Notes on Frederick Delius, "La Calinda" from Koanga, "A Late Lark," and
"Morning" and
"Night" from Florida Suite

by

J. Marshall Bevil, Ph.D.

        Frederick Delius (1862-1934) was born in Bradford, England. His German-born father, a prominent wool merchant, planned for him to share someday in the family enterprise. That wish, however, was in vain, for the younger man had neither the interest in business nor the aptitude for it. An attempt by the elder Delius to establish his son as an orange grower in Florida (1884-1885) was equally unsuccessful from an entrepreneurial perspective; but the imaginative, impressionable young man derived great cultural enrichment from his stay in the post-reconstruction American South. There his artistic horizons were broadened by exposure to the always sultry, often sensuous, and occasionally seamy environs of the tropics. There also he received what he later declared to be the most meaningful musical instruction in his life, namely lessons in theory and musical interpretation from Thomas Ward, an accomplished and somewhat out-of-place musician in Jacksonville. In addition, Delius there became immersed in musical genres and sounds that ultimately influenced not merely his compositional style but his entire artistic outlook which eschewed many traditional European musical dicta. Particularly important were the dances, songs, and singing practices of the black plantation workers.
          Following the failure of his agricultural venture, Delius had a brief sojourn in Danville, Virginia, where he supported himself as a teacher and organist. He then undertook study of composition in 1886 at the Leipzig Conservatory under Sitt, Reinecke, and Jadassohn. On concluding his training, Delius, with the aid of the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, persuaded his father to underwrite his efforts as a freelance composer in Paris. There Delius led a footloose existence, sowed more than a few wild oats, and quite possibly would have died penniless, relatively young, and unknown once his father's support ended had he not met and eventually married Jelka Rosen, an artist in the unusual circumstance of being heiress to a modest fortune.
          Delius and Rosen began living together in 1897, in the French town of Grez-sur-Loing, near Fontainebleau. Following their marriage in 1903, Delius's compositions came to be more and more a record of his intellectual and emotional pilgrimage through life. The resultant intensification of an already unique and deeply personal style gave rise to works that were marked by quiet reflection and introspection in some cases and by passionate but tasteful outpourings in others. In all instances there is hedonistic sensuality coupled to a pervasive sense of "the tragic brevity of life and the ephemerality of its pleasures." Not surprising, therefore, are the frequent descriptions of Delius's music as wistful and bittersweet. Equally unsurprising is his being called "the last great apostle of romantic beauty in music" by his younger friend, amanuensis, and protege Eric Fenby.
          The music of Delius does not altogether reflect any of the stylistic trends that marked the first third of the twentieth century, yet neither is his postromanticism strictly of the familiar, sometimes overripe, late nineteenth-  through early twentieth-century variety. Further, the man and his music were, apart from their common sybaritism, character opposites. Most who have heard even a small amount of Delius's work find their impressions difficult to reconcile with his having been almost totally devoid of love, respect, or even positive feelings for any but a very few individuals; and his attitude toward most other composers, both living and dead, was generally negative. The consequence of his stylistic uniqueness stemming in part from the peculiarities of his personality is that his music has had the undeserved misfortune of being little more than a footnote, or at best a sentence, in musical history up to the present. This, however, has been and remains offset by the almost religious loyalty given Delius's work by its relatively small circle of enthusiasts, most of whom are, or have been, either professional musicians or serious amateurs.
          Koanga, composed in 1895-97 and first performed in 1904, was a three-act opera that, in its use of a black principal character, preceded George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess by nearly four decades and was roughly contemporaneous with Scott Joplin's Treemonisha. Delius's poignant work, with a libretto by Charles Francis Keary, was based on a tragic episode in George Washington Cable's The Grandissimes (1800), in which an African prince (Bras-Coupe in The Grandissimes, Koanga in the opera) was sold into slavery and transported to the American South.

