Friday, 13 January 2012

On Hearing the First Delius of 2012

A lot of music lovers feel passionately about the music of Frederick Delius (1962-1934). Some love it and some loathe it. I've heard more than one BBC Radio 3 programme (one was even a series) where well-known music lovers are asked to share their personal dislikes and the name 'Delius' has cropped up and received a few thwacks. A music magazine recently did something similar and, again, the name 'Delius' came up and loathing was expressed. The first time I heard someone do this, quite a long time ago now, the comment went along the lines of  "I hate hot-house composers like Delius". At the time I was taken aback and wondered how anyone could pick on the composer of the inoffensive On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, especially when there were so many other composers to dislike. It seemed such an odd choice. Time has taught me, however, that it wasn't an odd choice at all. People keep on making the same choice. She clearly has a lot of allies out there in the music-loving world, many ready and willing to express their reservations about this composer above all other composers. That said, for every detractor who is either left cold or irritated by his music, there seems to be a devotee who absolutely adores Delius. Why is this composer among the select band of love-'em-or-loathe-'em composers? Speaking as a moderate fan of Delius, I've had to rack my brains about this. Here are some possible explanations, with apologies in advance for a few (necessary?) sweeping statements along the way.

One peculiar quality of Delius's music is its lack of variety. The mood of one Delius piece is pretty much the same as the mood of any other Delius piece. Within a particular piece, the initial mood is generally maintained throughout. Contrast for contrast's sake did not interest him. Some find this quality engaging, others obviously find it boring. Similarly, his trademark ever-shifting chromatic harmonies are ever-present, from piece to piece, and most of his music moves at a leisurely pace. Now if you like his music, its lack of variety is no problem for, obviously, if you love one piece you're very likely to love the rest too. Naturally, the reverse is also true: If one Delius piece leaves you cold, then it's probable that the rest will too.

How, incidentally, to define that mood? Delicate, dreamy, contemplative, bitter-sweet, nostalgic perhaps, sometimes ecstatic? It can be languorous and occasionally rather hot and sticky, but is generally relaxed (and relaxing). 

Also, this isn't music of argument and logic and the intellect. It's music of atmosphere and feeling and poetry. Delius was perfectly explicit about this, and thoroughly proud of his stance. He hated systematic composing, counterpoint and, famously, nearly all music other than his own! Structurally, his pieces rhapsodise - even his concertos - and give the impression of being largely intuitive (which could also be glossed as 'organic'). Sonata form, if used at all, is used with such freedom as to barely count as such. For lovers of his music this isn't a problem (far from it!), but for the detractors it clearly is. For the former there is dreaminess and a visionary quality in the way his works unfold, while for the latter it's all very diffuse, meandering about aimlessly, lacking backbone.

Those trademark ever-shifting chromatic harmonies are probably the key defining feature of Delius's music. Melody is less important. In some works, a short theme is continually repeated against a continually varying harmonic accompaniment. The pleasure for enthusiasts is in riding those harmonies. Those not in sympathy with them will find them tiring (and tiresome).

Another distinctive feature in the works for (or with) orchestra is their exceptionally refined scoring. Delius is just as well-known for his orchestration as he is for his individual way with harmony. He made it an integral part of his music. His writing for instruments is sometimes compared to drawing with pastels. His admirers are particularly taken with this facet of his art, though his detractors seem to regard this feature as over-important and would probably prefer the musical equivalent of oil painting or acrylics! My preferred painterly comparison here is between Delius and the delicate, lyrical impressionist painting of Alfred Sisley, whose works grace this post. (I might spell this out at a later date.) 

Delius is certainly an impressionistic composer. For supporters, Delius is worthy of comparison in this respect to Debussy. For opponents, Debussy's clarity of vision far surpasses Delius's. 

Perhaps the nub of the criticism boils down to the starting point of this post. The 'hot-house' accusation is only the modern incarnation of the old criticism that Delius's music is 'precious' (in the sense of being "affectedly or excessively delicate".) Some will find the qualities I've been outlining as proof that Delius's music is precious, some in that particular sense of the word, others in the more familiar sense of "having great value".

