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The 1929 DECCA Recording of Delius' SEA DRIFT

An article by Norman Gentieu
as published in THE DELIAN (Philadelphia), December 2005 issue

I spent a pleasant time in Germantown listening to "Sea Drift" as performed on DECCA in 1929 by Roy Henderson with the New English Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Of course, the records were 78 rpm; I was able to play them on my ancient portable electrical phonograph presented to me by my parents in the long-ago days of "wine and roses": June 1940 (A.B., psychology).

I'm pretty certain that this was the first recording of the Whitman/Delius collaboration, at least, the first one released to the public in May 1929. On November 11, 1928, Columbia did record "Sea Drift" conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, with Dennis Noble, baritone, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Manchester Beecham Opera Chorus. But because of flaws and adverse ambient acoustics it was rejected (7 sides).

My album came from H. Royer Smith (then at 10th and Walnut Streets) and all the three records of ancient vintage are still like brand-new. Not quite up to the interpretative quality of Sir Thomas Beecham's conducting but not bad at all and probably greatly valued by the few record buyers who managed to latch on to the limited edition. Too bad that Columbia destroyed the test pressings!

My benefactor was Paul Vanderbilt, for whom I worked as an assistant in the summer of 1939 for the Bibliographical Planning Commission, precursor of the then state-of-the-art Union Library Catalog, now an historical layout on display at the University of Pennsylvania's Van Pelt Library. At that time, Vanderbilt was librarian at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Later, he became special librarian at the Library of Congress.

The most efficient and know-how staff member at H. Royer Smith was Mrs. Kemble, probably its most popular salesperson. She was well acquainted with Vanderbilt and when the scarce DECCA album of "Sea Drift" turned up inexplicably from a (shall we say) over-affluent record collector, she knew intuitively that PV would want this rare gem. A little later, most likely that summer when I was sweating away in the Free Library of Philadelphia with air conditioning AWOL, he decided that I might want it and gave it to me. I remember being greatly touched by his generosity.

At any rate, I thought you might be interested in the sequence of the six sides, as well their matrix numbers:

1st side -- MA 191 / OR S / 10010 A
2nd side -- MA 192 / OR S / 10010 M
3rd side -- MA 193 / OR S / 10011 1
4th side -- MA 195 / OR S / 10011 H
5th side -- MA 196 / OR S / 10012 1
6th side -- MA 197 / OR S / 10012 B

The recording engineers et alii (does anybody remember who they were?) seemed not to have followed Delius's score too alertly since the music, accommodated very comfortably on sides 1 - 4, was then crowded onto sides 5 and 6, with the grooves spiraling inwards and almost touching the circular label. But they just made it! HMV, of course, used seven sides. Perhaps the music just wouldn't fit adequately on six sides.

DECCA's "Sea Drift" appeared some time in the middle of 1929. Incidentally, a bust of Beethoven was on the DECCA label and he glowers threateningly over middle C in DECCA, regardless of whatever music was played on the records. And under the name, DECCA, is the optimistic slogan: THE SUPREME RECORD. All the printing on the label was in gold against a black background, and DECCA and its slogan were printed in capital block letters.

Before discussing the DECCA set further, it would probably be better to provide some background for the review and appreciation of Delius's "Sea Drift" itself:

To begin, what a treat to listen to the marvelous setting that Delius composed for Whitman's eloquent poetry: "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." And how the music projects its magic from beginning to end!

For baritone solo, chorus, and orchestra, "Sea Drift" is based on the greater part of "Out of the cradle endlessly rocking," the first of the eleven poems comprising Whitman's Sea Drift. The poem tells a tragic little story of two birds who built their nest in a lonely part of the seashore, and a boy who watched them at mating time, "every day, cautiously peering, absorbing, translating." One day the she-bird disappeared and was never seen again. "And thenceforth all summer in the sound of the sea, and at night under the full of the moon . . .I saw, I heard at intervals the remaining one, the solitary guest from Alabama."  The telling of the story is shared by the lonely boy (baritone) and the chorus, which also personifies the he-bird crying out to the wind and the stars to bring back his mate.

