Eric Fenby

Eric Fenby, drawing,
Eric Fenby by James Gunn © National Portrait Gallery, London. Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence

Biography

Eric Fenby was an English musician and musicologist, best known for helping the elderly composer Frederick Delius to complete his last works.

Who was Eric Fenby?

Eric Fenby (1906-1997) was a Yorkshire composer, organist and pianist who is best known for becoming the eyes and hands of Frederick Delius in the last years of the composer’s life, helping him to finish works that had been left incomplete and bringing them to publication and performance.  When they hear the term 'amanuensis' (scribe), many lovers of classical music think of Fenby and this extraordinary collaboration.

A native of Scarborough and a natural musician, Fenby became a church organist at the age of 12.  On leaving school at 16 and becoming apprenticed to the organist Claude Keeton, he found himself in demand locally as an accompanist and choirmaster.  He sometimes accompanied silent films at the Futurist Cinema on Scarborough’s seafront.  Alick Maclean, who conducted the Scarborough Spa Orchestra, allowed him to try out his early attempts at composition.


How did Fenby come to work with Delius?

One evening in 1928, in a lull during a game of chess, the radio was turned on and Fenby heard the music of Delius for the first time.  ‘I was struck by a kind of music I had never heard before, and I was ravished, completely carried away by it’[1]: it was On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring.  He later read of the plight of Delius who, blind and paralysed, was unable to compose, and yearned to help him.  Delius accepted his offer of three or four years of his life ‘to see what could be done’.  So it was that in October of the same year Fenby arrived at Grez-sur-Loing in northern France, and whilst his first attempts to take down Delius’s crudely sung melodic lines were unsuccessful, a technique gradually evolved by which Delius dictated, calling out the notes by name, with a speed and intensity that left both of them exhausted.  Fenby has described the process in his book Delius as I knew him.[2]  The book inspired a 75-minute film, Song of Summer, from film director Ken Russell, which was broadcast on BBC Television’s Omnibus programme in 1968. Despite the arduous nature of the work, it enabled Delius to complete a number of works, including the Third Violin Sonata and Caprice and Elegy for May and Beatrice Harrison  respectively.


When was Fenby at Grez during Delius’s lifetime?

The first visit was the longest, lasting from October 1928 to September 1929.  The second, from late January to October 1930, brought the total to 20 months and there were further much shorter visits in each of the four remaining years of Delius’s life.


What did Fenby do after the death of Delius?

He became music advisor to the publisher Boosey & Hawkes, rejecting many scores that were submitted for publication but discovering, for the firm, the work of Benjamin Britten.  After being called up for military service, his musical and teaching abilities were recognised and he was transferred to the Army Education Corps under the auspices of the Entertainments National Service Association.  Later in the war he married his wife Rowena and they went on to have two children, Roger and Ruth.  Following the death of Sir Thomas Beecham in 1961, Fenby was appointed Artistic Director of the 1962 Delius Centenary Festival.  In 1964 Sir Thomas Armstrong, Principal of the Royal Academy of Music, invited Fenby to join the staff as a Professor of Harmony, a post that he held until 1978.  This entailed a move from Scarborough to London that also enabled him to participate more fully in the musical life of the capital. In 1981, at the instigation of Christopher Palmer, he was invited to record for Unicorn-Kanchana most of those works that Delius dictated to him: the project was known as The Fenby Legacy.  Recordings of other orchestral and choral works continued until 1986.


Which works did Delius dictate to Fenby?

Cynara (completed by dictation, 1929)

A Late Lark (completed by dictation, 1929)

Let Springtime come (Seven Danish Songs) (orchestral version completed by dictation, 1929)

A Song of Summer (completed by dictation, 1929-30)

Songs of Farewell (completed by dictation, 1929-30)

Violin Sonata No. 3 (completed by dictation, 1930)

Caprice and Elegy (completed by dictation, 1930)

Irmelin Prelude (arranged by dictation, 1931)

Fantastic Dance (completed by dictation, 1931)

Idyll (arranged and completed by dictation, 1932)


Further information about the life of Eric Fenby can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.


References


[1] Fenby on Delius, ed. by Stephen Lloyd (London: Thames Publishing, 1996), p. 72.

[2] Eric Fenby, Delius as I knew him (London: G. Bell & Sons Ltd, 1936).




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