Frederick Delius is far from a household name in American classical music, but he should be, especially in Florida, where the composer spent a brief yet formative part of his life. Now the Florida Orchestra has organized a festival devoted to Delius, celebrating the 150th anniversary of his birth. The festival will include the making of a live concert recording of two of his major works for orchestra, chorus and soloist, Appalachia and Sea Drift.
Delius (1862-1934) is usually considered the quintessential English impressionist composer, but his parents were German and he lived only sporadically in England. His Florida connection came about in 1884 when he was sent by his father, a prosperous wool merchant, to work on an orange plantation called Solana Grove by the St. Johns River south of Jacksonville. There his agricultural yield was minimal, but the young composer found his musical voice. Several important works were influenced by his time in Florida and exposure to the slave songs he heard sung by African-American workers on the plantation.
“Appalachia is a work that we should know as Americans, because it is a new world symphony comparable to Dvorak's (Symphony No. 9, From the New World)" says Joseph Horowitz, who is a consultant to the orchestra for the Delius festival and is the author of Classical Music in America and other books on music. "Both Dvorak and Delius had the insight that African-American culture would prove to be a crucial ingredient to American cultural identity generally. Because they were outsiders — Europeans — they had a perspective on the American experience that Americans could learn from."
Delius got the title Appalachia from the native-American word for all of North America. The 40-minute piece is a series of variations on an "old Negro slave song" about the separation of a black family that he probably heard on the Florida plantation.
"Many, many composers were inspired by slave songs and early black music," says Leon Williams, the baritone soloist in the piece. "So in that sense, Delius was not unique. But what I find fantastic is the way he took that inspiration and translated it into his own harmonic language while maintaining a lot of the depth and soul."
Williams, an African-American from Brooklyn now living in Hawaii, is excited to be singing Delius. "I'm a very sentimental performer, and it is a joy to be able to connect in this way with a composer who was influenced by a part of history that is very closely related to my own experience," he says.
The baritone is also the soloist in Sea Drift. Set to a Walt Whitman poem from Leaves of Grass about a sea bird that has lost its mate, it is considered by many to be Delius' greatest achievement. The Master Chorale of Tampa Bay will also perform in both works, with orchestra music director Stefan Sanderling on the podium.
The orchestra, Master Chorale and Williams are recording Sea Drift and Appalachia for the Naxos label. It will be made from the two performances at Mahaffey Theater, including one on Friday morning, the first in a series of matinee masterworks programs this season. After the Saturday night performance at Mahaffey, an hourlong "patch" session will be held to go over sections that could use tweaking for the recording.
In Great Britain, Delius was championed by Sir Thomas Beecham, a beloved conductor, who set the standard for performance of the music on recordings in the 1920s and ’30s that are still available on reissues. Delius is pretty well represented in contemporary recordings, but Sea Drift and Appalachia are rarely paired on a single CD. "To my amazement, I discovered that Sea Drift was not in the Naxos catalog," says Horowitz, an adviser to the label's American Classics series. "Neither was Appalachia. So this is a no-brainer."
The Florida Orchestra has occasionally played Delius through the years, but mainly short pieces, such as On Hearing the First Cuckoo of Spring and The Walk to the Paradise Garden.
"People think of him as the composer of these sweet, pastoral pieces that they associate with England, and I think that causes them to underestimate Delius as just a miniaturist," says musicologist Donald Gillespie, a longtime executive, now retired, with music publisher C.F. Peters. "Delius' music also had a strong influence on Hollywood, which reinforced this misimpression."
Delius' music was used in the 1946 movie of The Yearling, which starred Gregory Peck and Jame Wyman in the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings classic set in Florida. "(Virtually) all the music is Delius," Gillespie says. "In the scene where the young boy finds the yearling, in the woods huddled alone, the theme from Appalachia comes in."
Gillespie filled in one of the big blanks of what is known about Delius with the biography he wrote, The Search for Thomas F. Ward: Teacher of Frederick Delius (published in 1996 by the University Press of Florida). The Brooklyn-born Ward and Delius were in Florida at the same time, and Ward, an organist at a Roman Catholic church, had a decisive influence on the composer. Delius always said that the instruction in counterpoint and harmony he received from Ward was more important than what he learned anywhere else, including the Leipzig Conservatory.
Horowitz and Gillespie will be making several presentations during the festival, which received a $15,000 grant from the Delius Trust. One is a showing of Song of Summer, the 1968 Ken Russell film on the life of Delius. Russell, the flamboyant English director who died in November, made many films about composers, and he thought Song of Summer was the best.
The movie is about the relationship between Delius and Eric Fenby, who served as the composer's assistant when he was blind and paralyzed (from advanced syphilis) and struggling to complete several unfinished works. Fenby's memoir Delius As I Knew Him will be the subject of another session by Gillespie and Horowitz.
The festival will provide a few days of immersion in the life and music of a composer who can be quite elusive and difficult to pin down. For example, the works of Delius are sometimes described as influenced by Wagner, but Horowitz thinks that is wrong.
"He didn't like Wagner," he says. "I think Delius was one of the most solitary creative forces in the history of classical music, along with Charles Ives. He had an aversion to studying or listening to other people's music. Gunther Schuller (an American composer and historian) once told me that the two composers who made something completely personal out of a post-Wagnerian idiom were Scriabin and Delius. Delius really does resist categorization."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.