by Lionel Carley
Tuesday, 30 May 1899 remains a remarkable date in the annals of British music. An unknown English composer had decided earlier in the year to mount a full-scale concert of his own works in London. As he then lived in France, he had turned to a London agency with which he already had some personal contact to take charge of most of the arrangements. In the course of three months a hand-picked orchestra of professional players drawn from the leading orchestras in the capital was engaged, together with a small professional chorus, eight soloists, a conductor and a leader. At the same time a large amateur chorus was assembled, trawled by advertisement from among various choral societies. The composer was Delius; his conductor - from the Breslau Opera - Alfred Hertz; and his leader - from Colonne's orchestra in Paris - Halfdan Jebe, a Norwegian friend from the composer's student years in Leipzig.
The whole had only been made possible by the death of an uncle and a consequent legacy of some 24,000 francs, which Delius had been able to bank in Paris just some two months before the concert. Initially he had been told by his agent that, including the hire of the hall and one rehearsal, 'with an orchestra of 70 and a chorus the concert will cost about £200.' But in reality costs were to spiral relentlessly. Hertz was to request three orchestral rehearsals, and other venues had to be hired for the several rehearsals required for soloists and chorus. There was extensive pre-publicity (and not just in London), and many other attendant expenses would include printing, postage, copying of parts and, not least, the recruitment of further players to complete what the 36-page programme-book was eventually to describe as an orchestra of 95 performers.
Hertz wanted plenty of time for preparation. He had heard only one of Delius's works before - in November 1897 in Elberfeld, where at the time he had been opera conductor - and this was the piece eventually chosen to open the programme. On 20 April he and Delius linked up in London and settled down to work. 'Hertz is a brick & working hard' and 'Hertz is all fire & flame & interest', Delius told his wife-to-be Jelka Rosen, still at home in France, in two letters during the first week in May. Choral rehearsals were by then well under way and in a further letter a few days later he reported: 'The Chorus has now swelled to about 150 but we are still trying to get more men.' The first orchestral rehearsal was held on 25th May, the second on the 27th, and the final, full rehearsal took place on the 29th. Little wonder that Delius would shortly write to a friend of expenses that were 'simply awful'. The final bill (over £20,000 in today's money) presented to him a month after the concert, brought to well over double what had initially been projected for the more modest-scale event that his agent had originally been led by the composer to expect. Delius laid much of the blame for the overrun at the Concorde agency's door, but it has to be said that a reading of the copious correspondence between composer and agent, together with an examination of the accounts, would seem to show not only that the agency was genuinely motivated by a real belief in the composer and in his future, but that its approach to the whole enterprise had been both diligent and professional.
The Queen's Hall already being fully booked, Delius's concert took place in London's second major concert venue, the St James's Hall in Piccadilly. A lengthy programme should have been even longer had one original line of thinking been followed through, as an early running order sketched out for the evening showed Part 1 as including excerpts from the opera The Magic Fountain - that is, the Finale to Act 1 and Preludes to Acts 2 and 3. Instead Over the Hills and Far Away was substituted - no doubt wisely, since Part 2 was anyway to consist of substantial excerpts from a more recent opera, Koanga. With a starting time of 8:30 pm the St James's Hall audience were to be in their seats until almost midnight, and most of those present would not have heard a note of Delius's music before.
All the carefully engineered publicity was certainly effective, as subsequent press coverage was to demonstrate, but a really adequate description of Delius and his background seems not to have been supplied. 'The musical dictionaries are silent concerning Mr. Fritz Delius', noted The Standard, suddenly aware of the fragility of its information on the composer and floundering, like all the other papers, in a sea of half-truths. They had all been appraised of his Yorkshire birth, but clearly not of his German blood. Some papers left it at 'foreign parentage' or 'foreign extraction', but many more referred to a Scandinavian background - presumably because the Concorde Concert Control had got it wrong in the first place. There was much less confusion in respect of the music that was on offer, as Delius had seen to it that sufficient information was available to circulate beforehand and, too, that Joseph Bennett was similarly well supplied with material to help him write his programme notes. There was general astonishment at its prodigious range and at its daring and innovative character. The critics, out in force, had never heard a concert quite like it from a single composer - and least of all from an Englishman.
