ itself, which is none other than the Quartet from [Verdi’s] Rigoletto” (Hughes and Strading 45-46). Nevertheless, even Pirie admits the work’s “combination of sadness and beauty, which made Delius uniquely his own” (46). Beecham, hearing it in performance in 1907, felt overwhelmed and began his own lifelong advocacy of Delius in the concert hall. The score that commentators take for epochal in the Delius oeuvre, however, his Paris (Nocturne): Song of a Great City, came two years after Appalachia, in 1899.
Where the score of Appalachia calls on baritone solo and chorus to explicate its meaning (“Oh, honey—I am going down the river in the morning,” as the solo mournfully sings at the climax), Paris dispenses with texts and voices in order to convey its composer’s discoveries in purely instrumental terms. Where Appalachia derives from the sensual impressions of the Mississippi River, the bayous of Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, and the catastrophe of the slave’s separation from his beloved, Paris by contrast mines an urbane lode, the most cosmopolitan one imaginable, but purged of any too-close human presence; Delius drives forth from the Parisian experience, with which residency in the 1890s made him intimately familiar, that Nietzschean anathema the rabble and distills what hackneyed language calls “the City of Light” into the darkest of liquors. Paris does share with Appalachia a nocturnal atmospherics and it looks forward to the next large-scale item of Delius’s catalogue, The Mass of Life, which itself incorporates nocturnal elements at key expressive points in its scheme. Paris also reflects to some extent Delius’s touchy awareness of Richard Strauss (1864-1949), at the time the paramount German composer, whose opulence and grandeur stem seemed the latest word in audacious modernism. Fenby’s account points up Delius’s prickly dislike of music other than his own, even of music by composers who praised his efforts and acknowledged a compositional debt to him.
About Paris, the ever-astute Wilfrid Mellers writes: “Despite its superficial resemblance to Strauss, [Delius’s score] is much further from the classical tradition… The continuity of flow which Delius achieves between the sections has more affinity with Wagner; and his relationship to Wagner’s last works is… not so much conscious imitation as intuitive discipleship” (120). According to Mellers, in Paris Delius makes of the “impetuous joy” of his youthful sojourn in the French metropolis—of his “gay abandon” and Bohemian insouciance of those days—a study in distancing and in the “chromatic intensity” of nostalgic “regret” (120). Palmer describes Paris as “a gigantic… night-piece” that “represents a turning point in Delius’s career” and he certifies the tone poem as “the first score… to see poetry in the city, to draw on the metropolis as a living source of inspiration” (127). For Palmer, Paris “closely parallels the work of certain mid and late-nineteenth century French poets and painters” (128). He mentions, of course, Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine among the poets and Paul Gauguin and Edgar Dégas among the painters. Delius was friendly with Gauguin, as he was with Edvard Munch, then resident in the French capital. Of the eight or ten recordings of Paris that have appeared over the decades, Beecham’s two, from 1934 and 1955, best convey what Mellers calls the “Dionysiac genius” (120) of the music and what Palmer calls a “night-world reflected in the stridency and glare of [the] brass” (130). Beecham’s affinity for the music comes as no surprise. As Colin Wilson has observed, in his fascinating Brandy of the Damned, “Beecham and Delius were alike in one respect: both were curiously immature split-personalities” (128). Egocentrics, both men also suffered from deeply seated insecurity, for which the harsh, Nietzschean view served as a cover. Says Wilson: “To conduct Paris or A Song of the High Hills was [for Beecham] like declaring in public that the world is basically a tiresome and unpleasant place, and that the spirit has its own values” (128). Most sensitive people would agree with the theory, although few would endorse it in such far-reaching terms; most people find ways of reconciling themselves to the world. Beecham’s absolute commitment to Delius’s palette of subtle effects, and to his message of redemptive renunciation of the social world, is nevertheless abundantly evident from the first few seconds of his recorded traversal, whether it is the 1934 recording or his 1955 remake.
How to put in words the musical gestures of this score? How to describe the ineffability of the “Delian” gesture? How indeed assay the podium art of Sir Thomas Beecham? Paris, which when apprehended conscientiously ought truly to disturb the attentive listener, opens with low grumblings in the celli and double basses, colored by the dark woodwind hues of the bass clarinet. The subterranean character of these gestures, a character of as yet formless movement under shadowy concealment, suggests that Delius sees himself as conjuring, not so much the populous city of the arrondissements, but rather the Nietzschean “earth” beneath the city: something other than human, something pre-human or superhuman, against which the contingencies of the merely civic life play themselves out. Writing in the late 1970s, Palmer could report that no Parisian orchestra had ever performed Paris; but this comes as no surprise, given that Delius’s technique has little relation to French music of the time. Perhaps the closest musical analogy to these opening bars is the slow, watery E-major prelude to Wagner’s Rheingold, which likewise describe elemental processes that drive life. Against the opaque background (“night” raised to a metaphysical principle), Delius brings to the fore two important elements. One is a rhythmic figure given to the tambourine on the pattern of two linked phrases organized as (a) two short, one long, and three short; and (b) two short and one long. The other, a melodic fragment taken up in turn by the reeds, will grow, over the work’s sections, into the main theme, to achieve final apotheosis in a blaze of brass. The rhythmic formula provides the basis for a recurring “gypsy dance”, which takes various guises in the animated, fast sections of the score.
Listening to Beecham’s 1934 traversal, the first of these episodes comes along around nine minutes into the recording. It is possible to hear Paris as a rondo, in which case it begins to anticipate the final movement of Gustav Mahler’s Seventh Symphony (1906), which bears the subtitle “Song of the Night” and has links to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. Mahler finds his urban nightlife in a phantasmagorical Vienna and manages to bring matters to a brilliant close. In Delius, so studiously attuned to the flux and evanescence of passing life, things tend to fade back into the preconscious wellsprings from which the artist has temporarily drawn them forth.
Palmer, in accounting for the spirit of Paris, writes of its “almost overwhelming sense of big-city loneliness… an infinite weariness” (121). For the implied subject of Delius’s score, the empirical city has a purely phenomenal status although the mass of citoyens perceives the mere appearance as a final and inalterable reality; the visionary seer, however, grasps that the surface—blithe and colorful—floats on the depth like so much transient foam, waiting to be whisked away by the wind. To define happiness by the canons of the civic illusion would be the same as accepting a false currency, for the real reality lies (exists or is) beyond the appearances; the appearances give only a crude and blandly mediated notion of that unseen will or force that impels strife and aspiration and separates the seer from the mob—hence the “loneliness” and “weariness” of Palmer’s commentary. Fenby has a passage on Delius’s approach to form that explains something of the alchemy of Paris. “One can’t define form in so many words,” Delius said, “but if I was asked I should say that it was nothing more than imparting spiritual unity to one’s thought” (Fenby 200). In Paris, as Beecham understands so well from his conductor’s perspective, Delius reduces the empirical metropolis to its essence and then infuses that essence into the several episodes of the work. By this method he achieves his “unity”. The essence dwells always in the distance, spatially and temporally; one recalls it in a mood of intense nostalgia, as if from exile. This is the meaning of the languid horn calls and the passing highlights of triangle and harp sounding within the dense polyphony of strings and woodwind.
Having obliterated the illusory “real Paris”, the artist communicates in a fashion not amenable to verbal expression with the intelligible entity in whose aura of being the illusory “real Paris” has its false existence. In the end that entity proves to be the same, in essence, as the self of the artist-creator. In sublimating himself in the object, he returns to the wordless but powerful substrate of his own Dionysiac potency.
In casual criticism, writers often categorize Delius as a “nature-composer” or, in a related observation, as belonging to that loosely grouped school of English composers—Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams are two of its stellar lights—that mined the vein of Lincolnshire, Kentshire, and Essex folksong in the early decades of the Twentieth Century. If Holst had an opinion about Delius, it went unrecorded. Vaughan Williams, in his study of National Music, writes rather dismissively of Delius, consigning him, on the basis of his chord structures, to the musical blandness of British music in the 1880s. Colin Wilson ironically finds much of Vaughan Williams’ music—he mentions A Pastoral Symphony (1923)—as sounding like “an over-long Delius tone-poem” (146). While Wilson offers valid insights about Delius and ends his chapter on the composer by praising him gently, he does not accord him exalted stature; on the contrary, he sees Delius as almost a light-music composer. Delius, writes Wilson, wrote “tired music, soothing music for exhausted nerves, a dreamy, introverted music that asks very little of the listener except that he should relax” (132). Fenby, Beecham, Mellers, and Palmer correctly argue greater significance for the creator of Paris, while making qualifications of Delius similar to those posited by Wilson: that the music operates within a narrow range of expression, for example, or that the composer uses certain stock formulas habitually, particularly the Paris-formula of slow emergence of thematic material from a nebulous background and its eventual re-submergence back into the same. Fenby’s version of Wilson’s remark about Delius being stuck too often in an esthetic furrow consists in his confession that during his period of amanuensis, when he heard little music other than Delius, “it would have been refreshing if, after a hard day’s work, one could have listened for a while to music that was just a little less chromatic in character” (53). About the best he could do was sneak off to his room at night where he would play the opening bars of Sibelius’ Second Symphony on his upright piano.
