During the 18th and 19th centuries, the British musical tradition, which has been so vibrant in Shakespeare’s day and through most of the 17th century, fell into desuetude, probably as a consequence of the rampant progressivism that, released by the Enlightenment, came to full fruition in industrialisation – to which Britain had been a vanguard. When, at the turn of the 20th century, the wellsprings of our music, adjusting to the changing circumstances, stirred into new life, it was at first through the genius of two composers who were paradoxically united in being polar opposites. Paradoxically again, both composers used German techniques in rediscovering England’s forgotten heart. Elgar, mainly self-taught in a land deemed to be ‘without music’, was able through his dazzling technical virtuosity to rival even Richard Strauss, while assuming the existence of a Brahmsian symphonic tradition that in this country had never happened. His mature work proved to be a threnody on Edwardian opulence and material might; in old age Elgar recognised that his 'Land of Hope and Glory', though manifest in his music, was a vision of Albion that ‘never was’ on land or sea, except in his heart’s truth, to which the post-war world was indifferent, or even inimical.
Elgar was born in 1857, Delius in 1862; both died in the same year, 1934. Whereas Elgar relished the materialistic Edwardian society he celebrated alike industrial Bradford where he was born, and all churches, which he believed to be shibboleths fostered by man’s shaming fragility. In his poem Ego Dominus Tuus (published in 1919, around the time Elgar virtually abandoned composition), WB Yeats wrote that
The rhetorician would deceive his neighbours,
The sentimentalist himself, while art
Is but a vision of reality.
What portion in the world can the artist have
Who has awakened from the common dream
But dissipation and despair?
We might say that Elgar, in his more pompous an circumstantial responses to his society, ran the risk of being, in Yeat’s sense, a rhetorician: whereas Delius, in deliberately depriving his music of social and religious context, courted the danger of being a sentimentalist. Both men, however, evaded such fates by virtue of their emotional and spiritual toughness; if Elgar’s attitude to the world was, at the end, tinged with despair, he was never dissipated; if the hedonistic Delius had moments of dissipation, he displayed a courage that amounted to triumphalism.
The experience that formed Delius’s imagination was narrow, but intense; it was also the core of his Englishness, despite his German parents, his musical training in Leipzig, his Wagnerian approach to his art, and his Scandinavian affiliations by way of Grieg, a fellow student at the Leipzig conservatory. The heartfelt intimacy of Grieg’s music appealed deeply to Delius, though he himself needed a broad canvas to work on. Fortunately, his father, who had made a fortune in the Yorkshire wool trade, believed Grieg, when he told him that Delius would be of little use to the wool trade, but would make a fine musician. This was the key to Delius’s liberation; supported by his father, he escaped in 1888 from Bradford to Paris, where he consorted with the likes of Fauré, Avel and Strindberg, frequented the Bohemian haunts of Montmartre (where he contracted syphilis) and made periodic excursions to the mountainous solitudes of Norway. Later, encouraged by his father who wanly hoped he might find a career there, Delius visited the orange and grapefruit groves of Florida. So Frederick Delius became, strictly speaking, a ‘man of the world’, never seriously in want, able to pursue his creativity.
Delius confessed that it took him a long time to find out what he wanted to do as a composer. In another paradox, it turned out that his music was directly opposed to a role as a ‘man of the world’. Indeed, he carried the Wagnerian deification of the self a stage further in that in his most typical music there is no human population, only himself and solitude. The essence of his music is the flow of sensation through its creator, for the music, like Richard Jefferies’ prose is the ‘Story of my Heart’ or, like Walt Whitman’s ‘free’ verse, is a ‘Song of Myself’: wherein both personal story and personal song find consummation in surrender to the impersonal forces of wind and sea and sky.
Delius’s early (student) works had been neither characteristic nor charismatic: when, approaching the age of 40, he discovered what he was about, the effect was startling: as we may see in probably his most consummately ‘realised’ work, Sea Drift, a half-hour one movement choral and orchestral piece written in 1903-4, setting part of a poem by Whitman. The experience with which it is concerned could hardly be more elemental, since it deals in the life and death of two animate creatures, one human, the other avian, against the eternity of the all-encompassing sea from which emerges, and in which dissolves the self, symbolised by Whitman as a sea bird who sings of his separation from a probably slain beloved. The solo baritone, who enunciates Whitman’s free-flowing words, is Delius himself, who alchemizes words into music, and is also you and I, ‘insensitive of mortality’ yet, like everyone, ‘desperately mortal’. The soloist is also Delius as the small boy of the poem, and by inference any small boy at the moment when he first apprehends the immutability of death: ‘my mate no more, no more with me; two together no more’.