In the music of Sea Drift an impressionistic technique is employed with beautiful and moving effect. The actual writing of the vocal parts is indeed masterly, for each is calculated with unerring judgment, so that one might say that Delius has "scored" for his vocal forces much in the same way as he has scored for the orchestra. Sea Drift has perfect organic growth moving forward to its end, suggesting and underlining the moods and ideas of the poem with rare understanding and subtlety.

And how sui generis are the exceptional attributes of that memorable recording: the complicated slurring of Roy Henderson and his nearly impeccable clarity for the words -- "O brown halo in the sky near the moon," and "drooping upon the sea." Nothing but emotional recapitulation could have imbued Delius's ending with the mixture of remembrance, despair and resignation to the words "O past! O happy life!" and the poignant and heart-rending final passage on Side #6, beginning (with Henderson) "O I am very sick and sorrowful."

And that wonderful back-and-forth rhythm of the inexorable sea against the land, with the orchestra producing its irresistible pulse! Undoubtedly, "Sea Drift" is one of the great masterpieces of music and I often wonder why it never was included on the busy programs of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Perhaps our luck ran out after Stokowski and Ormandy?

Philip Heseltine said, "It is impossible without quoting the whole poem to give an adequate impression of the wide range of its emotion and the way in which the passion of the words and music rises and falls with a perfection of poise and cadence that seems to echo the very sound of the sea itself, uniting the story and its setting in a single vision that grips the imagination with an almost uncanny tenacity. In this music we seem to hear the very quintessence of all the sorrow and unrest that man can feel because of love. It is the veritable drama of love and death, an image of the mystery of separation."

(Dame Ethel Smyth, English composer): "I am a slow listener and whosoever the people may be who grasp very deep and new thoughts and jump to a new outlook in one minute, I am not one of them. But I felt of course all through the performance pages of such divine exquisite beauty -- that I have absolute confidence in the other pages that connect them even tho' their content may be less irresistible on superficial acquaintance. The whole thing remains in one's mind at a great vision -- I am longing to hear it again."

(Delius): "The shape of it was taken out of my hands so to speak as I worked, and was bred easily and effortlessly of the nature and sequence of my particular musical ideas, and the nature and sequence of the particular poetical ideas of Whitman that appealed to me."

Too bad that Percy Grainger and Leopold Stokowski discussed Delius so often without anything palpable having come of it! And what a transcendental effect if Stokowski had ever performed "Sea Drift" with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Academy of Music and had the Bell Laboratories installed its high-tech recording equipment in the early 1930s to capture that rara avis in live sound! Beethoven still has reason to glower as he listens to Eschenbach waving his baton through another production of all the overworked nine symphonies!

During the Delius Festival in England in May 1985 which both David Duke and I attended (mostly in Bradford), I talked with Felix Aprahamian, especially about that pioneer recording of "Sea Drift" on DECCA and made several notes of our conversations. I was able to add quite a lot of information that Felix remembered from so long ago. Some of those otherwise lost items I have included in this letter, without keeping a consistent sequence.

We spent a day at Felix's home in London and while he busied himself in his intricate and well-stocked kitchen perfecting like a sorcerer's apprentice one of his gourmet dinners - interrupted at one point as Felix left the kitchen and sat down at his adjacent grand piano to play for us a few of York Bowen's 24 imaginative and exciting preludes in all the major and minor keys.

The Decca Record Company, Ltd. of the United Kingdom was formed in 1929 by a stockbroker, Edward Lewis. (I believe he became Sir Edward Lewis at some later date). He was also an amateur chemist and made several experiments designed to produce a formula that would result in the best possible phonograph record acoustics. One of his improvements was his use of a high-purity shellac, and plenty of it, characterized by its clear to light yellow color. (Along these lines, I note that my own DECCA records are not only glossy but also somewhat thicker and heavier than the contemporaneous HMV 12" discs, on which the famous Nipper, the fox terrier was always gazing quizzically down the megaphone horn of "HIS MASTER's VOICE"). My impression was that the Decca records were almost as thick as the legendary Edison ones. But not quite.