What then, were the works on display that evening? As an opener there was Over the Hills and Far Away, dating from the mid-1890s. Described in the programme as a 'Fantasia', it evoked something of the character and atmosphere of the Norwegian mountain country with which Delius was already so familiar. Following the Legende for violin and orchestra, from the earlier 1890s, with John Dunn as soloist, came the last two movements of the rousing incidental music to Gunnar Heiberg's play, Folkeraadet, composed in 1897 and based in part on the tune of Norway's national anthem. Next on the programme the French soprano Christianne Andray sang five of the newly linked cycle of Seven Danish Songs with orchestra, one of them to a text by Holger Drachmann and the rest all by J P Jacobsen, Delius had originally set these songs individually, in the Danish, between 1891 and 1897. It seems quite likely that he decided to begin orchestrating them, in his own English versions, with the London concert in mind. Then came The Dance Goes On, a first version of the symphonic poem composed in 1898-99 that would later (and after considerable revision) become better known as Lebenstanz. The piece took its inspiration from a play, Dansen gaar, published in Copenhagen in 1898 by Helge Rode, a Danish friend of the composer. To end the first part of the evening's concert there was the Mitternachtslied for baritone solo (Douglas Powell), men's chorus and orchestra, a work set in 1898 to words by Nietzsche and that was later to be incorporated into A Mass of Life.
Part 2 of the concert was made up entirely of substantial excerpts from Delius's most recent opera Koanga, composed between 1895 and 1897. Following the Prelude to Act 3 came the Quintet and Finale from Act 1 and the whole of Act 2. The soloists were Ella Russell, Tilly Koenen, G A Vanderbeek, William Llewellyn and Andrew Black, with full chorus and orchestra. Preceding Porgy and Bess by forty years, here was the first black American opera - its hero and heroine slaves on a Louisiana plantation - being presented, in part at least, on an English concert platform. Nothing remotely like it had been heard in London before.
What was also unexpected was the wide range of sources from which the composer had drawn for his music for this concert. Just as he had read the American novel by George Washington Cable from which he had taken the story of Koanga, so he had read in then original languages the poetry of Drachmann, Jacobsen and Nietzsche and the plays of Heiberg and Rode. Even more exotically for his listeners that evening he had visited and absorbed much of the culture of those countries from which he had taken his literature, living and working for two years in the American South and travelling extensively in Germany and Scandinavia. As a final twist, virtually every note of his concert had been written in the country in which he had, since the late 1880s, chosen to live - France. Little wonder he could state quite baldly and without prejudice: 'I don't claim to be a British composer'.
But in this very cosmopolitanism, this rootlessness even, lay the seeds of a setback. Far more at home in Paris than in London, and then even more at home in the French countryside, he evidently misjudged the need to stay on in London after his concert and to continue to recruit society patrons, heavyweight critics and supporters in a city that had had just one evening in which to become acquainted with his music. Within a day or two of a notable success he left London for his village home of Grez-sur-Loing. 'I was extremely sorry that you had to go', wrote Concorde on 4th June, '- it was a business mistake as you would have been the lion of the season . . . and would also have made many useful musical & moneyed friends who would probably have subscribed to something in the future.'
Meanwhile ever more reviews were reaching Delius in France, still further indications of the extraordinary wave of interest initially stirred up by the concert. The plaudits clearly lulled him into a false sense of security, but his confidence was steadily to evaporate and to be replaced by feelings of irritability and resentment that no-one seemed ready to come forward to take up the cudgels on his behalf. It must be conceded that this apparent nonchalance was perhaps tempered by noises on the German front that pointed to a quickening of interest in his music in the land of his forefathers. It had been a combination of exhaustion and elation that had led him to walk away after twice being called to the platform at St James's Hall and then so soon to board a cross-Channel ferry for the tranquillity of a French village. In London, as was to become painfully clear, Delius had neglected to strike while the iron was hot.
The need to stay and to see things through had been amply demonstrated by the earliest of the reviews. Who today would simply walk away from critical opinion such as The Star's 'I went ... prepared for anything rather than the revelation of real genius which actually awaited one', or The Echo's 'a composer wholly unknown to this country burst upon us with something like the astonishing effect of an unexpected thunderstorm'? The Pall Mall Gazette told of 'such fine single effects that one felt them to be the signs, if not the proofs, of something like real greatness', The Morning Post wrote of 'a composer of strong originality' and The Morning Leader of 'a composer who must have a great future before him', while The Manchester Courier felt Delius to be 'a composer of powerful individuality and independence, with a great deal to say and a striking way of saying it'. Even The Lady's reviewer was to be stirred to write: 'I have used the word genius - a rash action - but I think no-one present at the Delius concert last week could have had it far from his lips. The bold harmonies and complex details [were] but part of an original composer's great design.'