Borne on the spoken rhythm of the words, the operatic vocal line, whether aria, arioso, or recitative, recurrently flows into the pentatonic formulae that are basic to the human voice, while the orchestra, with uncanny immediacy, dissolves their rudimentary humanity into the surge and sizzle of the sea. In acknowledging the fact of death, the boy loses innocence, while the sea remains inviolately unconscious. The loss of love – the sea bird’s dead mate – and the boy’s loss if innocence are equated: which is why Delius’s final recognition of happiness lost (‘O past, O happy life, O songs of love’), in a traditionally Edenic E major, is even more heart-rendering than the immediate cognisance of death. The music’s dissolution into sighing appoggiaturas on the words ‘No more’ sounds at once like the eternally breaking waves and the wail of a new-born babe. Paradoxically again, the symphony orchestra was a triumph of 19th-century technology; yet at the end of this work the scrunchingly appoggiatura-laden chords seem to be not instruments but natural forces, ‘out there’ in time and space, breaking waves that are also our breaking hearts at the dawn of consciousness – specifically, consciousness of the unconsciousness of death.
This is a, perhaps the, essential religious experience, despite the fact that Delius did not believe in God and was contemptuous of people who affected to embrace any creed invented in God’s name. Unsurprisingly, Delius hated English oratorio, though he offered Elgar a crumb if comfort in admitting that he, the composer of The Dream of Gerontius, was not as bad as Parry, who would have set the entire Bible to music, had he lived long enough. Even so, Delius composed, a mammoth choral and orchestral work pointedly called A Mass of Life (1904-05), which might be described as a pagan oratorio; it is his biggest work outside his operas, and has some claim to be considered his greatest, though it is less completely fulfilled than Sea Drift or his later choral and orchestral masterpiece significantly title The Song of the High Hills (1911-12). Certainly, A Mass of Life is Delius’s most comprehensive testament wherein he identifies with his hero Nietzsche, celebrating man’s ‘high courage and self-reliance’ in face of his own death and the death of God notoriously proclaimed by Nietzsche. For man to be totally self-responsible is an ultimate exultation, and an ultimate terror. Delius carried a fanatical belief in the self to a point at which he could tolerate no music but his own – except the late operas of Wagner which he came to think of not so much as artworks but as forces of Nature. Such a belief, if magnificent, is also foolish: to carry it off, an artist need to be consistently inspired which, over the two hours’ duration of A Mass of Life is asking a lot. But although Delius is not quite equal to the challenge he makes enough inspired music to win the day: the post-Wagnerian evocation of the stillness of summer noon and of midnight are as pristine as they are heart-breaking, while the opening and closing choruses remind us, in surging impetuosity and in control of the vast paragraph, of the Byronically magnetic Delius’s superabundant energy, which so potently fuelled his nostalgia. Nothing could be further from the popular image of Delius, old, frail, blind, paralysed and wheel-chaired in his garden at Grez: the life-acclaiming virility and the life-transcending Nature-worship of these big choruses far outstrips the tumultuous passions of the Nietzsche poem that furnished Delius with his text. Through this music, as through Elgar’s Second Symphony of 1911, resounds Shelley’s ‘Spirit of Delight’ which, if it ‘cometh but rarely’, is worth waiting for. (Elgar uses Shelley’s words as an epigraph to his symphony.)
Notwithstanding the superbly virile magniloquence of the big choruses if A Mass of Life and the perfect adjustment of means to ends in Sea Drift and in The Song of the High Hills, I suspect that, if I had to opt for one work as ‘representative’ of Delius, it would have to be his best-known, and the best operas, A Village Romeo and Juliet, written at the opening of a new century in 1899-1901. One would expect an ultimate humanist such as Delius to favour theatrical projection; and in this case he chose a story close to that of Wagner’s Tristan, though the setting is naturalistic rather than legendary. Delius lighted on the tale in the writings of the 19th-century German-Swiss Gottfried Keller, who relocated Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to a then-modern Swiss village. Although a long way from Shakespeare’s Renaissance court, Delius’s ‘common’ Scandanavian-style community nurtures the seeds of tragic heroism; and Delius scored his opera for an orchestra even larger than Wagner’s! The crucial distinction between the two operas is that Delius’s lovers, Sali and Vreli, are plebeian and young. Belonging to two families long locked in frenzied litigious disputation they are, like Wagner’s mature lovers, destroyed by the world of material possessions and inhumane social contracts; but their answer, when buffeted by their fathers’ squalid squabbles, is not, like Tristan and Isolade, to grow up but rather to wish they were (almost preconscious) children again. Indeed, the first scenes in the opera’s sequence of reanimated ‘moments’ take place when the potential lovers still are children, roaming unfettered in the Wild Lands, where they contact troops of vagabonds, or gypsy outsiders; and the successive scenes become a lethal battle between childish innocence and the malignancy of adult jealousy and greed, as displayed by their fathers in their patriarchally motivated fury. (The children’s mothers are never mentioned, and perhaps don’t exist.)