Delius’s chromatic harmony derives from Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal, as Mellers remarks. It can indeed irritate patience in large doses, although it is not quite so relentless as Fenby’s words suggest. For that matter Wagner’s chromatic harmony can also outstay its welcome, which is why recorded music brought such a great boon to the currency of his five-hour-long operas. Through recordings one can take the medicine in measures of one’s own choosing; one can, as it were, switch to Sibelius. Chromatic harmony produces, among many other effects, the sense of time slowed down, of eternity in a hiatus of temporality, which listeners have come to associate, say, with the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, where Wagner perfected his new tonal vocabulary. In the Liebestod, the lovers elect death over life, for life has forbidden their love, and they can find fulfillment only in a deliberate break with existence; yet paradoxically, their bliss, although momentary from the external or normative perspective, becomes as it were internally endless and imperishable. Intensity of affect and acuity of sensation trump anything so trivial as this-worldly duration: the subject, no longer a limited ego, sublimates his discrete psyche into the elements—or indeed into the veiled Will that causes the elements to be in the first place. Society and the marketplace, those sources of bland illusion, stand between the strong soul and its access to the hidden sublime of eternal non-personal natural processes.
When Fenby quotes those passages of Zarathustra—from Part I, Chapter XII–that Delius liked to quote to him, they prove to be those that promise liberation by vatic exercise from paltry norms:
Flee, my friend, into thy solitude! I see thee deafened with the noise of the great men, and stung all over with the stings of the little ones.
Admirably do forest and rock know how to be silent with thee. Resemble again the tree, which thou lovest, the broad-branched one—silently and attentively it overhangeth the sea.
Where solitude endeth, there beginneth the market place; and where the market place beginneth, there beginneth also the noise of the great actors, and the buzzing of the poison-flies. (Nietzsche 31)
Placing himself beyond the spiritual deadness of the “sentimental dissemblers”, the Nietzschean self-redeemer stands ready to participate in “immaculate perception” (83). One of the “Sublime Ones”—a seer, who has attained this heightened power of phenomenological acuity—tells Zarathustra that “precisely to the hero is beauty the hardest thing of all” (79). To perceive immaculately is to bestow value, the essential creative act, by naming things in plain, especially the rarest things, the moments of metaphorical noontide; to see clairvoyantly in this way is to attune oneself to existence at large and thereby to transcend the restrictions of the civic ego. A Mass of Life, a work on the largest scale, most explicitly among Delius’s works sets forth this Gospel of the secular sublime; but a later score by a decade, An Arabesque, makes clear Delius’s artistic goal on a smaller and therefore more accessible scale than the Nietzsche-setting and can serve as a portal to the larger composition. Composed for baritone solo, chorus, and orchestra, and requiring somewhere between twelve and fifteen minutes for performance, An Arabesque, composed between 1911 and 1915, takes its impetus from a literary source equal to Nietzsche in Delius’s pantheon.
Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847-1885), translator of Darwin, brought Naturalism to Danish prose and the trappings of Symbolism to Danish poetry; like Dowson, he died young from the effects of tuberculosis, poverty, and overwork. The critic Georg Brandes dubbed him an apostle of modernity and ranked him high in Danish, indeed in European, letters. One of his two full-length novels, Niels Lyhne (1880), would provide the basis for Delius’s last opera, Fennimore and Gerda (1910); his lyric cycle Sånger af Gurre (1868) would inspire Arnold Schoenberg to create the culminating score of his post-Wagnerian period, the gigantic Gurrelieder (1902). En Arabesk, written in 1868, first appeared in print in the same small volume of posthumously published verse (1886) as Sånger af Gurre. Delius initially set Jacobsen’s original, being fluent in Danish and Norwegian; most performances, however, have used Philip Heseltine’s creative rendering into Dowson-like English, which actually has Jelka’s German version as its basis:
Hast thou in gloomy forests wandered?
Knowest thou Pan?
I too have known him.
Not in gloomy forests,
When all the silence spoke;
No, no, him never have I known,
Only the Pan of Love have I endured,
Then hushed all that speaketh.
Har du faret vild I dunkle Skove?
Kjender du Pan?
Jeg har følt ham,
Ikke I den dunkle Skove,
Medens alt tiende talte,
Nej, den Pan har jeg aldrig kjendt,
Men Kjærlighedens Pan har jeg følt,
Da tav alt Talende.
A vignette of disaster, An Arabesque tells how its speaking subject has exiled himself from Redemption-in-Nature by entangling himself in the pernicious human traffic called Love. Jacobsen’s lines hint at sinister events betokened by “a lonely thorn bush” from which “blood reddened berries” fall “one by one” into “the white, cold snow”. In Idyll, Delius’s Whitman-setting, the male speaker has managed to extract himself from the spiritual demotion of an imbroglio. Jacobsen’s lines record their ego’s catastrophic failure to avoid just this downfall, after which, remembering that from which he has excommunicated himself, he goes vagrant along paths whose beauty he has unfitted himself to feel. The Danish verb at føle, which Heseltine translates as “to know”, would be better set into English as “to feel”. Fenby writes that Delius preferred music “simple and intimate… direct and immediate in its appeal from soul to soul” (197), and sought to create such music. “That song shows fine feeling” or “what beautiful feeling” were Delius’s highest words of praise (Fenby 201). In his vehement moods, Delius scorned Christianity for equating feeling, inherently healthy, with sin, and Christian music—specifically, on one occasion, Palestrina—for being so much bloodless “mathematics”. For music to redeem itself, said Delius to Fenby, it must “get rid of the Jesus element” (181).
In An Arabesque, which deals with the atheistic version of sin, Delius’s music heightens the calamity of the words by recreating for the listener that communion with natural beauty to which the vignette’s self-damned protagonist has forfeited access. Palmer points out that the years when Delius made his setting of Jacobsen’s poem were those during which his dormant syphilis began to manifest itself in debilitating symptoms. In this way, the plight that the poem describes applies allegorically to Delius’s own deteriorating physical condition at the time—yet another layer of ironic meaning. Even in the limited fidelity of the air check recording of Beecham’s 1934 Leeds Festival performance, the sonorities of An Arabesque’s opening bars suggest the subterranean root-life of the visible forest: the winding polyphonic lines of the celli and basses burrow and intertwine while the violins with woodwinds perform intricate figures in delicate tracery. The baritone (in Beecham’s performance it is the incomparable Roy Henderson) soon poses his forlorn question, “Knowest thou Pan?” He does not, but in the dark movement of instruments in their lowest register, in the coruscations of the flutes and clarinets, and in what Palmer calls “the frosty glitter of the harp” (73), we do.
Later recordings in better sound bring out this effect even more poignantly, especially Fenby’s, with the Royal Philharmonic, from 1987, which takes nearly fifteen minutes compared with Beecham’s twelve. Fenby’s slow tempo seems right for this score, which so much concerns psychic paralysis. Whether for Beecham or Fenby, when the chorus first enters after the baritone’s invocation of “the fleeting moment”, the listener instinctively grasps that its wordless sighing “Ah!” expresses the sting of bitter regret, of utter hopelessness. Yet a fatal ennui must befall the one who wittingly trades the Pan of the Forest, an emanation of the Nietzschean “earth”, for the “Pan of Love”. “Love,” after all, is a suspiciously Christian word. The foolish gambler has made thus a bargain, deadly for him soon enough, which he cannot exchange. The plangent choral sigh later donates its melodic shape to the enunciation of the words, “Now all is past!” In Danish, a bit more pithily, Jacobsen says, “Alt er forbi!” Dowson put it similarly: “Gone with the wind.” Jacobsen’s strange poem indeed has much in common with Dowson’s “Cynara”. Delius had set aside his Cynara incomplete shortly before beginning to work on An Arabesque. The two compositions are nearly contemporary, Cynara being revived and completed with Fenby’s help in 1929; it was the first of their collaborative efforts to reach full score. An Arabesque, as Palmer so aptly puts it, depicts “a ravaged landscape” inexorably transformed into a “featureless void” (78). While the subjects both of Jacobsen’s lyric and Delius’s musical gloss have, as Palmer argues, glimpsed “the real world of spirit beyond the imagined world of matter” (78), he has chosen lethally to relinquish that supernal vision for what turns out to be a lesser, indeed a blighting, delectation. In An Arabesque, Delius has created his version of the negative sublime; the positive sublime, where Delius achieves it musically, becomes all the more poignant by contrast.
Delius’s most ambitious work in any genre, A Mass of Life, belongs, like Paris and Appalachia, to the fin-de-siècle. Beecham and Palmer give its dates of composition as 1904 to 1907, with the first complete performance under Beecham coming in 1909; Peter Pirie, however, in The English Musical Renaissance (1976), says that portions of Part II of the work were in score as early as 1899. A number of Delius’s compositions, as we have seen, underwent long periods of gestation. In some ways an uncharacteristic work, A Mass begins with a great choral outburst, which qualifies as the most positive and forthright statement that the composer ever made. It is Delius’s equivalent of the C-Major fanfare that opens Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra and the Titanic theme for horns that opens Mahler’s Third Symphony, like A Mass inspired by Nietzsche’s faux prophecies. Over an urgent ostinato in the strings and swooping figures in the horns, the chorus urges forth these words: “O thou my Will! Dispeller thou of care! Thou mine essential in life! Preserve me from all petty conquests.”1 Delius imparts a particularly buoyant quality to the brass interjections—trumpets and trombones soon join the horns—by syncopating their rhythms. In one of the few true allegros that Delius wrote, the paean continues with: “Preserve me for one final destiny, that I may stand prepared and ripe in the full noon-tide.”2 These words resonate with many of the exordia that Delius launched at Fenby during the young man’s residency at Grez. “Eric,” he once pronounced: “I’ve been thinking. The sooner you get rid of all this Christian humbug the better. The whole traditional conception of life is false” (Fenby 179). To espouse the “traditional” is tantamount to submitting to “petty conquests”. On the same occasion, Delius said, “Throw those great Christian blinkers away, and look around you and stand on your own feet and be a man” (179).
