WHEN DELIUS DIED forty years ago, his private world became public overnight. The rambling old house with its walled garden at Grez-sur-Loing enclosed it no more. There were more people in his garden that Sunday in the hours following his lingering death than in all the years during which I had shared his seclusion. The surviving custodian of this private world, his widow, Jelka, lay ill upstairs. She had just returned from a Fontainebleau hospital after a serious operation.
In response to my telegram that Delius was sinking, Beecham had sent Dora Labette to see if she might be of help. I was in the music-room when she arrived, and remember her pausing in the door-way, a lovely reminder of another world that seemed so distant from that household, as she gazed down tearfully on the body of Delius lying on the studio couch. I have often been asked whether or not the sprinkling of rose petals over his body was a touch of Ken Russell's fantasy. No, that actually happened at daybreak that morning. Strange, perhaps, to English ways, but it was Jelka's wish, and she did it herself from a wheel-chair.
No one has made a greater and more lasting impression on my mind than Delius. His French burial was true to character: no priest, no prayers, no music, but a silent farewell to the fearless pagan joining the village free-thinkers by the wall in the cemetery on the Marlotte road out of Grez. The Anglican interment a year later, when Jelka was fit enough to travel to England but not, as it happened, to attend the service, was a compromise Delius would never have countenanced. His Requiem is proof of this. Others living in a busy world - Delius like Nietzsche had no time for the market-place - may find such singularity embarrassing, and seek to conventionalise or excuse such behaviour, but with Delius behaviour was married to conviction, and what to others was of little importance to him was often a moral issue.
There were other attitudes no less singular, and certainly during my time at Grez one was a constant bone of contention between Delius and his wife - namely the future of his music. Jelka had always striven to urge the claims of her husband's work, writing countless letters to conductors, upbraiding publishers, continually exerting every pressure and every influence she could muster to achieve her one objective in life. Delius was supposed to be kept in ignorance of these 'thunder letters' (as she used to call them), although he had an inkling all the same, and scolded her severely when things came to light. But who could blame her? She had sacrificed her painting for him, given him ideal conditions to work and supported him through thick and thin.
Delius on the other hand, in no sense a
careerist, was quite content
to let things be, even if hopeful of recognition. He had had his share
of broken promises and had realised his ineptitude as a conductor of
music. If conductors wanted to play his work, they would do so
without his prompting. He believed implicitly that his music would
but only by what it was in itself. I have often wondered what on earth
he would have thought of the mediocrities of today pushing their scores
through publicity agents. Not that he was uninterested in new music:
the contrary. He was deeply concerned about young composers and
that we mark Radio Times for performances of their works. He would
intently by high-powered radio for any sign of natural talent. His
were dry, sometimes arresting, and his open acceptance of other minds
removed from his own world of thought cured me of any priggish
It has never failed to astound me, the more I have thought of it since he died, that with this concern for young composers he had made no provision for the future of his own. For years he had looked like a living corpse, and was quite content with a small piece of paper on which, to comply with French law, he had left all his effects to his wife. The document was so old that all the witnesses to his signature were dead.
Then, some days before he died, anxious
to show his gratitude to me,
he dictated a separate codicil appointing as executor, his closest
the composer, Balfour Gardiner. The most important clause in this
set down clearly his dearest wish: that his royalties be allowed to
and be used to give an annual concert of works by unknown young
in a programme to include one work of his own. Delius died before
could complete the legal formalities, but his wishes in respect of me
honoured in part subsequently. Beecham then persuaded Jelka to abandon
the concert scheme; it was, he declared, an impracticable project. He
her instead to direct the royalties towards the recording and editing
the main corpus of Delius' work. She agreed, and thus the Delius Trust
was born. Beecham called in his lawyer, Philip Emanuel, and appointed
a bank trustee and two other musical advisers besides himself.
these advisers are Sir Thomas Armstrong, Norman Miller and Felix
No trust can have been more steadfast or inspired more selfless service
in those of its members throughout the years. After preliminary
by Rachael Dugmore a vast amount of work has ensured the safe-keeping
the Delius Archives housed at the Royal Academy of Music in charge of
archivist, Dr. Lionel Carley, and his assistant Robert Threlfall.
