The other night, I was vaguely overhearing a pub quiz, when they played a music question, asking which English composer wrote this. From the first note, I knew it was Delius, even though the piece was unfamiliar to me.
It is always hard to define a composer's particular quality, and even the impressive line-up of commentators in this film often have to fall back on sign-language when words fail. 'Chromatic tension' was one way that those rich chords were explained. 'Airy, not earthbound' and 'A sense of drift' were two others. But I like the comment by French critic Michel Fleury: 'Delius became a secret garden in my life'. Few people actually set out to study Delius. They come upon him by chance, as though stumbling across an enchanted little dell.
But the analysts go further, detecting a powerful strain of sexual passion running through his music, reflecting the obsessive hedonism of the man, of which many of us knew little. This may have been a reaction against his background, his father being a stern puritan, in the tradition of the Bradford wool trade, for which the young Fritz (not yet 'Frederick') was meant to be destined. It was an odd relationship. Delius senior disapproved of music as a career, so he sent his son to Florida to run an orange-grove. Those crops would be much neglected, as Fritz caught the sound of old slave-songs in the forest, rather in the style of Dvorak responding to the sounds of the New World. One result of this was the first case of European classical music being scored for the banjo - a good example of why Delius does not fit into any movement or school of composers.
Next stop was Leipzig, where he studied harmony and counterpoint for the first time, and then Paris, where the Belle Epoque was at its giddy height. Here he mixed so closely with the impressionists that someone called his music 'pointilliste' and he made friends with Gauguin, who was very much his counterpart in painting, and just as much of a hedonist. The two of them believed firmly in seizing every moment, and Delius proudly identified himself with the German word 'bejaender' - a man who always says yes. But he obviously said it once too often. For at 33, he contracted the syphilis that would never leave him, however many doctors he rushed to consult. (Gauguin would get the same come-uppance in faraway Tahiti.)
Choosing this moment to marry might seem odd, but observers concluded that their union must have remained unconsummated. His bride was a German painter Jelka, who proved a wonderfully supportive wife. More help, of a most practical kind, came from Sir Thomas Beecham, before a young admirer, Eric Fenby, dedicated himself to safeguarding Delius's musical legacy, as the poor blind composer, who had lost the use of his hands, struggled to work. The famous portrait of his old age by Ernest Procter shows a long, poetic face with unseeing eyes apparently spurning the world. It is hard indeed to believe that he spoke broad Yorkshire to the end.
One thing alone cheered these dismal last years, a warm friendship with Elgar, the other leading English composer, who praised him as 'a poet in sound'. But it raised the unending debate as to whether Delius could really be called English. He was German by parentage, and had never lived in England as an adult. But thanks to a last gesture of support by Beecham, the deceased who had despised all religions was brought home from Paris and buried in a Surrey churchyard in great secrecy at midnight.
And a heartfelt 10 out of 10 (first time from me) for this excellent BBC effort that would clearly hold the attention of the Delius Society just as much as the ordinary music-lover who has barely heard of the man or his work. For either audience, this film manages to touch the roof of the mind, and makes a satisfying little secret garden of its own.
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