The annotator of the Delius Festival (presumably it is Philip Heseltine), which Beecham organized in the London Autumn of 1929, remarks, no doubt with A Mass in mind, that “the first thing to be realized about Delius’s music is that it is the outcome of a profoundly religious nature, and is therefore completely at variance with what is glibly called the modern spirit in music.”3 By the time these words were written, the phrase “the modern spirit in music” would have referred to Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School, Igor Stravinsky and Le sacre du printemps, and the percussive keyboard compositions of Bela Bartók, with their basis in the brash folk music of the Balkans. A Mass, which struck early audiences as daring, would in 1929 by comparison with such avant-garde benchmarks have seemed lush and reactionary—real beauty of the old-fashioned type as opposed to contemporary intellectualism and technique. Aware of this, the annotator writes: “It is considered a paradox to describe as a religious composer one who, instead of writing anthems and services, turns to Nature (and even to Nietzsche) for his inspiration; and yet most irreligion is mere reaction against a pretence of religion that would destroy religion, a misconception of the very nature of religion, a confusion of ideas which is of the same order as the credulity of the senses with regard to the sun’s apparent motion around the earth.”4 With references to Donne and Traherne, the writer finds in Delius, and particularly in A Mass, a recognition that “Man is not merely part of Nature, but… all external things are only aspects of himself made manifest to his senses.”5
One might justly suspect the epistemology, with its overtones of Fichte and Feuerbach, but the notion convinces even so that what Delius seeks in all his music, not only when he sets philosophical pronouncements, is a rediscovery of the real, which it is the sin of the modern mentality to forget. In one of his books, the anthropologist Mircea Eliade reminds his readers that for antique and primitive people, such things as day and night, storm and sweet weather, earth and sky are entities, palpable, undeniable, the raw experience of which, overwhelming the subject, gives rise to ideas of godhead and the supernatural. With the aid of Nietzsche’s words, A Mass tries to restore this base-line reality to the modern intellect, which has become uprooted from its foundations in nature. This motivation lies behind the plan of Paris, which Delius called a “Nocturne”. A Mass includes two “nocturnes.” In Part I of the score, this takes the form of the “First Dance Song”. Nietzsche’s prose, as organized for Delius by Fritz Cassirer, represents a parliament among the tenor, soprano, and contralto with descriptive commentary and verbal scene painting by the chorus; it culminates in the basses singing the verse-lines from Zarathustra, Part IV: “O Mensch gib Acht! / Wie spricht die tiefe Mitternacht?” Mahler sets the same lines in his Third Symphony. Delius draws from the words a slow, quiet music that nevertheless moves in dance rhythms, even at one point about midway through the movement becoming a fugal dance in syncopated rhythm on the vocalization La-la-la in the chorus. In form, the “First Dance Song” reprises the form of Paris. Against a dark background, glittering highlights emerge briefly only to disappear into the shadows—a glittering golden boat that sinks away into jet-black waters, the moon shining on the waves, the silhouette of a paradisiacal island glimpsed on the far horizon. Delius here builds on earlier sallies in the use of the chorus as an instrumental adjunct of the orchestra that he had undertaken in Appalachia. Bartók, who heard a Vienna performance of A Mass under Carl Schuricht, wrote to Delius to say how powerfully the “First Dance Song” impressed and intrigued him. Indeed, wordless voices augment the orchestra in Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, Bartók’s only opera. The admiration went in only one direction, however. Fenby records how Delius loathed the Hungarian’s Fourth String Quartet when he heard it in a broadcast concert: “Harsh, brutal, uncouth noises” (61).
At the beginning of Part Two of A Mass comes the atmospherically rare orchestral prelude called “On the Mountains”. As Palmer writes, Delius conceived this prelude stereophonically. While Beecham’s pioneering 1952 recording of A Mass retains pride of place as the best performance of the score committed to disc, Sir Charles Groves’s 1970 two-channel reading treats the spatial aspect of the score with greater adequacy. Against a background of quiet strings, horns call to one another antiphonally, creating a sense of Alpine elevation to fit the episode of Zarathustra’s retreat back to his mountain fastness. Delius has here provided his score with its most transparent textures; the feeling of a great free aerial space is immediate and wonderful. Several musical kinships come into play in connection with “On the Mountains”: Franz Liszt’s Bergsymphonie (1848; revised 1851 and 57), the first of that composer’s “Symphonic Poems”; Joachim Raff’s Seventh Symphony, “In den Alpen” (1876); and Richard Strauss’s Alpensinfonie (1916), another work taking its cue from Also Sprach Zarathustra. When the climbers reach the summit in Strauss’s score, they too encounter the exaltation of the height. For Strauss, however, the prophetic moment requires a conspicuously churchy organ interpolation. Delius comes closer to Nietzsche’s determination to remake mystic communion with no vestiges of the Christian ethos whatsoever.
The last two movements of A Mass as a whole together furnish the second of its two nocturnes. Textually these two movements take up the Mitternacht motif of the “First Dance Song”. “Night” serves the seer’s goal of working up to the act of immaculate perception because in it the chief sense, vision, forfeits its efficaciousness; imagination and creativity must supply what the paltry optical faculty cannot—and the auditory and tactile faculties come into their own. “Night” signifies the soul. The soul is deep and frightening, a foreign place that only the audacious man can recover as his own proper domain. Musically this two-paneled “Night Song”, concluding with a repetition of the verses “O Mensch gib Acht”, is less complicated but a good deal more intense than the “First Dance Song”. The tenor sings of his yearning, from the depths of night, for the new dawn of his psychic transformation, but the end comes not in a blaze—rather in a quiet fading-away, so typical of Delius. Beecham, writing in the 1950s, noted that, thirty years before, Heseltine had asked rhetorically why A Mass of Life should not be ranked equally with Bach’s B-Minor Mass. In ambition and intention, one can hardly deny a degree of equivalence, but Fenby’s thesis that Delius might have achieved a superior degree of expression had he not shut himself off from anything that smacked of the conventionally divine comes immediately to mind. Of magnanimity and caritas—two qualities that Bach’s Mass infuses with new surcharged meaning—A Mass of Life has nothing, its tenor-protagonist being no Evangelist-narrator but more narrowly the Dionysiac celebrant of his own ego. As Delius conceived it, or perhaps as he felt it, the sublime always refers back to the ego because the plenitude of worldly beauty springs in the first place from the hidden ego-creator of all phenomena.
In his penchant for vocal and choral composition, Delius remained rooted in the Nineteenth Century tradition. A Mass of Life stands in a line with Felix Mendelssohn’s Biblical oratorios Elijah and Saint Paul, with Max Bruch’s Moses and Ulysses, and with works by late-Victorian composers such as John Stainer, Hubert Parry, and even Edward Elgar. In another case of one-way admiration, Elgar, a Catholic, generously expressed his appreciation of A Mass of Life while Delius spared not the contumely in pronouncing a judgment on The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar’s Newman setting and one of the glories of the English choral heritage. To its credit, Delius’s music in these choral canvasses has held its own (more or less) in the active repertory, as Stainer’s music and Parry’s have not. A Mass surpasses in beauty and therefore in interest later essays in secular piety such as Hans Pfitzner’s cantata Von Deutscher Seele (1923), with texts from the poetry of Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff. Pfitzner owes something to Delius without rising anywhere near to the level of Delius’s achievement. The much current Carmina Burana (1938) by Carl Orff, as popular on records as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, also sets out to be a litany of secular sentiment, but Orff is to Delius as a “boom box” is to a string quartet. Palmer wonders why the Nazis never seized on Delius’s Nietzsche-oratorio for propaganda purposes, but Delius would have been too gentle and refined for them. The dying cadence was not in the Nazis’ songbook; they needed Pfitzner’s sub-Schumann type of nationalism or Orff’s tub-thumping oompah-choruses. The Austro-German conductor most associated with Delius in the middle of the Twentieth Century, Carl Schuricht, fled Das Reich during the war to reside in Switzerland.
Whenever one feels the urge to skimp Delius, one tends to recall how refined a manner he cultivated and how much genuine beauty he offered to his audience. For all his railing against technique, he paid attention to detail, fine detail, and his care counts in the result. The secular sublime in music might well be limited, but it is by no means nugatory; the world would be poorer without it.
