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Let's Learn About the English Composer, Frederick Delius

Frederick Delius was an English composer born in Bradford, England on the 29th of January, 1862. Originally named “Fritz Delius,” he was sent to Florida to manage his ancestral orange plantation in 1884. However, his interests lay elsewhere as he returned to Europe in 1886.

English composer, Frederick Delius

Early Life

Frederick was the second son of Julius and Elise Pauline. The Delius family were originally Dutch but lived in Germany for several generations. They were wealthy merchants who encouraged music. Famous musicians were regular at the Delius household, with Carlo Alfredo Piatti and Joseph Joachim regularly performing for the family. Young Frederick was drawn to music from an early age but chose to follow Edvard Grieg and Frédéric Chopin in spite of his German roots, a preference that he followed throughout his life. He was heavily influenced by American folk music during his stint in Florida and soon began composing. In 1886, he completed his formal musical schooling in Germany and started a full-time musical career in Paris.


Critics were bittersweet about Delius. They denounced him for not belonging to any traditional school of music but also accepted that he is unique with his own distinct style, content, and form of music. Frederick’s individualistic and personal idiom was a result of a long period of musical apprenticeship from his early days. He was heavily influenced by plantation songs, which is stark from his music. His works are evocative of folk hymnology and African-American music, which was absent in the orchestra at that time, and seldom has been used since. Some experts connect his fondness for folk music to the “Fisk Jubilee Singers,” who had toured Europe during Frederick’s youth.

Fisk Jubilee Singers portrate

Delius was also a fervent disciple of Richard Wagner, whose unique musical techniques left a lasting impression on him. The ability to craft continuous music, the comprehension of the “chromatic harmonic technique,” is a direct influence of Wagner. However, Edvard Grieg will always stand out among the composers who had the most effect on Delius. The Norwegian was similar in many ways - his affection towards folk melodies and nature-infused music acted as a stimulus for Delius. Also, Grieg's unique usage of Chromatism, along with an airy texture, perhaps helped Delius to shrug off some of the Wagnerian effects. There remain aesthetical similarities between Delius and Claude Debussy - his legendary French contemporary. Both men were directly influenced by Edvard Grieg. And they both admired Frédéric Chopin. However, Delius was a bit less apprehensive about Debussy, whose works he thought lacked melody, which, curiously, is directed by critics against Delius himself. This was mainly down to his contemptuousness of offering the public what they wanted - a dose of pretty tunes.

Delius became more mature over the years and had carved a niche for himself - unlike any other. There was an infusion of richness into the chord structure, signifying its own subtle development and contrast. Frederick didn’t follow the traditional method of crafting music from an array of available instruments. He first portrayed the sound he wanted and then sought the instruments that could replicate them. His music cannot be termed architectural, but somewhat near to a painting, especially close to “Pointillism.”

Delius's initial orchestral compositions garnered critical responses from the experts, who termed them insipid. “Irmelin,” his first opera, lacked any of his identifiable characteristics. The modulation and harmony incorporated are merely conventional, with a clear resemblance to Grieg and Wagner. His first perceptible stylistic advance can be in the opera “Koanga,” with faster rhythms and richer chords. The nocturne “Paris” is considered one of his most complete musical paintings.

His Best Works

Brigg Fair (1907)

His most famous work, where the opening sequence is considered as his most “Debussian moment.” It announced his arrival, the introduction of his stylistic maturity. It was the first among the various piece for small orchestra that he had crafted, one that confirms his stature as a “musical poet.”

In a Summer Garden (1908)

This fantasy for orchestra was composed by Delius in 1908 and was first performed that very year in London, albeit under the composer’s own watchful eyes. It is crafted around multiple distinct musical themes.

Summer Night on the River (1911)

“Summer Night on the River” is a part of Frederick Delius’s “2 Pieces for Small Orchestra.” The tempo utilized in this piece is unique - the music is so soft and slow that it almost depicts that the source is still at a distance.

On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1912)

Delius composed this tone poem in 1912. In 1913, Arthur Nikisch conducted its premiere in Leipzig. The opening theme depicts the exchange of “cuckoo calls,” while the second theme resembles “In Ola Valley,” a Norwegian folksong.

Sui Generis

Frederick’s vocal pieces, “Songs of Sunset,” “A Mass of Life,” and “Sea Drift,” are masterpieces in their own right. He had struggled to display his full potential, but they stood outside his general progression. They were different from all his works, even the unconventional ones, but were hugely vital in his development as a composer. His more famous works like “In a Summer Garden” and “Brigg Fair” later became a crucial part of the standard English repertory. They helped him gain a foothold in the mind of English concert viewers, albeit casting a shadow on his overall impact on music.

His final opera was titled “Fennimore and Gerda,” a romantic piece crafted in tableau form. In 1918, he had contracted syphilis while visiting Paris and eventually became blind and paralyzed. He finally passed away on the 10th of June, 1934. During his late years, he was able to compose some pieces with the aid of Eric Fenby, a Yorkshireman who acted as his assistant and amanuensis.

Frederick Delius portrayed considerable progress from his early style by combining vocal and orchestral forces. His creations concentrated on incorporating a substantial draught of poignancy, which was a characteristic of his mature years. Although he was often accused of producing music lacking in form and melody, there remains a counter-argument. Melody wasn’t the primary factor of his music, but it weaved and floated itself into his overall harmonic texture - something reminiscent of Debussy. This is what sets him apart, an expansive parenthesis from the habitual.


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