A remarkable quality in Delius' music has become more apparent in the past 20 years - its power to arouse affection and fervour for it and its composer in people from all walks of life throughout the English-speaking world. A scientist, for instance, Dr. Roland Gibson, founded the Delius Society in 1962-3. This is a body of enthusiasts who meet in London to share their interest, sustaining that of out-of-town members by a quarterly bulletin containing articles, notices and news of forthcoming Delius events. Older by two years the Delius Association of Florida Inc. is centred in Jacksonville and sponsors the annual Delius Festival which takes place in January round about the composer's birthday. Its founder members were an accountant, the late Hugh Alderman, whose devotion to Delius' music was boundless, and the late Mrs. Henry L. Richmond, through whose generosity the shack on Solano Grove (occupied by Delius during his sojourn in Florida from 1884) has now been restored on the beautiful campus of Jacksonville University. Nevertheless what would have pleased the composer most is the Delius Composition Contest which almost fulfils his dearest wish: 'In the spirit of the annual Jacksonville Delius Festival the Delius Association of Florida Inc. offers five annual awards (a first prize of $100, and four best of category awards of $25 each) for new musical compositions to be submitted according to the following rules etc...’ There is a wide range of categories and no entrance fee. Works selected by the judges from the various categories are performed at a special Delius Composition Contest Concert during the Delius Festival at Jacksonville.
It was said in my hearing repeatedly,
often by those whose views I respected,
that Delius' music would lose its appeal when Beecham was no longer in
action. This inferred an exclusive mastery by one person of a singular
idiom, surely unheard of before in an art which waits for life in
symbols even from those who can hear them mentally, and in my
of students of the orchestra this is not a common accomplishment.
it must be conceded, however, that Beecham from around the late 1920's
to somewhere about the middle 1940's was matchless in his conceptions
Delius. There are people living in Philadelphia who still rave about
performances. Later he indulged in sentimentalities and erratic
of temperament which sometimes led to impossible tempi and marred
episodes which could have been masterstrokes. His earliest recordings
Delius are his best. His finest efforts were never recorded and
fortuitously, as was his mood, at rehearsals or in the concert
In the 27 years that yet remained to him after the death of Delius, Beecham developed a rival affection for the music of Sibelius, and there were periods of inconstancy to Delius. Sometimes he went for months on end and never conducted a note of the music. Then, as in 1945, he would suddenly give a whole festival of it, or stack up a pile of test-records of a work such as Songs of Sunset, then drop the whole task in disenchantment. It took courage in those days for a conductor to risk a work by Delius, knowing beforehand his reading would certainly meet with unfavourable comparison with Beecham's from orchestra, public and critics alike. Yet still they persisted, as I can vouch, prompted alone by a love of the music.
The real breakthrough came, I am sure, at
the Bradford Delius Centenary
Festival the year after Beecham's death when, on my appointment as
director, and backed to a man by the festival committee, I chose Rudolf
Kempe to conduct all the concerts The decision initially caused a stir:
it went some way to appeasing a rather disgruntled RPO. none too
at the prospect of a week of Delius ahead, but I knew my man. From the
first hour of the first rehearsal Kempe read the mood of the players by
the quiet intentness of his practice and their total response to his
phrasing. I was not surprised by their round-robin at the close of the
festival: 'Mr. Fenby, you can
arrange another Delius Festival as soon as you like provided you ask Mr. Kempe to conduct us!' I was not so happy with the two fine but rival Bradford choral societies who refused to form a festival chorus, and preferred each society to be responsible for a concert. It would have been more convenient had Delius been born in a neighbouring town over the hills!
Sir John Barbirolli and Sir Malcolm Sargent now gradually came to the fore as champions of Delius. Each appeared to have a special work in which he clearly was thought to excel: Sargent with A Mass of Life, Barbirolli with Appalachia. Stanford Robinson made his mark with a broadcast concert-version of Koanga whilst the more recent ascendancy of Sir Charles Groves and Meredith Davies have kept Delius before the public in the field of international recording right up to the present day - Meredith Davies, with the award-winning Requiem and A Village Romeo and Juliet; Groves with Koanga, Sea Drift and A Song of the High Hills, about to be released. A conductor too often overlooked, Anthony Collins, was sensitive in his recording of A Song of Summer.