The case could be argued that Delius created with the greatest inspiration when he avoided encumbering himself with words. Fenby understood this: “Of his settings in German and Norwegian I am not competent to judge, but, with English, the words are almost like an unnecessary commentary on the mood which the composer has drawn up from their meaning” (202). When they were working together as composer and amanuensis on the complicated choral-orchestral score of Songs of Farewell, a Whitman setting, Delius said to Fenby: “It doesn’t matter so much about my hearing the singers. The Orchester—the Orchester is the chief thing I want to hear” (Fenby 203). As a composer for orchestra, aficionados identify Delius with a group of miniatures—On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1911) and Summer Night on the River (1912); A Song Before Sunrise (1918) and The Song of Summer (1929); the Prelude to the early opera Irmelin (1892), “The Walk to the Paradise Garden” from the middle-period opera A Village Romeo and Juliet (1902), and the Intermezzo from the final opera Fennimore and Gerda (1909). The notion, quite false, remains in circulation that Delius, like his teacher at the Leipzig Conservatory Edvard Grieg, exercised his talent in the art of the miniature. Wilson takes more or less this position in Brandy of the Damned. Casual criticism also categorizes Delius as an English composer. Yet On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring uses a Norwegian folksong and the river of Summer Night on the River is the Loing, which ran through Delius’s backyard in Grez. A Village Romeo and Juliet adapts a novella, Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorf, by the Swiss writer Gottfried Keller, while Fennimore and Gerda adapts the Dane Jacobsen’s novel of youth and despair Niels Lyhne. Palmer organizes his study by geographical region—Florida, France, Scandinavia, England—and declares his subject a true cosmopolitan.
The score of Brigg Fair—An English Rhapsody (1907) seemingly confronts the listener with several contradictions, for it takes the form of a set of variations on a Lincolnshire folksong, as English as one can get, that Percy Grainger collected “from the singing of Mr. Joseph Taylor, of Saxby-All-Saints”, in 1905:6
The tune is related to the one loosely adapted sixty years later by the pop-artists Simon and Garfunkel for their acoustic hit, “Scarborough Fair”, used in the movie The Graduate. Arthur Hutchings describes it as being “in the Dorian mode”, and so decisively neither in a major nor a minor key; but Delius gives it the kind of treatment, Hutchings says, “exactly as he would have given to a diatonic tune” (84). True to its folksong-origin, Delius’s appropriated melody sticks in memory after a single hearing and is easily sung; its tessitura is not so wide as to prevent anyone with an untrained voice from giving it a good approximation. The tune’s phrase structure lends itself to plastic modification and the grace-note fillips make an opportunity for modest ornamentation.
The lyric exists in many versions. Grainger transcribed these stanzas, as sung by Joe Taylor:
It was on the fifth of August,
The weather fine and fair,
Unto Brigg Fair I did repair,
For love I was inclined.
I rose up with the lark in the morning
With my heart so full of glee,
Of thinking, there, to meet my dear
Long time I wished to see.7
Grainger culled additional stanzas from other sources. One of these must have exerted considerable appeal on Delius, with its aperçu that while “meeting is a pleasure, / Parting is a grief.”8 It is the same nuclear meaning as in Jacobsen’s “Arabesk” or Dowson’s “Cynara”; we encounter it also in the lyric of separation in the climax of Appalachia. The emotions of “Brigg Fair” grow out of centuries of country life; they absorb a contour from the hills and coppices of the English countryside, quite as Hutchings remarks.
One cannot then escape Brigg Fair’s earthy Englishness. The cosmopolitan has returned to his native roots: his score is in its way more English than, say, A Somerset Rhapsody (1906) by Holst or In the Fen Country (1904) or the Norfolk Rhapsody (1906) by Vaughan Williams. “How magically,” Fenby writes, “do the first few pages of Brigg Fair evoke the atmosphere of an early summer morning in the English countryside, with its suggestion of a faint mist veiling the horizon, and the fragrant scent of the dawn in the air” (208). A Chaucerian yeoman would be at home in the musical environment; so too would one of A. E. Houseman’s farmhands. Hutchings remarks that even the form, freely evolving “rhapsodic” variations, has an English pedigree, traceable to the elaborate part-song fantasias of the Elizabethan composers, who also often appropriated what later musicology would call folksong. Brigg Fair, commencing in the spare textures of two flutes, two clarinets, and harp, whose gestures resemble birdsong, thus differs in character from other famous free-standing sets of orchestral variations—the Variations on a Theme by Haydn by Johannes Brahms and the Symphonic Variations by Antonin Dvorak, not to mention the Enigma Variations by Elgar. One section follows another (there are twenty-two in all) seamlessly; when the tune first appears on the oboe, it seems to emerge from the serene texture of the winds-and-harp introduction.
Although Delius indicates no strict program, the listener may suppose along with Hutchings a relation between the development of the tune and the journey of the hopeful wayfarer to the titular fair; if he gets his heart broken, he seems reconciled to disappointment. On the other hand, as in Paris, Delius emphasizes the natural over the human. If Brigg Fair had a model, it would probably be Vaclav Smetana’s Moldau, which essays to depict in instrumental terms the growth of a river from its mountain sources to its slow-moving broadened-out grandeur in the lowlands; musicology can analyze Die Moldau as a set of variations, after all. A kind of fluvial downhill motion propels the transformations of the basic material in Brigg Fair too until in the penultimate section the full brass complement, backed up by tubular bells, intones the melody in augmentation. This climactic section—the score’s moment of ego-absorbing sublimity—blazes forth like the Nietzschean “Noontide” invoked by the chorus in A Mass of Life. Afterwards, in the epilogue, the calm music of the introduction asserts itself again, closing the circle, as it were, of this rurally inflected passacaglia for orchestra. In only a handful of other works did Delius create such perfect balance between form and content—so much so that one easily forgets that Brigg Fair operates on a rather large scale, requiring from sixteen to eighteen minutes in a typical performance.
In Brigg Fair, listeners confront another small but significant paradox of Delius’s music already briefly remarked: that the Master of Grez, although in reaction against the industrial blighting of the landscape and the mechanization of life, embraced the mechanical reproduction of musical performance as a medium for disseminating his work. Beecham played a central role, founding a Delius Society in 1934 to make and sell records by subscription through the offices of Columbia United Kingdom. But as early as the mid-1920s, Beecham had recorded some of the shorter works, while sessions for the first recording of Brigg Fair took place in London in the bold days of December 1928 and July 1929. The long hiatus between rehearsal dates involved the resolution of technical problems in capturing the subtleties of the score and the review of the initial masters by Delius. Beecham would re-record Brigg Fair in 1946 and again in 1956, the latter in stereo. The 1928 discs retain the magic of the occasion. Particularly fetching are the introduction, the dance-like variation with triangle, and the variation featuring solo horn. The 1946 and 1956 remakes bring all the details into greater clarity, yet they fail to surpass the first effort musically. Listening to Delius’s score through the crackling surface noise of the eighty-year-old master platters is rather like contemplating faded sepia-tint photographs of one’s grandparents on their wedding day: it is the vestige of a gentler world now gone—gone with the wind. Beecham already had this sense of Delius’s art at the time, grasping it as the source of anomalous illumination in “the vast cloud of mental obfuscation hovering over the present musical scene” (222).
In 1928, Beecham also committed to grooves the vocal-choral-orchestral work that some nominate as Delius’s finest achievement, the Whitman setting Sea Drift (1903-1904); Beecham would re-record Sea Drift in 1936, the 1928 takes having remained unpublished, and once more in 1952. The waking of consciousness through confrontation with loss and death, the location of dawning sentiment in the thoughts of a self-sufficient and keenly perceiving subject, and the removal of that subject’s awareness from rabble-ridden vulgarity by his participation in events of a powerful natural order—these elements animate and structure the verses from Leaves of Grass to which Delius responded in conceiving this poignant essay in seascape, solitude, and mortality. Fenby wonders about Delius’s belletristic judgment, saying that, on inspection, he “had no feeling whatever for the music of words” (201). Fenby goes farther with the comment, “The root of his insensibility… was, I think, a certain lack of literary taste” (205). Hutchings, however, in respect of Sea Drift, urges that “Delius never bent a text to his musical purposes in so masterly a way” (104). Sea Drift is certainly a more compact work than A Mass of Life or even than the Songs of Sunset (1907), an elaborate choral-orchestral suite on poems by Dowson. Hutchings reminds readers that Whitman fascinated British composers in the decade on either side of the year 1900, inspiring settings by Holst and Vaughan Williams—The Mystic Trumpeter (1904) and A Sea Symphony (1903-1909) respectively. Sea Drift differs in spirit from both in like degree as either differs from the other.
That Whitman’s words convey a story, however minimal, contributes to Sea Drift’s musical cohesion. This cannot be said of the Dowson poems in Songs of Sunset. Delius excerpts his text from Whitman’s longer poem, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”; this is the first entry in the suite of eleven sea-themed poems in Leaves of Grass that bears the name, which Delius has borrowed—Sea Drift. In the poem, Whitman’s memoirist recalls how when a boy he one summer came to know by close observation a pair of seagulls, “two feathered guests from Alabama”, who nested on the Long Island shore. The words betoken that Romantic Fusion-with-Nature that lies at the heart of the Delius esthetic: “And every day, I, a curious boy, never too close, / never disturbing them, / Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.” Swiftly enough, catastrophe falls:
Till of a sudden,
Maybe killed unknown to her mate,
One forenoon the she-bird crouched not on the nest,
Nor returned that afternoon, nor the next,
Nor ever appeared again.
And thence forward all summer in the sound of the sea,
And at night under the full of the moon in calmer weather,
Over the hoarse surging of the sea,
Of flitting from brier to brier by day,
I saw, I heard at intervals, the remaining one, the he-bird,
The solitary guest from Alabama.
