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‘Black sheep’ composer Delius defied father to become a music legend

Famous English blind composer, Frederick Delius. Picture: PA Archive Famous English blind composer, Frederick Delius. Picture: PA Archive

Tuesday, January 29, 2013
8:00 AM

Adam Sonin explores the lives of English composer Frederick Delius and his great friend the conductor Thomas Beecham.

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Frederick Delius' former home at 44 Belsize Park Gardens. Picture: English HeritageFrederick Delius' former home at 44 Belsize Park Gardens. Picture: English Heritage

Born in Yorkshire to naturalised German parents and married to a German artist of Serbian birth, Frederick Theodor Albert Delius (1862-1934) spent most of his adult life living abroad – but his dying wish was to be buried in his garden or “a quiet country churchyard in a south of England village”.

Delius was born in Bradford, the fourth of 14 children, and baptised Fritz.

As a boy, “Little Fritz”, as he was known, was athletic and fond of taking walks across the Yorkshire moors. He was taught both violin and piano, excelling in the former, but particularly enjoyed improvising at the latter.

On hearing Chopin’s E minor waltz, he said an “entirely new world” was opened.

It had been assumed that he would follow his father into the wool trade and, as a young man, was sent to Stroud in Gloucestershire, where his handsome looks and natural charm won him friends and business success.

Delius, however, used the opportunity to visit London and attend concerts. His father then sent him to Chemnitz in Germany but, following his heart, he neglected his work preferring instead to visit the concert halls of Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin.

On one such trip, he heard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. During another business trip to Norway, he met the dramatist Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) and was deeply moved by the landscape of the country.

Realising his son was the “black sheep” of the family, unlikely to ever really give the wool trade a fair go, it was decided that Delius would be sent to Florida to run a citrus farm. Delius spent little time actually cultivating oranges but was further inspired when, one summer’s evening sitting on his veranda, he heard the distant sound of plantation workers singing and experienced “a state of illumination”.

At about this time, in St Helens, Lancashire, a brilliant and bright five-year-old, the conductor and impresario Thomas Beecham (1879–1961), had recently been taken to his first concert – a piano recital of Grieg – and was stunned.

Unable to sleep after the recital, he unequivocally decided that he had to learn to play the piano. He walked downstairs and boldly announced to his family, who were in the middle of holding a soiree of sorts, that this was his future.

Meanwhile, Delius’s father finally came round to the idea of sending his son to Leipzig to study at the conservatoire but was never fully supportive of his career choice. It was here, in 1887, that he first met Edvard Grieg (1843-1907).

Delius later commented: “I was very proud of having made his acquaintance, for since I was a little boy I had loved his music.”

Grieg was highly impressed with Delius’s musical abilities. In 1888, towards the end of Delius’s time at the conservatoire, Grieg wrote what appears to be a letter of endorsement to Delius, stating: “I was pleasantly surprised, indeed stimulated, by your manuscripts and I detect in them signs of a most distinguished compositional talent in the grand style”.

He continued by writing: “Whether you will reach this goal only depends upon what turn your affairs take.”

A few months after this letter was written, Grieg, now a world-famous composer himself, visited London to perform. Delius noted: “My parents were in London at the time and we all had dinner together at the Hotel Metropole and Grieg persuaded my father to let me continue my musical studies.”

The effects of Grieg’s letter and comments assisted Delius – who soon found himself with an allowance from his father in Paris where he was able to concentrate his efforts on composition.

Over eight years, he became part of a circle of friends in the Latin Quarter, which included the artists Edvard Munch (1863-1944) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), and the writer August Strindberg (1849-1912). He was known to them as “Le grand Anglais” due to his height.

On one occasion, Delius kindly put his own work on hold in order to assist Munch with his first Paris exhibition and bought a painting, entitled Nevermore, by Gauguin.

During this period, he met Helena Sophie Emilie Rosen (1868-1935), known as Jelka, the granddaughter of the composer and pianist Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870).

The couple married in 1903, settling in Grez-sur-Loing, a village 40 miles outside Paris.

While Delius was busy in Paris, Beecham had asked his father to send him to Germany to study music. But the family refused and, instead, he was accepted to read classics at Wadham College, Oxford. Uninterested in his studies, the young man spent his time reading and playing the piano.

On at least two occasions, he played truant and travelled to Germany where he could absorb the concert hall culture of Dresden and Berlin. Beecham eventually dropped out of university and went to London to study music.

In 1907, Delius met Beecham, now an accomplished conductor. Beecham had heard Delius’s music and was an enormous admirer.

Beecham said that he had heard a great deal about Delius but was taken by surprise and kept saying to himself: “He must be a cardinal or at least a bishop in mufti”.

Towards the end of the First World War, Delius wrote to a friend of his. He explained: “We are leaving for London and are taking the Gauguin with us in order to try and sell it. Our address there will be 4, Elsworthy Road, NW the residence of Sir Henry Wood (1869-1944).”

Wood, an English conductor, had been asked to conduct earlier works and the two had struck up a friendship.

In October 1918, the Deliuses moved to a flat in Belsize Park Gardens where they remained until 1919. Beecham recalled that “he was warmly greeted everywhere – past lapses of judgement were speedily forgotten and every musical organisation came forward to bring to light his unplayed work of the preceding years”.

In 1929, Delius was honoured in the New Year’s Honours List and was made a Companion of Honour. In light of this, his now firm friend Beecham organised a Delius Festival. Suffering from syphilis, which, it is believed, he contracted during his Paris days, the elderly composer, now paralysed in both legs and completely blind, travelled from France where he was living.

Accompanied by Jelka, Delius attended the six concerts given over a three-week period. Beecham conducted five of them and, after the last concert, Delius was carried from The Queen’s Hall concert venue to The Langham hotel where he had been staying.

Returning to France after the festival, Delius asked those caring for him that they “place my chair so that my eyes may be directed upon the shores of England, which has given me the recognition that I have not obtained elsewhere”.

Delius died in 1934 and had wished to be buried in his gardens. But the French authorities would not allow this. Unfortunately, Jelka was too ill to travel to England and fulfil his alternative wish of being buried there. As a result, his body was interred at the cemetery in Grez until 1935, when it was taken across the Channel and finally laid to rest at St Peter’s Church in Limpsfield, Surrey.

At his graveside, Sir Thomas Beecham, knighted in 1916, gave an oration stating: “We are here today to bid farewell for ever to Frederick Delius, a great Englishman and a famous man. You have read that it was his wish to be buried in the soil of his native country”.

When Beecham died in 1961, he was initially buried in Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey. Owing to changes at the cemetery, his remains were exhumed in 1991 and reburied in St Peter’s Churchyard in Limpsfield, Surrey, close to the grave of Delius.

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