Lewis attempted to corner the classical record market by producing Delius's "Sea Drift" before the Delius Society Albums, but HMV put the kibosh on that project because the conductor was under contract to it and Lewis was forced to withdraw this succes d'estime, after having had a very limited sales record in the UK.

For five years, during the worst of the Great Depression, Lewis's company went from strength to strength, acquiring the rights to various American labels, including American DECCA, Brunswick and Panachord. I have an extensive file on DECCA, American and English, but think it does not belong in this letter.

The conductor of the DECCA "Sea Drift" was Anthony Bernard (1891-1963), English conductor, pianist and composer. According to one of the letters published by Lionel Carley, Jelka wrote of Bernard that he had her "blessings for his fine conducting." And she told Heseltine (Peter Warlock) that they "greatly enjoyed the recording." Roy Henderson (b. 1899) was the Scottish baritone. I've noted too that DECCA also recorded Warlock's "Capriol Suite" with the London Chamber Orchestra conducted by Bernard. A comprehensive early DECCA discography would be valuable.

An acquaintance of mine, an avid record collector, once asked me to lend him the DECCA album of "Sea Drift." I told him and would say the same to any other opportunistic borrower that I would part, even temporarily, from my records as about easily as I would, say, be separated from my Knight (K30) piano, to me worth its weight in gold.

Hell, make that a fur-lined barrel of emeralds!


Norman Gentieu

Note by Bill Marsh: In the 1969 "Frederick Delius: A Discography" compiled by Stuart Upton and Malcolm Walker the Sea Drift recording is listed as DECCA S10010/2. The listing refers to the New English Chorus and New Symphony Orchestra, and the conductor is given as Stanley Chapple with the additional note in parentheses "(Conductor not shown on label)". I don't think this recording has ever been transferred to LP or CD.




Special thanks to Steven Plunkett, of Ipswich, UK for providing these transfers from his copy of the original 78 RPM records

Here are Steven Plunkett's comments on this recording and the transfer process:

I have now got myself a bit more technology and have managed to make a digital transcription to MP3 direct from my 78s of the Sea Drift. Of course they are 'raw' (i.e. un-doctored) but I must say the digitizing has separated out the sound admirably and overcome some of the difficulties in the recording. My copy is unfortunately slightly worn at that end of side 5, at the 'In vain' climax, where the groove nearly goes onto the label and the quality is at its worst because the radius of the groove is so small. Also there was a problem in the original recording with the microphone tending to 'blast' at times.

I have recorded using my Goldring Lenco GL75 deck and Ortophon cartridge with 78rpm stylus, and I fed the sound not direct from the stylus but through the Leak Stereo 30 amp - all of which, apart from the cartridge, I have been using since about 1973 - and I think the effects are fairly good. I think I have got round the 'blast' problem by applying slight additional weight to the head of the tone arm. In fact using headphones I am seriously impressed by the sound, considering. It is, of course, fairly primitive - and on those last two sides, where they were cramming it in, one can tell that the volume is turned down or compressed by the recording engineers at certain points, in order not to let the grooves take up too much space - as a result the sound sometimes becomes 'wooden'. But at other times there is wonderful clarity, so much so that I was moved to tears more than once on hearing it 'anew' for the first time.

Incidentally I have been talking to various people about this recording and it appears that the Decca day-books for the recordings, which have all now been transcribed by Philip Stuart, say that Julian Clifford was the conductor: 29 May 1929 at the Chenil Galleries, Chelsea. (That would be Julian Clifford junior - see Wikipedia). I know that this conflicts with what Jelka Delius said about Anthony Bernard. My own explanation for this would be the very strong possibility that in fact there would have been two conductors in the studio, one conducting the chorus and one overall, conducting the orchestra. It was the 18th ever recording session for Decca.

Here's the site for the Decca information (it takes a little while to download, being a big pdf.), on page 19 of 168 in the pdf. :

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