“Peering, absorbing, translating”: these words of intentness and communion aptly designate what Delius accomplishes musically in reacting to Whitman’s verbal sea-sounds and tableau of sadness. The opening bars, purely orchestral, juxtapose rising figures in the bass line with descending figures in the upper registers—with flutes and clarinets furnishing the atmospheric color. This music recurs at important moments of the score, but Delius’s form corresponds entirely to his intuitive appreciation of Whitman’s words. The baritone sings the lines attributable directly to the lyric persona of the poem while the chorus sings descriptive passages or lines that seem to represent unspoken and even half-thought notions of the same persona. The solo vocal line corresponds to extended recitative, always melodic, but bursting into genuine arioso melody only near to the end, at the words, “O past! O happy life! O songs of joy!” The final bars rehearse the sea-music of the opening bars, with the chorus fading away on the poem’s cadential “together no more”.
The moment of sublimity in Sea Drift involves the boy’s apocalyptic and total identification with the bereft he-bird, whose lonely gull-cries become his own: “High and clear I shoot my voice over the waves, / Surely you must know who is here, is here, / You must know who I am, my love.” At the same instant the boy seems to fuse also with the seascape against which the blight of separation has occurred. Yet musically the flight into soaring melody comes only as the poem’s subject recalls that vanishing—and now vanished—oneness. Is that oneness also love? The word love or its participle, loved, registers fourteen times in the lines that Delius selects; but one notes that this love is animal affection, the bonding in nature of mate with mate, and not complicating human affection even though the poet necessarily speaks of it in anthropomorphic figures. The disaster of Sea Drift thus differs from the disaster of I, where the subject has damned himself by choosing the Pan of Love over the Pan of the Forest. The exile of Sea Drift is constructive where that of An Arabesque is destructive. Delius always remains true to his peculiar type of non-gregarious asceticism.
Palmer, who so succinctly sums up the central Delian experience, has strangely little to say about Sea Drift; indeed, neither does Brigg Fair interest him beyond passing remarks. It is a question worth pondering why Palmer slights these scores in his otherwise comprehensive and detailed study. For Pirie, Sea Drift “is a blend of several subtle and seemingly not very compatible elements fused at white heat into a new synthesis—not a bad description of the creative act itself” (Hughes and Strading 53). Pirie praises the harmonic modulation at “O past! O happy life! O songs of joy!” for being “so magical that it is hardly an exaggeration to say that it is the most emotionally profound and technically apt since Schubert” (53). As for Hutchings, he consecrates six enthusiastic pages to the score, which he finds to be full of paradoxes. “The sea is always there, but the work is not a seascape,” he writes; and Delius’s “primary concern is to express the emotions” implicit in Whitman’s poetic usages (105). Hutchings admires the cyclic character of Delius’s musical working-out of the argument: “The orchestral opening to the work immediately brings us to ‘the surgy murmurs of the lonely sea,’ and we are left with the same lonely sea when the last ‘No more, no more’ recedes” (105). Sea Drift has been lucky in its discography; while the classic representations belong to Beecham, whose three sallies have remained in the catalogue, interested parties should also seek out more modern recordings like those of Sir Charles Groves and Richard Hickox. These reveal technical aspects of the score that older recording practices never could capture. None will surpass, however, the first of Beecham’s three, featuring the impeccable diction of baritone John Brownlee, whose clarity of enunciation makes Whitman’s every word fully apprehensible.
Novelist and thinker Colin Wilson grudges a bit in according status to Delius, as we have seen; but his chapter on Delius in Brandy of the Damned often cuts to the heart of the matter. Addressing the probable motive behind Delius’s vehement espousal of Nietzsche, Wilson proposes: “Like Yeats, Delius created a mask, an anti-self, as a defense against the world. The hatred of religion might at first seem strange; after all, Dowson became a Catholic, and wrote movingly of Extreme Unction. Then one realizes that Delius would have been incapable of the surrender of personality demanded by religion, even the romantic, masochistic religion of Parsifal; the rejection was again a form of self-defense” (129). Apposite to Wilson’s diagnosis is the record of Delius’s everyday life, as documented by Lionel Carley in Delius: A Life in Letters (1862-1908). Readers of Carley’s volume will search in vain for an artistic credo, a passionate outburst, or the report of a life-altering visionary experience. While Delius could and did write effective accounts of the tropical climate in Florida and his treks through the Norwegian mountains, the bulk of his correspondence (Carley frequently reproduces both sides of an exchange) consists of negotiations with music publishers, answering pleas from second-tier conductors that he might intercede to supply them with scores on discount, and notices to Jelka on trivial particulars of various tours he made to promote his music. The exceptions are an occasional word of praise for a play, poem, or novel that Delius has read, as when he briefly extols Jacobsen’s Marie Grubbe (1876) in a missive to Jelka.
The letters show no obvious resentment, but taken in concert with private remarks in later life as detailed by Fenby and with the music itself, one can hardly not conclude that Delius, as Wilson argues, spent much of his life in passionate revolt against the enmeshing banalities of modern existence—even while acquiring adeptness in handling them. He came from a family of successful, wealthy cloth merchants, after all, and had worked in the family business in various capacities. He struggled to escape the family business, however, as much as he could: “wholesale draper” was not how he saw his career. When Delius père objected to the son’s determination to live for art, Delius availed himself of a generous and playboy-like uncle then living in Paris, where he experimented with Bohemianism and became conversant casually with the antinomian theories of the day. In the two decades up to his death, Delius’s house in Grez, originally Jelka’s, belonged by deed to his friend and benefactor Balfour Gardiner, who charged no rent. It is characteristic of Delius that he could rail against Christian charity, as he often did to Fenby, while existing on the benevolent largesse of one of his relatives or friends. Fenby’s dedication also came without a price. It too was charity. Despite Fenby’s filial devotion to the old man, this contradiction never ceased to impress him, and he thought that it had implications for Delius’s art.
In A Life in Letters, Carley reproduces passages from a novel by C. F. Keary, The Journalist (1898), where Delius appears as “Sophus Jonsen”. Keary, who also wrote the libretto for Delius’s opera Koanga (1896), describes Jonsen as “an Anglo-Danish playwright in his mid-thirties” who “dabbles in Alchemy and is a disciple of Nietzsche.”[i] In a conversation, Jonsen expatiates on the Übermensch: “I tell you, my dear fellow, that’s the most important thing of all that we’ve got to get rid of, that idea that you must always be afraid of hurting somebody. You’ve got to hurt a lot of people—you’ve got to hurt all the damned bourgeoisie as much as you can—if this world is to step a bit forward” (416). Delius recognized himself without objection in Keary’s portrait, which provides a clue both to his personal psychology and his esthetics. What Delius did, apart from writing music, was promote it, and why not? He also inveterately promoted himself, and again why not? What Delius felt was irritation at the rabble or “bourgeoisie” and at the market where such philistines go about their small lives and reign sclerotically, like his father, over their families. Something of this anti-bourgeois bellicosity filters into Delius’s version of the secular sublime; but it is there already in Nietzsche’s version of the same, which serves Delius for his chief model. The attainment of “immaculate perception” functions as a rite de passage whose secondary purpose, once it has admitted the seer to a new order of perception and understanding, is to exclude the unwashed from its rigorous grace.
Yet now, while roundly criticizing Delius for his lack of common gratitude and moral stinginess, it is nevertheless required to say that these unattractive characteristics never cancel the possibility that, in certain of his attitudes, the man was right and that as an artist and seer he delivered truths to those willing to receive them. Like Blake, who could also be self-serving, Delius saw that industrialism and mercantilism—whatever the affluence they had produced and however much their apologists might justly defend them—had made ugly incursions into the landscape and had established a mentality that placed too much merit in the crass ideas of business for its own sake and so-called success. To this extent, the modern world had subtracted something from the medieval world that it had replaced. While the cities grew, the villages shrank, and land became another “resource” for exploitation. While human habitation encroached on and despoiled the wilderness, money, rather than some actual bond, became the mediator between individuals. Wilfrid Mellers appropriately includes Delius in his study, Singing in the Wilderness: Music and Ecology (2001), where he devotes a chapter to A Village Romeo and Juliet (1902). Coincidentally, Delius commissioned Keary as the original librettist for this “Lyric Drama in Six Scenes” before he and Jelka decided to assemble the book on their own. Mellers compares Delius with Wagner. A Village Romeo and Juliet, he writes, is a kind of “sequel to Tristan und Isolde, with which it shares both poetic theme and technical means to its end” (13). Succinctly, according to Mellers, “both operas address the impossibility of achieving identity between flesh and spirit in the temporal world” (13).
The story is simple: two farmer-widowers fight over a wedge of land, “the Wild Land”, between their fields, extending the feud to their children, Sali, the boy, and Vreli, the girl; they are playmates childishly in love now forbidden to associate by parental fiat. The disputants go to law and ruin themselves. The children, grown to adolescence in poverty, ignore the now ineffective ban; but seeing no prospect in life, finding the world hostile to their passion, they at last drown themselves in a river. A contest over unspoiled land, which the contestants greedily see as potential property, poisons the happiness of two innocents. One complication in the plot is the back-story of the contested pristine patch, said to be morally the inheritance of a vagabond called the Dark Fiddler who, however, being a bastard, cannot legally hold title. While Sali and Vreli are the opera’s titular protagonists, the Dark Fiddler dominates the drama as the truly central and the most fully realized character. Delius played the violin and, while not illegitimate, nevertheless relished his bastard-like épater-les-bourgoises role as the brothel-crawling black sheep of his family.