Onto some pieces by the man himself, beginning with one that isn't in the slightest bit typical! I was particularly pleased on Christmas Day to have heard Classic FM give us Sleigh Ride (1888-1890). Apparently, the main tune is being used in a TV advert, thus pushing the piece more into the public eye. Well, good! Sleigh Ride should always have been a popular classic. It's a very early piece, a 'small tone poem' written in the years immediately after the start of his friendship with Norway's finest, Edvard Grieg. The main tune definitely has a lot of Grieg about it and the work is generally far in spirit from the mature voice of Delius. He rarely went in for jolly tunes later in life! There are touches of orchestration in the beautiful central passage that hint at the future composer though.

Though it quotes a folksong Grieg had already used (I Ola Dolam), comparing what Delius did with the Norwegian melody in On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring is to show that by 1912 he was entirely his own man, recreating it in his own image, even adding his own melodic phrases. That tune comes after a tune of Delius's own, a tune with his most characteristic rhythm - crochet, minim, crochet, minim... (yes, that particular lilting, triple-time rhythm - and ones very like it - does keep cropping up throughout his collected works). The two themes seem like peas from the same pod and flow naturally into each other as the rhapsodising proceeds. The opening bars are typically atmospheric in their pastoral scene-setting, with divided strings playing a tonic (C major) chord with an added seventh to establish a misty morning mood before horns, bassoons and clarinets perform a fragment of Delius's tune answered by a fragment of the folktune on oboe. As the strings shimmer on their final held note, the clarinets very quietly cuckoo. The piece in a nutshell and, I think, surpassingly beautiful. This attention to tone colour - just as much the strings as the woodwind - is, of course, also Delius in a nutshell, as inseparable from the experience of his piece as any of the melodies and harmonies. A solo clarinet gets to play the hero! The harmonies themselves are rich and beautiful, with some of loveliest coming in the closing minute before the final fading major chord. If you don't find this at all beguiling, then Delius really isn't the composer for you.

...unless something unfamiliar might tempt you in - such as the songs. Orchestral songs are an especially attractive medium as far as I'm concerned and Delius wrote some very beautiful ones. Please give Twilight Fancies (one of his Seven Songs from the Norwegian) a try. Again, it's an early work with a little Grieg and a twinge or two of Wagner but the exquisite use of the orchestra and the nostalgic mood conjured up is pure Delius. The same mood (though the exquisite scoring this time comes courtesy of Eric Fenby) comes in To Daffodils (from his Four Old English Lyrics), written much later during the First World War. Setting the famous Herrick poem, To Daffodils is very characteristic of its composer. The key is C major and opens with a four note melodic turn of phrase that recurs quite often across his output. As with the opening chord of On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, it's a tonic chord with an added note (here an added sixth rather than an added seventh). By the second half of the second bar a diminished seventh (enharmonically speaking) appears followed by a B major seventh chord but, in a way Delians love, immediately resolves back onto the added sixth chord of the opening which, consequently, sounds even brighter than before whilst also sounding not unlike a sigh. These harmonies oscillate dreamily, bitter-sweetly, until (on "noon") a short sudden outbreak of ecstasy introduces a straight B major seventh chord followed by a C sharp major seventh chord. Many more sharps and flats make their appearance in the score though the C major added harmony of the opening returns from time to time. This is Delius's chromatic harmony in action. Another gorgeous song is I-Brasil. Listen to this and then listen again to The First Cuckoo and you'll hear what I mean about the lack of variety in his music - similar turns of phrase, rhythmic patterns, harmonies, scoring and, even though its melancholy is deeper, even the mood is similar. I am perfectly relaxed about that!

Sometimes though, as in his violin sonatas (especially Nos. 1 and 2), the perceived limitations of Delius's rhapsodic style - those things that annoy so many - can be...well...perceived, even by a sympathetic listener such as myself. Lyricism is all pervasive though the melodies are hardly memorable and unsympathetic listeners may hurl accusations of note-spinning. The flow of the pieces is generally slow-moving despite the odd faster section, chromatic harmony is everywhere and there are no obvious landmarks. The result is that they feel a bit unrelieved. You could ask, "Who needs landmarks when every direction you look you find beauty?" A Perfect Delian might, indeed, very well say something like that. Still, these are sort of pieces where, when I'm in a certain mood, I can see where the foes of Delius are coming from. 

Still, there is so much for the sympathetic listener to revel in and over the coming year, in the spirit of anniversary mania, I shall endeavour to bring you some chose cuts of Delius - from orchestral miniatures to mighty choral giants and opera. 

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