Frederick Delius

Frederick Delius
Frederick Delius by Ernest Procter © National Portrait Gallery, London. Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence

Biography

Frederick Delius was a composer born in England to German parents, who later lived in Germany, the United States, and France. With Edward Elgar, he is regarded as one of the greatest English composers of his generation.

Who was Delius?

Frederick Delius (1862–1934), along with his contemporary Edward Elgar, is regarded as one of the greatest English composers of his generation. He was born Fritz Delius in Bradford, the son of German émigrés. Delius’s father was a successful industrialist in the Yorkshire wool trade, and expected Delius to follow him into business, although musical education was also an important part of Delius’s childhood. At the age of 22, Delius travelled to Solana Grove, Florida, to manage a citrus plantation on behalf of his father, and used the opportunity to study music with Thomas F. Ward. 

On his return from America, Delius’ father agreed to give him a full musical education in Leipzig. Delius subsequently spent the majority of his adult life living abroad. He was a friend of Edvard Grieg and spent time travelling in Scandinavia, and after moving to Paris became a friend of figures such as the composers Maurice Ravel, Florent Schmitt and Gabriel Fauré, the artists Edvard Munch and Paul Gaugin, and the playwright August Strindberg. It was also in Paris that Delius met his wife, the artist Jelka Rosen. He shared her house in Grez-sur-Loing, near Fontainebleau, from 1897, and, barring periods during the First World War, spent the rest of his life there.

What did Delius write?

Delius is famous for a large number of evocative vocal and orchestral works taking nature and landscape as their inspiration, for example Sea Drift, the Florida Suite, Appalachia  and On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. However, Delius wrote music in a wide variety of genres, including chamber music, song and opera. His operas dealt directly with his experiences of music during his years of travel: Koanga and The Magic Fountain are both inspired by Florida, for example. Delius was also deeply interested in philosophy and poetry in various European languages, setting the words of Walt Whitman, Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Verlaine, and Henrik Ibsen among others.

What influenced Delius and what was his impact on other composers?

Delius’s work has a strong sense of stylistic development. His earliest pieces were heavily influenced by Wagner, but later works suggest a more eclectic range of reference, including Debussy, Mahler, and popular Music Hall songs. His music was important for a younger generation of composers, including Peter Warlock, Balfour Gardiner, Percy Grainger, and Bernard Herrmann.

Was Delius’s music performed in his lifetime?

Some of Delius’s earliest performances were in Germany, where he enjoyed the support of conductors such as Hans Sitt and Hans Haym. His music was first heard in England in 1899 at a concert funded by the composer himself. His reputation in his home country was secured, however, through the patronage of conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. From his performance of A Mass of Life in 1909 until the end of his life, Beecham conducted many first performances of Delius’s works, initiated a Collected Edition of his work, made numerous recordings, and inaugurated a Delius Festival.

When did Delius die?

Delius contracted syphilis in Paris in the 1890s, and the later years of his life were blighted by increasing paralysis and blindness, before he died at Grez on 10 June 1934. He was unable to compose without aid, and the works of his last years were completed with the help of Eric Fenby, a young Yorkshireman who travelled to Grez and acted as Delius’s amanuensis and assistant. Initially buried at Grez, the following year his body was reinterred at Limpsfield, Surrey.

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

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