Delius, although in marriage childless, probably fathered a mulatto male child during his Floridian excursion. Incorporating these autobiographical traits, the Dark Fiddler (the German-language libretto calls him der Schwarze Geiger!) functions in A Village Romeo and Juliet as the composer’s self-projection. A sophisticate as well as an outsider, the Dark Fiddler possesses sublime and tragic knowledge inaccessible to the naïve adolescents, for whom he nevertheless acts, up to a point, as a guide. The opera’s two feuding farmers and its uptight villagers who snub the simple lovers are wretched people; despite standing in opposition to civic life, however, the Dark Fiddler’s antinomianism redeems him not. On the contrary, Sali and Vreli at last reject him, but only after his cynicism has contributed to their despair. In presenting this attractive—to him—character so ambiguously, Delius comes as close in A Village Romeo and Juliet as he ever came to self-criticism.
Musically, A Village Romeo and Juliet moderately tests the definition of opera, while producing consistently gorgeous quasi-polyphonic textures, as a Delius score always does. About forty of the opera’s one hundred and twenty minutes of playing time leave out the voices entirely; elsewhere, the orchestra contributes at least as much as the singers. As Mellers remarks, the scenes in their sequence follow a rule of enharmonic “declension”, foreshadowed in the descending intervals of the first bars of the Prologue, suggestive of “a Fall”, as in the Fall of Genesis (14, 16). The opera’s best-known excerpt, the orchestral intermezzo called “The Walk to Paradise Garden”, offers melodic material based contrastingly on ascending motifs, but these cannot finally counteract the downward pressure of the dominant material. “Paradise” remains a myth; reality consists of declension, alienation, and heartbreak. The excellent film of the opera (2002) by Czech cinéaste Petr Weigl, with baritone Thomas Hampson superbly representing the Dark Fiddler, brings out the moral ambiguities of the narrative, as well as providing, in its expansive location shots, imagistic justification of Delius’s musical evocation of nature. Weigl interprets cinematically what Mellers detects through musical analysis: “Although [the Dark Fiddler] communes with the wild woods and untamed winds, his main tune emulates, in its dotted 6/8 rhythm, his limp—itself a kind of Fall in that he, like Lucifer, had been ousted from Eden” (15).
A really gorgeous moment comes in the orchestral link between the second and third scenes, where Weigl follows Sali as he wanders out to what remains of “the Wild Land” to meet Vreli. Especially in the score’s deployment of the horns, these bars resemble the Prelude to Part Two of A Mass of Life. Weigl’s scenery is mountainous, lush with grasses and trees, and the sky, starkly blue against the peaks: the ensemble of effects provides the conditions in which sublimity might reveal itself to a well attuned consciousness. The interweaving Alpine polyphony of the horns tells us this—and no montage could be truer to Delius. Neither Sali nor Vreli qualifies as such a consciousness, however, because neither can stand back from the scene; they both remain immersed in their own simple emotions. The Dark Fiddler could perhaps see and undergo transformation through the power of beauty, but bitterness at his exclusion has corrupted his poetic capacity. Coming on the sweethearts, he gloats over the “havoc” that desire for his untitled landholdings has unleashed on the two stricken families. A moment later, Sali has struck down Vreli’s father, who appears in anger to drag her off. All the property sold off to creditors, the fathers reduced to madness and confinement, the lovers become homeless wanderers. In a long sequence they dream about their marriage in terms that Delius makes deliberately insipid, but Weigl judiciously mitigates the insipidity, thereby vindicating their idea of love precisely because of its naivety.
Weigl depicts the “Paradise Garden”, the disused and dilapidated inn where the Dark Fiddler and his gypsy cohort take their temporary lodgings, in images of alcohol and drug use, nudity and voyeurism, and implied promiscuity of all forms. This too we may take as autobiographical, verging on the self-critical; it is a bit of Dowson-like decadence inserted into Keller’s stolid prose. Repelled by the Bohemians’ dissolute character, Sali and Vreli choose their version of the Liebestod rather than join themselves to dissoluteness. Weigl has not departed entirely from Delius’s intentions, but he has subtly tweaked them, heightening the self-critical subtext of the work. To make A Village Romeo and Juliet more dramatic than it might otherwise seem, Weigl makes it more normatively moral, and in so doing necessarily contends with Delius’s tendency to excuse and justify his own antisocial character. Weigl’s scene forces us to recall the affiliation between the end of A Village Romeo and Juliet and the tragic choral climax of Appalachia. Sali and Vreli also “go down the river”, as does the slave in Appalachia, but with suicidal finality in their case. If slave separation provokes moral outrage, so then ought the misery of two simple souls, given that others are the prime authors of that misery. So much for the Übermenschlich pleasure of outraging Christian sentiment! The effect of Weigl’s treatment is to free the music into its absolute, nature-celebrating glory.
Delius completed six operas, A Village Romeo and Juliet being the fifth, and Fennimore and Gerda (1910), after Jacobsen’s novel Niels Lyhne (1880), being the last. Hutchings nominates A Village Romeo and Juliet and Koanga as the two most convincing of Delius’s essays in the genre, but the close thematic relation between the former and Fennimore and Gerda inclines one to vote for the Jacobsen-inspired score rather than the Cable-inspired one. (Delius based Koanga, as we recall, on The Grandissimes, Cable’s créole novel, with Keary as librettist.) Where A Village Romeo and Juliet concerns two people, Sali and Vreli, who never exceed their rustic, childlike, and naïve limitations, Fennimore and Gerda concerns the city-dwelling upper classes and those who have acquired an education, however mis-educated they prove in their fumbling through life. Readers familiar with Niels Lyhne will easily grasp why this Bildungsroman exercised so strong an attraction over Delius. Jacobsen, as his poetry attests, exulted in natural description, befitting for a trained naturalist who had translated Darwin for the Danes. Then again, Jacobsen embraced a rigorous atheism, holding out for the stoic ethos of Denmark’s medieval ballads over the delusions, as he saw them, of Christian sentimentality. One may read Niels Lyhne, as Delius undoubtedly read it, as a sustained novelistic case for atheism incidentally denunciatory of the middle classes and voting yes for free love.
Consider the scene in which the young Lyhne, having just had his heart broken by a woman he knows to be his intellectual inferior, takes his Christmas dinner in a restaurant, where a chance guest, Dr. Hjerrild, joins him. Hjerrild, as convinced a materialist as Lyhne, nevertheless cautions him that “Christianity has power” (Jacobsen 103). Lyhne, prone to rhetoric, launches into a speech: “But don’t you see… that the day humanity can cry freely, there is no God, on that day a new heaven and a new earth will be created as if by magic. Only then will heaven become free, infinite space instead of a threatening, watchful eye. Only then will the earth belong to us and we to the earth” (106). In Jacobsen’s scheme, events chastise Lyhne’s youthful Rousseauvian conceit—without, however, overturning his (and the novel’s) basic conviction. But another element of the Jacobsen’s story must have enthralled Delius equally at least: its remarkable evocation of the Danish landscape, especially the coastal regions. In one of Niels Lyhne’s Fennimore chapters, set at Consul Berendt Claudi’s estate at Fjordby, the guests have spent the afternoon visiting their host’s coastal steamer; at evenfall, by plan, they leave the ship in lighters to cross back by moonlight to shore.
The first boat was supposed to row on ahead and make a swing away from land, while the other one would make straight for shore; the reason for this arrangement was that they wanted to hear how [Fennimore’s] song would sound across the water on a still evening like this…. Gently the boat glided forward, and the dull, smooth surface was rippled into receding lines and circles by a faint white light that barely illuminated the path it took, and only where it was strongest did it send a fine, dim glow, like a cloud of light, out over its surroundings…. [Fennimore and Erik Refstrup] sang a couple of Italian romances together, to the accompaniment of the mandolin. (Jacobsen 121-122)
Delius sets this scene—where Fennimore, loved without declaration by Niels, accepts Refstrup’s offer of marriage, tipping the protagonist once again into third-party dejection—as the second of the opera’s “Eleven Pictures”. We recognize Palmer’s Delian “Ur-scena” in the concatenation of elements. Delius has in fact altered Jacobsen to bring the configuration of motifs closer to his own esthetic. The “Italian romances”, no doubt belonging to middle-class Kitsch, vanish; their replacement is a wordless tenor-register vocalise overheard by the parties in both boats. Palmer calls it “one of [Delius’s] loveliest vocalises” (69). Fennimore says, as she and Erik tie off their boat at Claudi’s landing, “How beautiful it sounds on the water,”9 indicating that she has some keenness of perception; yet she immediately succumbs to Refstrup’s hackneyed blandishments. Niels sees them embracing shortly after he ties off the second boat. Both Delius and Jacobsen make Lyhne’s sudden awareness of his exclusion constitutive of what is stoical and admirable in him. Fennimore and Erik’s love, since it cannot claim the naivety of Sali and a Vreli’s, descends into insipidity. Lyhne’s conviction that he must now withdraw his own suit ought to elevate him, but his subsequent decision to become an unmarried hanger-on in the Refstrup household shows a basic weakness. The touchstone of truth remains the voix sans paroles, unidentifiable and a bit inhuman, that resounds like a spirit on the dark fjord; it is not the voice of love and domestic relations, but of Nature and Nature’s trans-human and transfiguring beauty.
