Letter from Delius to Warlock (1916)


This letter from Frederick Delius to fellow-composer Peter Warlock (born Philip Heseltine) was written from Delius’s home in Grez-sur-Loing, France, to which he had recently returned following an extended stay in England. The letter describes at length Delius’s feelings about the state of music in England and the prospects for performances of his music there, reflecting on a recent production of his opera, A Village Romeo and Juliet. Delius was especially scathing about the prospects for opera, remarking that ‘the English are an unemotional race & wallow only in the worst & most obvious sentimentality’. The letter is intriguing in assessing the vexed question of Delius’s own Englishness, a quality championed by enthusiasts such as Thomas Beecham.



Seine et Marne 15 Oct 1916

My dear Phil –

I was so glad to receive your news; not having heard from you for so long I was beginning to think you had been “conscripted.” Your enthusiasm is always so refreshing – Now to your idea of regenerating music in England, especially the musical drama – I entirely agree that realism on the stage is nonsense & that all the scenery necessary is an “impressionistic” painted curtain at the back with the fewest accessories possible – Even furniture ought mostly to be pained – but one requires a real artist to have thoroughly understood the Drama & then to paint the scene after his own conception. In Germany this has been already tried with success The Village Romeo was performed like this for the first time & the scenic part was a great success: The theatre was awful & no music could be heard in it – The orchestra therefore – the chief thing – dropped into the 3rd plane. They gave the Fair quite simply with a painted curtain – it cannot be left out as it is so important - & the walk thro’ the fields & woods to the “Paradise Garden: would have no contrast. I entirely agree with all your ideas about the music drama – they are also mine & all my works are written in this spirit. I have not much hope for English music or music Drama in the near future for the following reasons – the English have very little imagination & therefore are very hard to appeal to – I have experienced the press & public acclaiming Electra as one of the greatest masterpieces of the world – a work which has already died a natural death – which it deserved - & the Village Romeo was declared undramatic. It is one of the most dramatic & emotional works ever written & in years to come will be constantly played everywhere – Beecham’s production was from a scenic point of view perfectly mediocre & insufficient & none of them could act. I know no English singer who can act or who is capable or willing to show any emotion on the stage & mind, dear Phil, this is going to be one of your great stumbling blocks – the English are an unemotional race & wallow only in the worst & most obvious sentimentality. I quite agree that The Village R ought to be given in a small theatre but there must be an orchestra of at least 60. The piano Idea does not smile to me – My orchestra is too all important & almost the whole action on the stage is indicated in the Orchestra – To tell you the truth I have no desire to have any more of my dramatic works given in England for some years – There is no public – mark my words – Even if there were – I don’t think that anything ought to be undertaken before the war is over & the people have calmed down a bit. In itself the idea is excellent & your friend [Cecil] Gray unique with his enthusiasm to pay for such a highly artistic undertaking – Wait a bit – prepare – gather works – look out for singers & teach them to act & then open gradually a public – but don’t open before March 1918. I believe in the english youth under 25 or 30. After this age he is hopeless. The war will have changed much – people will have suffered – many will have realised the rot – that has been going on – the hollowness of patriotism & jingoism & all the other isms – Politicians & diplomats & experts of all kinds have been making & continue to make such fools of themselves that the wiser folk will, perhaps, look for a little truth in art & the artists - & perhaps find some satisfaction in that rare event – A really artistic & emotional performance. I should like to come over for the quartet – but everything is so difficult – It takes 10 days or more to get your passport in order & the journey across the channel is dangerous – I should just love to talk with you about all these things & help you if I am able – at the beginning of a London Season 1915 I went to see “Deirdre of the Sorrows” by that remarkable writer Synge – It was an artistic affair – a good ensemble & a remarkable play – The theatre was not half full – quite a small theatre. Nobody cares! – The Russian ballet, because it was new – sensational, very artistic & tremendously boomed - & fashionable, drew full houses – otherwise only a low style of entertainment succeeds in London – Barker no doubt endeavoured to do something – but did he succeed? could he exist? & then it was not music drama. You see you must be able to keep at it in order to form a public – one season is not enough – it must be followed up by another season equally good & for this purpose you only ought to begin such an undertaking at a favourable moment – Why not begin by a series of concerts in a small hall with a small orchestra – giving only rare & excellent works – Some of which you have named. The Mime drama you sketched for me would only have an effect with 3 great artists – Which at present do not exist in England & It might turn out simply ridiculous Nijinski, Karsavina & Fokine might do it – I have written another Elizabethan Song. “It was a lover & his Lass” from 12th Night – I am writing a Violin Concerto now – When you start your Scheme you mist absolutely make it a success or it will again fizzle into nothing like all artistic attempts in London – including Beecham’s & that makes the public more & more sceptical – Practise conducting – if possible, take an engagement at any theatre simply to get a little routine – even if you have to conduct musical comedy – What you write of Van Dieren interests me exceedingly – cannot you send me something? Can I not help him in some way? Does he want a publisher? I am going to publish with Schirmer now. Is Van Dieren a Dutchman? Write soon again. We both send you our love

your affectionate friend

Frederick Delius

Full title:
Letter from Frederick Delius to Peter Warlock describing his impressions of the English and the state of music in England
1988, London
Scolar Press in association with the Delius Trust
15 October 1916, Grez sur Loing
Frederick Delius
© Delius Trust
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© The Delius Trust. Reproduced with permission.
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