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Delius and Fenby: A Creative Friendship

Steve Newman

The composer Frederick Delius was sixty-six when the twenty-two-year old Eric Fenby wrote to him, and although a very different relationship, the results were not unlike the effect Jessie had on Lawrence. But unlike Jessie, both Delius and Fenby benefitted from their relatively short but intense friendship.

“ It was in such a mood of intense gratitude for all the loveliness Frederick Delius had brought into my life that I first wrote to him, in the hope that it might give him pleasure to know that his music had meant so much in the life of a very young man.”

So begins Eric Fenby’s 1936, Delius — As I Knew Him, which is both a loving memoir, and a chronicle of frustration and achievement, of the time the young Yorkshireman spent as Delius’s amanuensis (from 1928 to 1934, the year of Delius’ death) at the composer’s home in Grez-sur-Loing, France, at time when the composer was blind and paralysed.

And of course it was Fenby’s youthful energy that reinvigorated the older Delius, bringing out some wonderful new work that might very well have been lost had Fenby not written that letter. And Fenby’s memoir brings home the full reality of a man so incapacitated by the latent effects of syphilis, as to be unable to lift even a pen, let alone see to write music; but a man who was, nevertheless, still desperate to compose, with a head full of new music.

Eric Fenby, the young Yorkshire musician and budding composer, took on much more than he ever imagined in 1928. But, after a shaky start, he would give Delius the will to live a while longer, and somehow contrive a method by which the ailing composer could transfer the sounds he heard in his head (usually fully orchestrated) into instructions for Fenby to transcribe. It was a truly amazing coda to the life of one of Britain’s most brilliant and original composers.

Fritz Theodore Albert Delius was born in Bradford, Yorkshire, into a family of wealthy wool merchants, on the 29th of January, 1862. Delius’s family originated from Bielefeld, Westphalia, where Ernst Frederick Delius (Fritz’s grandfather), at the time of Delius’s birth, still lived, enjoying the life of the retired army officer, and not just any old army officer, but one who had served proudly, and gallantly, under Blucher at the Battle of Waterloo.

In the 1850s three of the old soldier’s sons moved to Manchester, England, where the thriving wool industry gave great opportunities to businessmen willing to take a chance. And the Delius brothers, like their father, were brave and prepared to do battle in the heartland of the British Industrial Revolution. They quickly opened a factory in Manchester and were successful from the start, with Julius (Delius’s father) opening a second factory in Bradford in 1855.

That same year Julius also took out naturalization papers to become a British citizen.

The following year he went back to Westphalia to marry Elise Kronig, who was fifteen years his junior, and the beautiful piano-playing daughter of another prosperous Bielefeld family.

Fritz was Elise’s fourth child and grew up in the company of two brothers and nine sisters. Although two of Elise’s children had died in infancy the Delius home, ‘Claremonte’, was a happy, music filled house (where Delius learned to play instruments early on) just a few minutes walk from Bradford Grammar School, where Delius spent some of the unhappiest years of his life.

Delius’s father, a tough no-nonsense businessman (who spoke English with an upper-class German accent, with a hint of broad Yorkshire, as would Delius), was a music lover too, and an early financial supporter of Manchester’s Halle Orchestra. He encouraged his son’s undoubted musical talents; but under no circumstances would he countenance Delius taking-up music as a career as the boy wished. No, Julius insisted his son go into the family wool business, which sounds just a bit like a Lawrence novel.

But the twelve-year old Delius knew he was destined for a career in music, whatever his father might think.

Delius in wheelchair and Fenby - source: regonaudio

After leaving Bradford Grammar School in 1878 Delius entered the family business, but, having shown little aptitude for wool, was sent to a London business school for two years to try and learn the basics of running a large factory. But to no avail: Delius’s heart was simply not in it. Out of desperation Delius’s father persuaded his son (not difficult) to spend some time on a family owned orange plantation in Florida and learn business administration, and how to grow oranges.

As might be imagined Delius loved Florida and the site of the plantation, Solano Grove, but totally ignored the business side of things, choosing instead to listen to the Negro field workers singing spirituals, and in the evenings visit the local bars and brothels in Jacksonville.

But what did come out of his stay was the first draft of the beautiful ‘Florida Suite’, which overflows in places with the structure and swing of the Negro spiritual.

At last Delius had found a musical voice and insisted, upon his return, that his father send him to the Leipzig Conservatory to study music. At first Julius refused, but eventually came round after the persuasive interjection of the Norwegian composer, Edvard Greig, who had become a good friend of Delius. So, in 1886, Julius sent his 26-year old Fritz to Leipzig.

The young Delius studied hard, and in the vacations travelled widely, or went mountaineering with Greig. After graduating Delius moved to Paris, and on his father’s money, lived the life of the wealthy playboy.

After many love affairs he eventually settled down with the German painter, Jelka Rosen (and changed his name to Frederick), with the couple marrying in 1903. And it would be this steadying marriage, and the moving away from Paris to Jelka’s home in Grez-sur-Loing, that undoubtedly turned Delius into a composer of genius, creating music that ditched all the known rules, producing a single undulating line of melody and mood that had simply not been heard before.

As with Elgar, the First World War had a tremendous effect on Delius, bringing forth a masterly and heart-breaking Concerto for Violin and Cello.

Throughout the 1920s Delius composed almost non-stop, with his music championed by the English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham who bought Fred and Jelka a huge wireless so they could hear his concerts live.

At the same time Delius’s health was deteriorating rapidly, and by 1928 he found it quite impossible to work.

There can be no doubt that when Jelka read Fenby’s letter to her husband they both knew instinctively that here was a young man who, somehow, could help Delius to continue to compose. And so it was.

Other than letters, Jelka used to read novels to her husband every evening, which included the work of D H Lawrence, work that may have been introduced to Delius by the composer Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine), who knew Delius and Lawrence well, although he was none too pleased when Lawrence used him as the model for a character in Women in Love. They settled out of court.

Frederick Delius died on June the 10th, 1934, aged 72. Jelka died a year later.

To get an idea of how Fenby and Delius worked together, watch Ken Russell’s superb 1968 BBC film A Song of Summer, and read Eric Fenby’s book.

I was once introduced to Eric Fenby in the 1980s. He was a truly charming man and loved to talk about his time with Delius.

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Dec 17, 2019

As a sort of add-on to the above piece, twenty odd years ago I wrote and produced a play called A Summer Garden, about the meeting between Elgar and Delius in 1933, the year before both composers died. Elgar was in Paris rehearsing his Violin Concerto with the young Menuhin. After rehearsals he hired a taxi and drove down to Delius's home in Grez-sur-Loing where the two old friends, with Delius's wife Jelka, spent the sunny afternoon talking and drinking Champagne. Little is known of what was said, which is pure gold for a playwright. When dressing the play I managed to find the wheelchair used in Ken Russell's film about the relationship between Fenby and Delius. The thing was…

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