Delius makes other alterations to Jacobsen, even more drastic, as Palmer and Hutchings point out. In Jacobsen’s novel, after the death of his young wife Gerda and a failure of creativity, Lyhne wavers in his atheism, at one point mimicking a prayer to God; he joins the army to fight against the Prussians in the war over Schleswig-Holstein, and during a battle falls fatally wounded. Lyhne reaffirms his atheism to Dr. Hjerrild, who attends him in the hospital where he dies “the difficult death”, obviously meant by Jacobsen to symbolize the heroic nihilism of the true materialist. This ending should have appealed to Delius as a Nietzschean, but perhaps he was musically incapable of the required starkness. Instead, Delius chooses to end with two “Pictures”, the Tenth and Eleventh, of Lyhne meeting and falling in love, and then enjoying married life, with the teenaged, girlish Gerda. After the verismo emotionalism of the “Ninth Picture”, where Erik’s drunken companions bring him home on a cart and Fennimore all but curses Niels for having brought back thoughts of her love for him, the “Gerda” epilogue is bound to strike the committed Delian as relinquishing sublimity for something perilously close to inanity. It is a fair question why Delius saw fit to let the lovers die in A Village Romeo and Juliet but then betrayed the spirit of Niels Lyhne by cutting its final death-scene from his operatic version.
Palmer never tries an explanation. Hutchings contents himself with observing that Delius felt that this was how his opera should end even though there are “no reasons, musical or dramatic,” for it.[ii] Hutchings does rightly judge that “the best music in Fennimore and Gerda is that which either enhances the scenery—the winter forests, the sea and fjord, the summer sunset, etc.—or else bespeaks the surging love of passion” (129). Even the dénouement furnishes such gorgeous moments as in the Prelude to the “Tenth Picture”, which oddly but unmistakably echoes the slave-theme Appalachia (“across the mighty river”) and offers up choral vocalise reminiscent of the “Dance Songs” in A Mass of Life. What might reconcile the dénouement of Fennimore and Gerda with what has gone before, a repudiation of antinomian ways as in A Village Romeo and Juliet, never occurs—only the abrupt transition to Lyhne with his Dowson-type child-bride. Such repudiation would have required a more forthright recasting of Niels Lyhne than Delius would ever willingly have made.
In his always provocative book on music, Brandy of the Damned, Colin Wilson sets aside an entire chapter for Delius, but Delius turns up elsewhere in Wilson’s oeuvre. In the opening chapter of Wilson’s crime-novel The Killer (1970), about a psychiatrist’s discovery that one of his cases, a seemingly harmless schizophrenic, is actually a sociopath and a sex-killer, the first-person narrator is motoring around Yorkshire to interview various relatives of the patient in small towns. The novel’s decade of the 1960s saw the nadir of the postwar British economy under the Laborites and related social deformation: bad times have shut down and rusted out the mills, and great scars of abandoned works mar the landscape. Blocks of welfare housing (council flats) disfigure the civic centers. “I am not fond,” says the narrator, “of the industrial towns of Yorkshire; so I drove across the Pennines to Burnley, then south to Manchester. It had rained in the night, and the July morning was fresh and full of the smells of summer. As I drove through the golden and green countryside, I listened to a concert of Elgar and Delius on the car radio, and the beauty of the day made me understand the nostalgia in their music” (44).
Wilson is himself something of a modern visionary, the advocate in scores of books of his “New Existentialism” based on access to vatic wellsprings of consciousness akin to what the American psychiatrist Abraham Maslow called “the Peak Experience”. The Delius allusion (in fairness, a Delius and Elgar allusion) comes and goes in The Killer, but it is telling in the novelistic context and telling again in connection with the remarks about Delius that the present essay has liberally quoted. Brigg Fair or A Song of Summer and Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, as readers might imagine, suddenly furnish the narrator with a much-needed reference opposite to the slum-benumbed lethargy and soot-dirtied despair that so bothers him in the ugly environment. The Delian or the Elgarian “nostalgia” partakes in the dissolution of an older order that the two insightful men already saw breathing its last at the end of the Nineteenth Century.
What differentiated that older order from the one that dissolved and succeeded it was an underlying rhythm: the rhythm of the seasonal cycle, of the sacred calendar, and of maturation and death rather than that of office routine, of airline timetables, and of the taxman’s schedule. Wilson speaks in many of his books about “the robot”, as he calls it. “The robot” is the human being denatured by the imposition of externally mandated behaviors so that he loses his ability to act spontaneously on intuition and instinct. “The robot” usefully enables people to do all sorts of things by a kind of second nature, but “the robot” also endangers people by being too efficient in taking over their habits. As a program for the cool, smooth execution of all errands, “the robot” even threatens to colonize love, sex, and the erotic response to beauty, as Platonically conceived. One might say figuratively that a man with a six-figure income, an attractive wife, and the full array of material chattels nevertheless lives a slum-benumbed life to the extent that his routines have replaced him and robbed him of autonomy, happiness, and judgment; or that his material chattels belong to Kitsch, serve him for mindless diversion, and signify his cultural and spiritual inanity. Relevant to the discussion is a claim, already cited, by Mircea Eliade, who says that ancient and primitive people invest phenomena with a greater sense of reality than do their modern, civilized counterparts. They have a greater sense of reality altogether, where modern people are alienated from life and anhedonic in their disposition. In this regard, Hutchings makes two interesting remarks about Delius: first, that Delius probably lived most happily during his Bohemian years in Paris when he also lived most frugally; and second, that Delius, in his maturity, “had the temperament of a mystic, one who uses symbols” and for whom “phenomena are symbols” (Hutchings 179).
Identifying Delius as a mystic enables Hutchings to disarm the rhetorical sharp edges of the composer’s bellicose espousal of Nietzschean doctrine. Delius found in Nietzsche visionary formulas and a guide to a type of bachelor asceticism that he might as easily have located in the metaphysical poets or in Wordsworth—who, Hutchings points out, was also a Yorkshireman and a poet of distant redemptory prospects. When Wordsworth wrote, in the early Nineteenth Century, the old order, while under threat, still existed. When Delius wrote, in the first third of the Twentieth Century, the new order had all but triumphed. Its triumph entailed, however, an elision of natural reality and all too often the abuse of nature demoted to mere “resource”. Such a process could only be recursive on those who enacted it, deforming human nature quite as it deformed the landscape. Delius, like his almost exact contemporary H. G. Wells, refused to adhere to a trade. It was indeed the same trade, although Wells saw his doom in the lowest retail end of it and Delius his in a capitalist’s role. In saying “No!” to absorption in what Wordsworth called, with a brothel-connotation, “getting and spending”, both Wells and Delius (two divergent temperaments if ever there were) also said “No!” to the flattening out of life into a universal and spiritually anemic middle-class existence. From the flatland of bourgeois dejection, both men prophesied an urgent need to put toil aside—temporarily at least—to climb the mountain, regain a broad perspective, and breathe the rare air of the heights. As Hutchings says in so many words, if this prescription were a secular way of saying that people ought to come “Nearer, my God, to Thee” before calamity overtakes them, then why would one cavil over its secularity? The Christian mystic and the Atheist mystic meet one another precisely in the Far Away or the Up Above to which they so hungrily aspire. Homo modernus lacks badly for a vivifying “Peak Experience”, so he needs whatever signpost of it he can come by in his wanderings down below.
Delius’s supremely cogent expression of this, his basic urgency as artist-seer, takes flight in the most ambitious purely orchestral score that he ever penned—A Song of the High Hills (1911). In Hutchings’s description of A Song of the High Hills, “the whole work has the shape of a peak” (111). The shape is: Ascent—Exultation and Transfiguration—Descent. The classification “orchestral score” needs some qualification because A Song of the High Hills requires both solo and choral voices although it sets no text, using the singers wordlessly to extend the instrumental palette. The inspiration comes from the Norwegian Alps, where Delius often sojourned in his youth, once undertaking an extensive trek through the highlands of the Valdres region with two Norwegians, the violinist Halfdan Jebe and novelist Knut Hamsun. Ostensibly, they undertook the itinerary as a concert-tour, with Delius supplying piano accompaniment to Jebe’s fiddle. “What part Knut Hamsun played I could never learn,” writes Beecham with amusement (84). Norway serving for an occasion, A Song of the High Hills clearly stems once more from Delius’s response to the craggy prose of Zarathustra. Fenby records that Delius encountered Nietzsche for the first time when a Norwegian friend lent him Zarathustra for reading matter during one of those summer adventures. Beecham says that what spoke most directly to Delius in Nietzsche was the notion “that there were dangerous fallacies in the bulk of democratic doctrine” (219). This affinity might be in play in A Song of the High Hills, one of whose sections carries the description, “The Wide Far Distance—the Great Solitude”.
