Fritz Theodor Albert Delius was born in Bradford, Yorkshire, England, on 29 January 1862 to parents who had come to England from Bielefeld, Germany. Julius, his father, was a prosperous businessman in one of Yorkshire’s great Victorian industries, wool. The home was a musically cultured one, and, as a boy, Fritz learned to play both violin and piano proficiently before he reached his teens. After attending Bradford Grammar School (1874-8), he spent two years studying at the International College near London, and then some apprentice years in his father’s business.
These were characterised by a growing frustration with business life, and in March 1884, Fritz persuaded his father to let him try his hand at cultivating oranges in Florida, USA. Once there, he quickly secured a piano and found a local source for theory lessons, a Jacksonville organist named Thomas Ward, an important early influence.
Julius Delius now gave in to his son’s request for a full musical education and Fritz enrolled at the Leipzig Conservatorium where he studied from 1886-8. On leaving Leipzig, set on the course of his life’s work, he went to Paris, where he was to remain based for almost a decade. He soon moved on from composing songs and small-scale instrumental and orchestral pieces to produce the operas Irmelin (1890-2), The Magic Fountain (1894-5) and Koanga (1895-7). There were also larger orchestral works, some with solo voices, Paa Viderne (1888), Sakuntala (1889) and Maud (1891), while 1889 saw the completion of the symphonic poem Life’s Dance (first version) and the nocturne Paris. The eclecticism in these works is evident, his inspiration deriving from the literature of England, Norway, Denmark, Germany and France, medieval romance, First Nations people of North America, the Florida landscape and the Scandinavian mountainscape.
During his Paris period, Delius had little opportunity to have his larger scores played, and it was not until 1897 that the chance came to hear how his music really sounded, when he attended performances in Oslo of the play Folkeraadet, for which he had composed incidental music. Immediately afterwards, he travelled to Germany for the first orchestral performance in that country of a work of his, Over the hills and far away. It was conducted by Hans Haym who, with Julius Buths, was to be instrumental in popularising Delius’s music in Germany in the first decade of the new century. An all-Delius concert in London in 1899, however, met with mixed success. In the meantime, he had become friends with a German painter, Helene Jelka Rosen, whom he met in Paris in 1896. The next year he moved in to share her house at Grez-sur-Loing, near Fontainebleau, and this was his home for the rest of his life. He and Jelka married in September 1903, by which time he had anglicised his name to Frederick.
Now came Delius’s high musical summer, which was to last from 1901, when he completed his operatic masterpiece, A Village Romeo and Juliet, to almost the end of the first World War. Appalachia dates from 1902, Sea Drift from 1903/4, and the large-scale A Mass of Life was composed during 1904/5. Then came Songs of Sunset(1906/7), Brigg Fair (1907), In a Summer Garden (1908, revised 1912) and the first of the two Dance Rhapsodies (1908). Much of 1909/10 was devoted to his last opera, Fennimore and Gerda. An Arabesque and The Song of the High Hills date from 1911, and from 1911/12 came the popular On hearing the first cuckoo in spring and Summer night on the river. These two pieces, together with The Walk to the Paradise Garden (an intermezzo extracted from A Village Romeo and Juliet) have earned their composer a quite unmerited reputation as a maker principally of pastoral miniatures. In 1907, Appalachia was heard at a London concert by, among others, the English conductor Thomas Beecham: he quickly assumed the mantle of Delius’s greatest protagonist, and retained it until his death in 1961.
Soon after the completion of North Country Sketches (1913/4), the war years brought turmoil into the Deliuses’ life, and for a time they had to leave Grez-sur-Loing. Despite all difficulties, however, Delius continued to compose a surprising amount of music: the Requiem, second Dance Rhapsody, Eventyr, and the concertos for violin and for violin, cello and orchestra all date from the war years, as do his string quartet, cello sonata and the final version of his long set-aside violin sonata no.1. Delius’s last essay in concerto form, for the cello, dates from 1921, while his final purely orchestral work, A Poem of Life and Love (1918/9) apparently did not satisfy him sufficiently for it to be published. With the help of his friend, the composer Percy Grainger, the last touches were put in 1923 to the incidental music for Flecker’s play Hassan: its phenomenally successful run in London helped to buttress the Deliuses’ ailing finances, which had been adversely affected by the war.
Little could help the composer’s failing health, however. Delius was going blind and losing the use of his limbs, although his mental faculties were to remain unimpaired until his death. But he could no longer compose. In 1928, a young musician from Yorkshire, Eric Fenby, came to live in Grez with the Deliuses, and the composer completed by dictation during his last years a number of works which represent a later flowering. Songs of Farewell for double chorus and orchestra and the Idyll (salvaged from the one-act opera Margot-la-Rouge of 1902) were the largest in scale; others composed or completed with Fenby’s help were A Song of Summer, Fantastic Dance, songs including Cynara and A Late Lark, the Irmelin Prelude, Caprice and Elegy for cello and small orchestra, Deux Aquarelles for strings, the ‘Intermezzo’ from Fennimore and Gerda and the Violin Sonata No.3.
With all his outstanding works completed, Frederick Delius died at Grez-sur-Loing on June 10 1934, his wife outliving him by just one year. They are buried at Limpsfield, Surrey, England.
Biography copyright © Delius Trust