I little thought when I was struggling to take down Delius' music at Grez, that one day I should see the scene enacted in my own home. Ken Russell's film was disturbingly life like. I had net seen it before its public showing being myself out of action during the weeks of shooting. Even so. Christopher Gable, playing me, had asked me to spare his feelings and keep away front the set. Eventually I was rolled to the studios to record the music of the scene where Delius, propped up in bed, listens to Percy Grainger and me playing Grainger's two-piano arrangement of The Song of the High Hills in the music-room. On my arrival I found Russell immersed in directing a 'retake' Of my first meeting with Delius which. apparently, had not satisfied Max Adrian. I was ushered into the studio to wait, and was just in time to hear that deliberate and unforgettable greeting 'Come in, Fenby!' I had mimicked Delius weeks before at Russell's suggestion as a guide to Adrian to learning his line, and behaving like Delius, but this was too much for me - the voice, the inflection. the image of Delius sitting there, a rug over his knees, with a great screen about him, slowly extending his hand in welcome. I lived that momentous moment again, I am unashamed to say, and not without a tear. Max Adrian told me later that of all the roles he had ever played he had never before had such difficulty in ridding himself of involvement.
The recording proceeded with some interjections addressed to a mysterious character called ‘Spud', who functioned unseen behind the sets, in charge of the sound equipment. In shots of the actor playing Grainger, otherwise excellent in the part, the poor fellow's lack of rhythm in simulating a keyboard technique contrived an ingenious solution from Russell. He instructed me to lie on the floor, out of range of the camera, and work 'Grainger's' arms from below appropriately in time with a ‘play-back’ of the music which Gable and I had recorded previously. Then when shots of his hands were required, Russell asked me to take his place. The camera revealed a further incongruity as yet unnoticed by us all. His trousers were checked and mine were plain. So mine were whipped off and his put on, and camera and music resumed in unison. This was my active contribution to the film, apart from collaborating with Russell on the script.
The war having intervened and Balfour Gardiner having died soon after disposing of Delius' house at Grez, I felt no inclination to return. Then in 1967 my wife and I were invited by members of the committee of the Delius Society to accompany them to Grez. I was desolate when I saw what changes had occurred. Alden Brooks, the American novelist. who lived as Delius' neighbour on the other side of the church for over 30 years and who knew more about Delius than any man alive, had long been gone and was now dead. He had married one of the Chadwick daughters who were born in Delius' house. Chadwick, who looked like Elgar, was an American painter who had settled at Grez in its hey-day as an artists' paradise. One person alone remained, his eldest daughter. Madame Louise Courmes, and we talked of old times in her elegant home.
A fortnight, later, quite unexpectedly, I was back in Grez - this time with Ken Russell. We had been sent for the weekend by the BBC to see if the original settings might be used in making the proposed film We met the new owner of the home, Madame Merle d'Aubigne, who had asked us to tea in the garden. She was somewhat alarmed at the prospect of a film being made an her doorstep, but I saw at a glance she had no cause to worry. My old quarters had been pulled down, the music room had been made into bedrooms, the out buildings and studios had been renovated and the garden bore evidence of much attention. From that moment I accepted the change. The tale of the Deliuses was over, and with it the place where it was lived. And as we walked up the village street with its television aerials on every chimney and modern sports cars parked by the verge, I felt a great relief of mind as if I had laid some ancient ghost.
An opportunity, unprecedented and irreparable, was missed at Bradford after the Delius Centenary Festival in 1962. An exhibition, sponsored by the Centenary Festival Committee with the full cooperation of the Bradford Corporation, had been assembled and mounted to provide visitors with a visual record of Delius life, the wide, cosmopolitan circle of his friends in the worlds of art, music and letters, and the range of his achievements as a composer through the loan of material from numerous sources. Part of it was afterwards shown in London at the Festival Hall through the then director, who rated it highly as second only to the famous exhibition of Proust in Paris. Tentative feelers were put out at the time in the vain hope that it might become permanent, but other exhibitions of more local general interest had already established prior claims and precluded such a possibility in Bradford. For years I regretted what I might have done; that I gave up so soon, and failed to go about it in the proper way. Of late, however, I am really not so sure. After all it is the music that is of his spirit.
In Bernard Levin's amusing game of concocting programmes of music one never wanted to hear again, the first piece of his best effort was ‘On hearing the first cuckoo in spring’. "The music of Delius is not an acquired taste. One either likes it the moment one first hears it, or the sound of it is once and for ever distasteful to one. It is an art which will never enjoy an appeal to the many, but one which will always be loved, and dearly loved, by the few." It is nearly 40 years since I wrote that passage; nor have I had reason to change my mind. Delius will always be on the programme of music I want to hear again.
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