A Song of the High Hills begins with a sequence of descending “sighs” in the strings. One might relate these “sighs” to the descending chromatic motif in An Arabesque, which in that context certainly represents despair. In this sense, A Song f the High Hills commences symbolically in the despair of the lowland, where the contaminating influence of “the herd” subverts rigor of perception and the capacity to experience mystic—or Dionysian—communion with Nature. Woodwinds introduce contrastingly songlike figurations leading up to a brass outburst that reveals the beckoning heights. A flute ostinato appears, which will recur throughout at key moments, sometimes in other instruments, particularly (and significantly) the horn. Delius develops these motifs in his depiction of the ascent towards the transcendent heights implied by the title. Delius marks this first section “Tranquillo”. The next section, “The Wide Far Distance—the Great Solitude”, announces itself in two ways: in the deployment of a characteristically folksong-like melody and in the use of the wordless chorus, which echoes that melody after the clarinets introduce it. An icily beautiful passage for strings, harp, and celesta follows, which Hutchings interprets as revealing “the snow-capped summits before our eyes” (110). Palmer invokes “shafts of sunlight glinting at intervals through a mist” in summing up the impression of the same bars of the score (53).
A third section continues the mood, giving variants of the folksong to two solo voices, soprano and tenor:
In the longish fourth and final section (“Very Quietly”), Delius gives substantial paragraphs to the voices alone. Like the voice heard across the waters in Fennimore and Gerda, these vocal contributions represent powers non-human and transcendent. Some commentaries refer to them as “satyrs”, the Nietzschean implication which is apposite to A Song’s musical poetics. In Palmer’s words, “A thousand voices sound from afar deploying the mystic melody in an elaborate chromatic context—the Delian Experience, and one of the great moments in music” (53). After what Palmer calls “a climax of overpowering hymnic splendor,” then as he writes, “the vision fades [and] all the themes from the earlier sections are passed in review” (53). Pirie calls attention to the “coda for orchestra alone, ending in a magical passage in which the timpani play chords” (Hughes and Strading 80).
Wilfrid Mellers penetrates, as usual, deeply into the meaning of the notes. “The essence of the music,” he writes, “may be the flux of sensation—the sighing of the Wagnerian appoggiaturas with which the work opens, the fluctuating chromatic woof of the choral texture…
Nonetheless, all the component lines [that] make up the harmony sing…. The rhapsodic solo melody tends to be pentatonic, like folk-song or medieval monody, as though it were seeking oneness beyond the sensory flux…. The celebration of life in and for itself leads to the desire to lose the self in the contemplation of Nature… [whereas] the desire for Nirvana as the only resolution of passion is common to Wagner and Delius; the pantheistic ecstasy is peculiar to Delius. (123)
No one sympathized with these traits of the Delian outlook as closely as Beecham, whose 1946 recording of A Song of the High Hills, with the Royal Philharmonic, remains the touchstone against which others should be measured. Beecham made the recording in connection with the second Delius Festival of that year, where he played the work for the first time. The flute and horn ostinati become quite intense—the sharp focus of vatic ego-transfiguration as the subject of events gazes into the mystic distance; and listeners are reminded that these oscillating patterns, or something very like them, appear also in Sea Drift. Beecham’s account points up another “intertextual” allusion, given in the low-register dance-like motifs (basses and cellos) of the third section, this time to Delius’s other Norwegian-highlands score, Eventyr (1915), inspired by Asbjørnsen and Moe’s folktale collection, with its trolls and gjengångare. Now where Beecham emphasizes the score’s intensity, Fenby emphasizes its high-altitude rarity, in a performance (1983) that, in extending to half an hour, adds five and a half minutes to Sir Thomas’s account. Sir Charles Groves recorded A Song of the High Hills convincingly in the late 1960s. More recently (2002) the Danish conductor Bo Holten made The High Hills the centerpiece in a program devoted exclusively to Delius’s “Norwegian” music, a refined and yet vigorous representation of the score.
Wilson notes in Brandy of the Damned, published more than forty years ago, that “the centenary of Delius’s birth [just then celebrated] seems to have proved what many of us have suspected for a long time: that since the death of Sir Thomas Beecham interest in Delius has dwindled almost to the vanishing-point” (125). In Wilson’s diagnosis, “the reason for this lack of interest is unpleasantly obvious: it is the same cultural snobbery, the curious narrowness of sympathy, that led the editor of the Pelican Modern European Music to omit all reference to Sibelius, and that leads many music critic to talk as if Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Webern are the only interesting composers of the twentieth century” (125). Even through the bleakest years of this “cultural snobbery”, however, Delius retained his audience. What kind of audience? Wilson is right: it was not an audience of elites. Hutchings says that Delius’s music conveys these essential experiences of life and world: “Dawn, sunset, the hills, the sea, with humanity as the sapient and feeling crown of nature, the longing of men and women to be always their ‘higher’, more mystical, more Dionysian, more clairvoyant selves, their yearning to fulfill their love passions and their craving for beauty, for identity with the strength and glory of creation, together with their mastery of its pain and evil” (175). Hutchings then affirms that “it is ordinary folk, not professional musicians, who have decided that Delius is a great composer” (176).
Hutchings does not mean everybody, of course. These “ordinary folk” are, like all culturally responsible people, few rather than many in their number—but the important thing is their freedom from the snobbism of which Wilson writes. Palmer wrote bravely indeed when he foresaw the publication of his Delius in the late 1970s, when critical intolerance against musical beauty reached its irate zenith: the inverse and negation of the Nietzschean-Delian “Noontide” that art reveals to its audience. Anton Webern might well have discovered a new and peculiar esthetic canon by his application of Schoenberg’s methodic atonality in his pointillist miniatures, like the Concerto for Nine Instruments (1934) or Das Augenlicht (1935). Let us not gainsay the possibility. But by setting up Webernian mathematical rigor as the only and as the institutionally approved manner of composition—because most composers and especially those who cleave readily to a system are mediocre—the bureaucrats of the music colleges unleashed against well tempered ears a dreary wave of what Delius called “atonal ugliness” (Fenby 210). Such ugliness sprang, Delius said, from “lack of imagination [and] lack of emotion” and from “our hasty mode of life” (210). Delius averred on the same occasion that “no set of principles or theories… can give birth to beautiful music” (210). Stubborn music-lovers who, during the 1960s and 70s, insisted on buying records of Rachmaninov, Ravel, and Frederick Delius, stood the ground against the destruction of melody and harmony in the name of a false progress. Palmer, seconding Hutchings, writes: “The value of [Delius’s] legacy lies not merely in its great glory as art per se, but in its ability to stir its recipient to some hazy awareness of their own latent imaginative powers and to an eventual realization that, the longer and the better they live in Delius and all other fine music, the more their awareness of the wonder of the world will be increased, the more grateful they will be for the privilege of being alive” (193).
Palmer’s words are daring ones. One can easily imagine the supercilious scoffing that would automatically greet them if they constituted an offering at a contemporary scholarly conference. Just what do you mean by “value”? Just what do you mean by “beauty”? Just what do you mean by “live better”? The graduate humanities students would have a good laugh all around, committed as they are to a contradictory absolute relativism in all domains of ethical and esthetic endeavor.
Palmer’s words anticipate, in their particular context, what the philosopher Roger Scruton has recently said about the parlous state of education in the Western societies. So universal is an outworn but tenacious utilitarian understanding of culture that modern Westerners tend to be oblivious to the real function of art, which is not to divert, not to please simply because people “need pleasure” the way they need food and housing, but rather “to teach us ‘what to feel’,” in given common situations, “through the exercise of sympathy” (54). A dearth of such basic instruction explains the hypothetical but entirely predictable reaction to Palmer supposed in the second sentence of the present paragraph, and it explains how composition could be denigrated in academies to the methodic, soulless making of music according to a mathematical formula. Scruton writes: “Although music is not a representational art, it shares an important feature with human life, and that is organized movement. We move with the music that we listen to, and this too is a sympathetic response, a way of shaping our inner life to fit the perceived life of another” (61).
In this light, while we might lament with Fenby over those insights that Delius in pride failed to achieve, we must—must—be grateful for all those that he did achieve and which he generously, whatever his fault, bequeaths to those who agree to follow him in the ascent. It is good to “move” with the Delius of Briggs Fair and A Song of the High Hills, to move with and to be moved by them. A world that makes room for Delius is without doubt better than one that shuns him.
Carley, Lionel. Delius: A Life in Letters (1862-1908). Ashgate, 1983.
Fenby, Eric. Delius As I Knew Him. London: Bell, 1936.
Hutchings, Arthur. Delius. Greenwood, 1970.
Jacobsen, Jens Peter. Niels Lyhne. Trans. Tina Nunnally
Mellers, Wilfrid. Singing in the Wilderness: Music and Ecology in the Twentieth Century. U of Illinois Press, 2001.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spake Zarathustra. Trans. Thomas Nietzsche Common. Boni and Liveright, 1920.
Palmer, Christopher. Delius. Duckworth, 1976.
Pirie, Peter. The English Musical Renaissance. St. Martin’s, 1976.
Scruton, Roger. Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged. Encounter Books, 2007.
Wilson, Colin. Brandy of the Damned. Pan, 1964.
—. The Killer. Panther, 1970.
1 From the booklet to Richard Hickox’s performance on the Chandos label (2002).
3 Delius Festival Booklet, 4.
4 Ibid., 4.
5 Ibid., 5
6 Ibid., 7.
7 Ibid., 8.
8 Ibid., 8.
9 Booklet for the Chandos recording, 33.