Following in the footsteps of a Delius champion

In Frederick Delius s final years, a young Highgate composer, Eric Fenby, went out to France to help transcribe his work. Eighty years on, music fans make the same journey, writes MICHAEL WHITE Years ago, when I was a young journalist and he was an ol

In Frederick Delius's final years, a young Highgate composer, Eric Fenby, went out to France to help transcribe his work. Eighty years on, music fans make the same journey, writes MICHAEL WHITE

Years ago, when I was a young journalist and he was an old man, I used to visit someone called Eric Fenby who lived in the Tudorbethan flats by Highgate Cemetery.

Fenby had various claims to fame - not least that he'd composed the score for Alfred Hitchcock's film Jamaica Inn.

But his chief interest to me was that way back in 1928, as an otherwise shy and introverted organ student in his early 20s, he wrote a life-changing letter to the great composer Frederick Delius.

Delius was internationally revered for music like the Mass Of Life and Walk To The Paradise Garden.

But by 1928, he had become a tragic figure - blind, paralysed and living in forlorn but fierce exile in a small French village called Grez-sur-Loing, near Fontainebleau.

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His broken health meant he had stopped composing. And when Fenby had learned of this, he wrote to ask if he could come

and help.

When the reply was yes, he packed his bags and spent the next six years as Delius's amanuensis - taking down great quantities of music by dictation from the corpse-like composer in his wheelchair.

It became a famous story, told by Fenby himself in a book published in the 1930s and retold years later in one of Ken Russell's better films, Song Of Summer.

And, as Fenby's first trip out to Grez took place almost exactly 80 years ago, it seemed like an opportune time to follow in his footsteps on a sort of pilgrimage.

So this is just what I did, courtesy of the Delius and Peter Warlock Societies, on what they less reverentially called a Grez-sur-Loing "jaunt".

These two societies, I should explain, are genteel fan clubs dedicated to composers who were long-term friends and mutually supportive.

As a youngster, Warlock had been Delius's disciple - and he frequently went out to Grez himself, not least because he had a dodgy artist uncle in a neighbouring village doing naked portraits of the local farmhands.

Delius's wife Jelka was a painter too - although her farmhands tended to have trousers - so there was a lot of common interest between the families.

Certainly, there was enough to make the societies join forces for this celebratory weekend.

I should also explain that of their nature, classical music fan clubs tend to attract a membership ranging from the amiably eccentric to the outright bonkers.

And being no exception, the Delians and Warlockians had organised marching bands through the neighbourhood of Grez with community singing and other loony English spectacles - to the bemusement of the villagers, not least since it was raining.

But more seriously, the events included a wonderfully touching concert of Delius's music in the garden of his house, a park-like swathe of green that sweeps down to the river Loing.

For the most part, it was music written in that very place, where Delius lived for 30 years.

And although the house has changed as it's been bought and sold, you can hold up photographs of Delius, Jelka and Fenby and immediately know where they were taken.

Settled in retirement in Highgate, Fenby used to reminisce about his years in Grez.

They weren't exactly easy.

Even in his wheelchair, Delius was by all accounts tyrannical, demanding, caustic.

He got through a brisk succession of male nurses who were there to carry him and up and down the spiral stairs to his music room and suffer the increasing sharpness of his tongue.

Given the tensions in the household and the exacting requirements of days/weeks/months transcribing Delius's grunts and groans into large-scale symphonic scores - an unfathomable achievement that even now defies comprehension - it's perhaps no surprise that the experience drove Fenby to a nervous breakdown.

That Delius was a fervent atheist who, as Fenby remembered, thought "English music will never be any good until they get rid of Jesus" and never missed an opportunity to attack Fenby's own Christian belief, didn't help matters.

And it amused me in Grez to find that Delius's house was right beside the local church - which hopefully provided a refuge for poor Fenby and a source of irritation for the composer every time the bells rang.

One certainty is that Fenby lived the rest of his life in the shadow of those six years at Grez and, when he died in 1997, it was his distant past as Delius's amanuensis that filled the column inches in his obituary notices.

A decade on, he'd be depressed to see how badly Delius is out of fashion now, with not a note of the composer's music in the current Proms season even though there's a conspicuous English focus this year. But then Delius didn't help himself in that respect.

Exiled to France, he liked to think himself a European and was bitterly dismissive about music-making in his homeland. One of Eric Fenby's many stories was of Delius being asked some question about English music. "English music?" said the great man, pausing for effect. "I've never heard any".

And what did Fenby say to that?

"Nothing at all," he told me once during a Highgate visit. "I discovered that the key to getting on with Delius was knowing when to shut my mouth."