Inevitably, as with all new music in every age, there were those who found it all too much, among them The Sunday Sun. 'M. Delius's music is bizarre and cacophonous to a degree almost unapproached . . . The ugliness of some of his music is really masterly.' The Morning Leader's reviewer quoted a remark that he had overheard concerning the Mitternachtslied: "the composer ought to be whipped and sent to bed for having compressed so much ugly incoherence into so small a space." Epithets like 'eccentric', 'provocative, 'forced, 'discordant', 'crude', 'lugubrious', 'disjointed and fragmentary' and 'nebulous and chaotic' flew around the reviews. The Times lived every inch up to its then traditionally conservative standards. It grudgingly admitted to 'the originality of many of the themes' but elsewhere saw just 'ugliness', characterising Delius' work callously as 'bizarre', 'peculiar' and 'ungrateful' and roundly condemning 'the exceedingly unmelodious character of much of the music' which, allied to its 'prevailing gloom', marked it out for 'the admiration of the few who profess a preference for ugly music'. The Sunday Times, not to be outdone, complained of compositions that were 'so advanced in type' and deplored the composer's 'abnormal liking for excruciating dissonances and bizarre effects in general'. Nonetheless there was scarcely a review that did not contain an escape route for its writer to the effect that the critic, whilst critical, felt that judgement ought perhaps to be deferred on music that was so advanced and modern. It was all too much to take in at a single hearing.
What must inevitably, however, surprise most of us who are familiar with what might seem to be received opinion generally today are the continual references across the board to the vitality of the music. 'Every bar of Mr. Delius' music', wrote The Saturday Review, 'shows high musicianship, an astonishing mastery of notes, and a degree of vital energy quite as astonishing'. What Delius's music possessed was, according to The Daily Mail, 'spirit and manliness', to The Musical News 'imagination, strength and individuality', and to The Standard, 'beauty, force, and intense life ... so much originality'. The Daily Telegraph wrote of a composer who 'delights in climax, in startling contrasts of force, in fantastic play of colour'; and The Critic judged Delius to be 'a composer of virile individuality'. Comparable adjectives were applied to individual works. Of the Folkeraadet music, The Star decreed the two extracts to be 'daringly original, full of boundless vitality and great dramatic power', while The Morning Post wrote of The Dance Goes On: 'It is along time since we have heard so striking a work. The music palpitates with excitement, and sends the blood tingling through one's veins.' There were many more such comments on the sheer power of musical expression that the composer had at his command.
All this must surely cast into critical light some of the tempi adopted in these and other works by conductors of more recent generations. It is given to relatively few to mould and phrase Delius with quite the assured and loving hand of Beecham, as it is to equally few to address the music with a zest that could equal that of Hertz. What had Hertz written to Delius two months before the concert? He wanted plenty of time to go through the music with the composer 'as it is your conception that I wish to express'. That this was carried through there can be no doubt. The Musical News wrote that Hertz 'threw his whole soul into the direction of the performance' and The Topical Times was no less assured: Hertz had 'discharged his duties as conductor with so much ability and energy that ... justice was done to the composer'. The torch lit that evening by Hertz was not to die, but flickered fitfully until taken up by Beecham.
One or two of the critics saw the links with Wagner and Grieg, but we would be wrong to assume that the great majority of that audience in St James's Hall saw him in anything like the light of tradition. Straussian parallels were adduced by more than one of the reviewers, The Stars assessment being that, 'Mr Delius has more care for beauty, more melodic invention, and more directness of utterance. He is less morbid, less introspective'. Prominent however, were descriptions of Delius's individuality and originality, together with a recognition that here was music that was unique in character. Here was 'a musician of his own day; and not of the past', wrote The Daily Telegraph, '. . . He stands forth as an embodiment of the modern spirit'. For The Morning Post Delius's music was 'essentially of today, or rather of tomorrow'. The Topical Times finally, drew all the threads together: 'The general characteristic of his work may be briefly summed up by saying that his music is marked by deep thought, striking originality, and an extreme note of modernity. He is absolutely and audaciously of today'.
We can now only consider what might have been, had Delius stayed on in London to enjoy the aftermath of his undoubted success. But there was something of the ingenuous in his apparent faith in the abilities of others to carry his cause forward, perhaps an almost wilful belief in the dynamic that lay in his music as being sufficient in itself to prompt a popular demand for its immediate recall to the London concert stage. It would be a long time before he returned and even longer before an enthused Beecham would appear on the scene in 1907 and at last prove to be his doughty champion. However, that May evening of 1899 indisputably saw the advent of a new composer for a new century.
Abridged and adapted by Jane Armour-Chelu from Lionel Carley's Introduction
to his "Frederick Delius: Music, Art and Literature" (Ashgate Publishing