Frederick Delius (1862-1934)
On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring and other orchestralworks
The ten orchestral works by Frederick Delius that areperformed in chronological order on this disc span the whole of his creativelife. They also illustrate the cosmopolitan aspect of his art and his love ofthe four countries that most inspired him, England, America, Norway and France.
Marche Caprice, which can now be heard with its extra fluteand cornet parts, was composed in Paris in 1889 when Delius was 27, and revisedin the following year. Although clearly influenced by such works as Bizet'sJeux d'enfants, its middle section already shows some typically Deliancharacteristics, with its wistful harmonies and haunting oboe solo. Afterside-tracking himself, Delius remembers just in time that he is writing amarch, however capricious it may be.
It would seem logical that the Three Small Tone Poems(1888-90), presented here as a group for the first time, were originally fourin number. Three of the four seasons are represented and there is documentationto confirm that a piece called Autumn (Tone Poem) once existed, though this hasyet to be found. All three pieces display Delius's instinctive affinity withnature and the open air. Summer Evening breathes the requisite relaxedsensuousness, though towards the end it reaches a surprisingly full and impassionedclimax. Winter Night, which is also known under its original title Sleigh Ride,originated as a piano piece that Delius composed in 1887 while a student atLeipzig and first played at a party on Christmas Eve given by Grieg. Thejingles of the sleigh are characterful and the music crisp, but one cannot helpfeeling that the two slower sections, depicting the quiet that falls over themoonlit landscape after the sleigh passes, are even closer to Delius's heart.The atmospheric Spring Morning, a companion piece to Idylle de printemps of theprevious year, remained unpublished until 1989.
Delius spent from March 1884 to June 1886 in America, firstmanaging a citrus plantation in North Florida and later giving violin and pianolessons in Virginia. The improvised harmonies of the singing of Negro workersin both places were a lasting influence on his art. American Rhapsody of 1896is an early, much shorter, version of the extended orchestral and choral workthat in 1902 became Appalachia, and features the haunting old Negro slave songwhich served as the theme for variations in that work. Scored for a largeorchestra, it opens in typically ruminative Delian fashion. The Negro theme isthen announced in a dance-like section over a lively banjo (harp and pizzicatocello) accompaniment, and then restated in a slower tempo in the minor bystrings and wind in the most expressive chromatic harmonization. Soon theminstrel-show song Dixie and Yankee Doodle make their appearance, and suddenlyit seems as if we are watching and hearing a procession of American marchingbands in all their raucous glory, complete with random thwacks on the bassdrum. There is a wistful, poetic coda. American Rhapsody was first performed asrecently as 1986.
Although Delius composed his fourth opera A Village Romeoand Juliet during the years 1899-1901, the extended entr'acte played betweenthe last two scenes, later known as The Walk to the Paradise Garden, was notcomposed until the rehearsal period before the opera's staged premi?¿re inBerlin in February 1907. Delius originally wrote a relatively short orchestralinterlude, which started with the first fifteen bars of the present version. Heextended and greatly enriched his score when he was required to supply extramusic to cover the scene change from the Fair to the country inn known as ' TheParadise Garden'. After a few slow introductory bars, the Moderato 'walk'begins. This is the music of a young boy and girl who have recently found eachother again after being separated by the bitter quarrel of their parents, andwho have just enjoyed the simple pleasures of a local fair. They decide toescape from prying eyes and go to 'The Paradise Garden' inn, but on the waytheir newfound happiness overcomes them and they sit down on a bank and kisstenderly (woodwind chords) as they had earlier in the opera, but now morelingeringly. This inflames the latent love they have for each other, and themusic becomes passionate and ecstatic, only to subside gradually in a poignantdying fall. In his biography of the composer, Sir Thomas Beecham quotes adistinguished colleague's apt comment on the opera and perhaps this interludein particular: 'This is the most heartbreaking music in the world'.
By the second decade of the twentieth century Delius hadproduced a succession of large-scale masterworks but, almost ironically, theappearance of the Two Pieces for Small Orchestra of 1911-12 were to set theseal on his fame. On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring develops in typicallyrhapsodic style a Norwegian folk-song (also used by Grieg in his Op. 66) thathe had come to know through Percy Grainger. It achieved an instant successowing to the powerful combination of a haunting tune and the harmonic masterywith which Delius treats it. Marked In a flowing tempo it displays, right fromits magical opening chord, the pantheistic identification with nature that liesat the core of this composer's art. Much the same goes for the even moreexquisite Summer Night on the River, though here the focus is more specificallyon the river Loing at the end of Delius's garden near Fontainebleau where, inthe failing light, the fireflies and gnats skim the surface of the slowlyflowing water. This is the exact musical equivalent of a nature painting byMonet, Pissarro or Sisley.
Another work scored for chamber orchestra, A Song beforeSunrise (1918), the last of Delius's orchestral studies inspired by the naturalworld, is one of his more bracing miniatures. The outer panels, marked Freshly,enclose a slower, more reflective, middle section. The only oddity is thetitle; a song at sunrise would be understandable, but before is more puzzling.One possible explanation is to be found in Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra,that Delius loved and drew on for A Mass of Life, which contains achapter-heading Before Sunrise.
Finally, the last piece that Delius ever wrote. As is wellknown, the few works dating from the last years of the blind and paralyzedcomposer's life (1929-34) were laboriously dictated to his young amanuensis,the Yorkshire organist Eric Fenby. For Fantastic Dance, cast in A-B-A form,Delius was able to draw on a short, fully orchestrated fragment (A) and asketch of some contrasting material (B). It is not known when the secondsection was composed, but its treatment seems to hark back to the dance-likemusic of the fair scene in A Village Romeo and Juliet. The 'fantastic' elementof the title may refer to the whole-tone scale heard in the opening bars, afeature that is not otherwise characteristic of Delius. Appropriately dedicatedto the long-suffering Fenby, the work was first performed in London in January1934. Delius listened to the broadcast in France; it was to be his lastpremi?¿re, for the totally incapacitated but stoic 72-year-old composer diedfour months later.