        The calinda ("La Calinda") from the second act of the opera continues to enjoy popularity as an independent concert piece, and it also appears, in an earlier version, in the Florida Suite. The origins of the calinda (Spanish: calenda) as a dance genre are uncertain, but it is thought to have arisen among the natives of what is now the Guinea Coast sometime before the thirteenth century. The dance was encountered there by Spanish sailors and adventurers who, captivated by its soft but insistent, syncopated pulsations, took it back to Spain with them. From there it spread to the rest of continental Europe and South America, where it often was called the zamacueca.
          The calinda entered North America both directly from Africa and indirectly by way of the West Indies. Some accompanying Spanish musical influence, via the West Indian route, seems likely. With the less reserved bamboula, the calinda was a favorite of slaves who danced in Congo Square, in New Orleans, prior to the American Civil War. Both dances remained popular with former slaves and their descendants following the war and reconstruction. The African tradition of dancers wearing jingling metal disks or strips on ankle bands gave way in the ante-bellum United States to the wearing of small bells. Credit for this innovation is given to Bras-Coupe in African-American folklore.
          The text of "A Late Lark" reveals the lesser-known side of William Ernest Henley (1849-1903), who is more widely known, and often unjustly maligned, for his "Invictus." Unlike the more famous work, which represents Henley's coming to grips with the lifelong -- and ultimately life-shortening -- complications of childhood tuberculosis, "A Late Lark" manifests an ultimate sense of triumph, a quiescent acceptance of circumstances, and the realization that a short life, even one marked by physical discomfort, does not have to be either unhappy or unsuccessful. Undoubtedly the views expressed in the poem struck a particularly resonant chord in Delius, who spent about the last thirty years of his life acutely aware of the progressive and incurable nature of his own illness. Fenby, who helped Delius complete the setting of the text, reports that "A Late Lark" became increasingly dear to Delius in his final years which were marked by both the blindness and the paralysis of late-stage syphilis.
          The most important of Delius's compositions to emerge from his years in North America was the Florida Suite of 1888. In this work are early manifestations of the elements that came to be more smoothly blended into Delius's mature compositions: lushly sensuous but transparent orchestral textures, relaxed but judicious use of chromatic dissonance and non- or delayed resolution to create a persistently shimmering effect within a distinctly tonal fabric, and melodic and harmonic anhemitonicism characteristic of the folk music of the American South, of Delius's homeland, and of Scandinavia, to which he also had strong personal ties. The prominent influence of Grieg is especially evident in the first part of "Morning," the opening movement of the suite; and the earlier version of "La Calinda" comprises the second portion of that movement. The finale, "Night," like Mendelssohn's nocturne from the incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream, uses the French horn -- the quintessential romantic of the brass family -- to state its principal thematic material, but the statement of the secondary theme in the upper strings and the use of woodwinds and strings in transitional passages was more prophetic of what was to be Delius's mature style.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Carley, Lionel, editor.  Delius - a Life in Letters. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Cooper, Martin, editor. The Modern Age, Volume 10 of The New Oxford History of Music. London: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Fenby, Eric. Delius as I Knew Him. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Orrego-Salas, Juan.  "Calenda," Harvard Dictionary of Music, Willi Apel, editor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969, p. 121.

Palmer, Christopher.  Liner Notes in The Fenby Legacy - Music of Delius (1862-1934). Recorded under the auspices of the Delius Trust. London: Unicorn-Kamchana, 1981

Payne, Anthony. "Frederick Delius," in The New Grove Twentieth-Century English Masters. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986, pp. 69-96. Reprint of article from The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Stanley Sadie, editor. London and Washington, D.C.: Macmillan, 1980.

Pirie, Peter J. The English Musical Renaissance. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979.


Dr. J. Marshall Bevil is a native of Houston, where he also currently lives. He is both a string music educator and a musicologist (B.Mus. with honors, Oklahoma Baptist University, 1970; M.Mus. - Musicology, University of North Texas, 1973; Ph.D. - Musicology, University of North Texas, 1984) with specialization in the history of bowed string instruments, oral-aural musical transmission, British and British-American folk music, and British academic music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His doctoral dissertation has been published by University Microfilms, International (UMI No. 8423854, "Dissertation Services"), and he has published post-doctoral studies in professional journals and presented papers in his areas of specialization at regional, national, and international academic convocations in both the United States and Great Britain. He also is the author of encyclopedia articles on John Avery Lomax, Alan Lomax, and Percy Aldridge Grainger; and he has published on the Internet. In addition to his pedagogic and academic pursuits, he is a performer on the Welsh crwth, a composer and arranger for string and vocal ensembles (publications on sibeliusmusic.com, from December of 2004), and a forensic musicological consultant and expert witness  in copyright and intellectual property misappropriation disputes ( links:  1    2  )

 

 

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