The New York Times
Published: May 30, 1982

One of the more affecting and heart-warming chapters in the history of music concerns Eric Fenby, an English musician, who was indispensable in the creation of Frederick Delius's last compositions. World War I had forced Delius to return to his native England from the Continent, where he had been living and could work in peace, and the move apparently dried up his creative powers. Back at his home in Grez-sur-Loing, not far from Paris, after the war, he became a helpless, blind paralytic, the result of an early disease. It seemed doubtful at the time that he would ever compose again.

In 1928, when he was 22, Mr. Fenby had become a fervent lover of Delius's music. Aware of the composer's affliction, he offered his services as amanuensis to the man he so admired. He was was gratefully accepted. The young man's new role was much more difficult that even he imagined it might be. Delius had never been easy to get along with, and his frustrating illness had made him temperamentally even more irascible and demanding. Young Mr. Fenby's accommodations were often severely uncomfortable, freezing in winter and sweltering in summer. Except for visits from some of Delius's musician friends, there was no stimulating cultural activity in the village of Grez. At the start, Delius's efforts to communicate his compositional efforts were disastrous.

Eventually, the relationship proved successful and productive. Mr. Fenby's self-sacrificing monastic life, which lasted six years, was rewarded by the existence of some new Delius masterpieces. It also resulted in a candid and very moving memoir, ''Delius as I Knew Him,'' first published in 1936. After the Delius years, Mr. Fenby took up his life in England again, establishing himself as a composer, conductor and teacher. He is still active today, a man of modest demeanor which belies his sharp intelligence and impressive background of experience.

The Delius episode in his career has now been celebrated by the issue of a two-disk record album called ''The Fenby Legacy,'' and the publication of a revised edition of ''Delius as I Knew Him.'' The album, Unicorn-Kanchana DKP 9008/9, and book, a Cambridge paperback, are available here singly or together from Euroclass Record Distributors, Ltd., 155 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10013.

''The Fenby Legacy'' includes most of the works that Delius dictated to Mr. Fenby, plus a couple that the latter transcribed or arranged from earlier pieces. The list includes ''Songs of Farewell,'' ''Idyll,'' ''Fantastic Dance,'' ''A Song of Summer,'' ''Cynara,'' ''Irmelin Prelude,'' ''A Late Lark,'' ''La Calinda,'' Caprice and Elegy for Cello and Small Orchestra and ''Two Acquarelles.'' Mr. Fenby himself conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, assisted by Felicity Lott, soprano; Anthony Rolfe Johnson, tenor; Thomas Allen, baritone; Julian Lloyd Webber, cellist, and the Ambrosian Singers.

In this set of works are several of remarkable quality. The acknowledged best is ''Songs of Farewell.'' It has a text by Walt Whitman, a favorite poet of Delius's (as Whitman was of many English composers). It profits from gorgeous sonorities, in which the choral voices are as instrumental as those of the orchestra. The words are almost unintelligible in the singing, but this was an intentional factor in Delius's composing. He was more interested in having the chorus supply extra color and atmosphere to the values of the text. ''Songs of Farewell'' is a perfect example of the composer's sliding, ambiguous harmonies, which build some of the most lush, sensuous sounds in Western music.

Of a more individual nature are ''Idyll,'' ''Cynara'' and ''A Late Lark.'' ''Idyll,'' an extended duologue for soprano, baritone and orchestra based on a text assembled from Whitman, is a kind of ''Liebesnacht.'' It never becomes as rhapsodic as the duet from Wagner's ''Tristan und Isolde''; instead it has a quiet nocturnal ecstasy that is quite extraordinary. ''Cynara,'' a setting for baritone and orchestra, based on Dowson's famous poem, has a melancholy beauty evocative of the text's rueful expression, while ''A Late Lark,'' for tenor and small orchestra, offers a lovely lyrical reflection - the poem is by W. E. Henley - of the serence acceptance of death.

Most of these works are available in other excellent recorded performances. The value of Mr. Fenby's interpretations lies in its exceptional sensitivity to texture and mood. Sometimes this takes its toll in intensity and rhythmic drive, but the sacrifice seems worth it. ''Idyll,'' for example, in its older recorded version with Heather Harper and John Shirley-Quirk, is more extrovert and pulsating, but this new recording, with exquisite singing by Felicity Lott and Thomas Allen, is superbly poetic on its own terms. One can imagine this work performed on a darkened stage with spotlighted singers to wonderful effect. Mr. Allen catches the special nuances Delius gave to his setting of ''Cynara,'' whereas Mr. Rolfe Johnson's handling of the sunset atmosphere of ''A Late Lark'' is exemplary.

Another Delius album brings new recordings of two of the composer's pre-illness masterpieces, ''Sea Drift'' and ''Appalachia'' (Argo ZRG 934). ''Sea Drift,'' which turns again to Whitman's verse, must be one of the most gorgeous and eloquent settings of poetry in the English language.

This new version is sung by John Shirley-Quirk and the London Symphony Chorus with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Richard Hickox. The baritone must be by now one of the supreme interpreters of his countrymen's music. His phrasing and vocal coloration in this instance are stunning and incredibly moving. The whole performance is superior to the more staid earlier recording made by John Noble and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under Sir Charles Groves.

''Appalachia,'' subtitled Variations on an old Slave Song (for Chorus and Orchestra), is, in a way, less characteristic of Delius's music. This writer found it rather dull on first hearing years ago, and Mr. Fenby has referred to it in his writings as a piece that he has little liking for. Yet it has grown on this listener with time and now seems thoroughly attractive.

The second of Delius's two string quartets, this one dated 1916, is newly available on a disk where it is paired with Sibelius's single Quartet (''Voces Intimae'') (London CS 7238). They are performed by the Fitzwilliam String Quartet. The Delius is not among his most satisfactory pieces. It is stylistically inconsistent, a fact emphasized by the much finer quality and steadily characteristic nature of its Sibelius counterpart. Granted that it is a respectable work, as would be expected from a very discriminating composer, the Delius has one distinctive movement, the third, called ''Late Swallows.'' This has been recorded separately, and it is admittedly sweetly touching. The rather wiry, strong performance by the Fitzwilliam ensemble is less flattering to the Delius than it is to the Sibelius.

Back to the Fenby Page

Back to the Delius Page