The ethics of the situation are confused, for the bit of scrubland over which the fathers are tearing their guts out belongs in fact to the Dark Fiddler. The young lovers ought possibly to be on his side, since he is the rightful owner of the land and is, like a child, devoid of conscience and perhaps even of consciousness. Yet he is also a sinister gypsy who, like the Devil, has a limp and plays the fiddle. This occurs when Sali, appalled as Vreli’s father brutally assaults her for daring to consort with the Enemy Son, strike the Father – not dead, but so as to leave him insane.
Throughout the opera Delius’s advanced chromaticism, like that of Wagner, represents the flux of experience within the psyche: which is real life, that may be bliss of agony, or both, Certain absolutes of tonality – relative majors and minors, tonics, dominants and subdominants – recur in Delius’s work since they are acoustical and physiological facts; but there is little evidence of socially geared tonal organisation, associated with metrically measured times, such as typifies classical Baroque, Viennese Classical, and even early Romantic music. When, later in the opera, Delius calls on social dance forms in unambiguous keys there is usually an ironic undertone as in the Fair Scene, which tells us that although this is how people usually - but also illusorily – behave in their public contexts, it is not what people are ‘really’ like. That may be discovered only in the ‘unconscious’ flow of chromatic tonality, which tends towards the atonality attained in Schoenberg’s ‘free’ chromatic period. Such a revelatory moment is presaged when the Dark Fiddler, still wildly playing the violin, leaves the lovers ecstatically dancing and duetting in the poppy-blazing field. Cavorting through multiple keys, they start in ‘youthful’ A major, but aspire sharpwards to ‘heavenly’ E major and B major. When they nostalgically refer back in flatter G major, to their happy childhood, their vocal lines are purely pentatonic, like a folksong or a child’s tune.
But the final scene is not transcendent; the lovers recognise that they cannot embrace the Vagabonds’ feckless life, since to do so they would have to slough off the glimmerings of consciousness and conscience they’ve been painfully growing into. That is their plight – and perhaps that of Modern Man. Exiled by fate from society, they have nothing to hope for from civilisation; and nature, being a wilderness, cannot be adequate to their emotional and intellectual maturation. Since they ‘can’t win’, they have no choice but love-in-death and death-in-love. Because the Eden of their childhood is irrevocable, they voluntarily surrender consciousness as they saunter – a word that contains both sain and terre – through the Paradise Gardens to the Dark River, on which slowly drifting barges are piloted by real peasants who are also legendary guardians of the River Styx.
The orchestral interlude that describes the lovers’ ‘Walk to the Paradise Gardens’ is, of course, the most famous piece of music Delius ever wrote, and it may be the most beautiful. Tristan relived his childhood so that Tristan-Isolde, in growing up and dying, could become mutually animus and anima; Sali and Vreli accept death as extinction because they cannot leave their childhood behind. Yet as we listen to the ecstatic E major climax to Delius’s final scene we may wonder whether there is much difference between Wagner’s mystical transcendence and Delius’s valedictory dream. As Sali commits the barge to the unconscious waters, the Vagabonds will wail hysterically and chortle manically, while the Dark Fiddler fiddles their requiem as madly as would Vreli’s lunatic father. Slowly the barge, with its human cargo, sinks in an infinite quietude, if also in Tristan’s bright B major, to chords chromatically intensified in precisely as the breaking waves are at the end of Sea Drift. This is one of the great moments in European music; and perhaps its potency depends on its admission that ‘courage and self-reliance’ are not only as much as we ought to hope for, but also a boon worth having.
It may be that the unique quality of the ‘Delian experience’, especially in the years after the First World War, lay in its rejecting any illusory comfort in the face of omnipotent death, while at the same time discovering that our delight in the beauty of the failing world was, for its ephemerality, the more potent. It may be true that this Delian experience will never again seem as significant as it did during those post-war years; but we must surely admit that the experience is unlikely, in any conceivable future, to become meaningless. No welfare state, nor even the Kingdom of Heaven itself, can appease the unsatisfied cravings of man, who will remain ‘a proud, and yet a wretched, Thinge’. Although Delius would have expunged the ‘wretched’ from Sir John Davies’s noble philosophical poem of 1599 (Nosce Teipsum), he wouldn’t have apologised for the pride; and his message, from a totally irreligious man, was in essence spiritual, though it denied the bondage etymologically inherent in the word ‘religion’.