Frederick Delius – Full Biography

Fritz Theodore Albert Delius (Fritz officially changed to Frederick in 1903, Theodore [beloved of God] dropped at his confirmation, and Albert [after the Prince Consort] repudiated when he left England)[i] was born in Bradford, England on January 29, 1862. His parents, Julius Friedrich Wilhelm and Elise Pauline Delius, both of Bielefeld, Germany, were married in 1856. Of 14 children, Fritz (as he was called) was their second son and fourth child. Julius “loved music intensely and used to tinker on the piano when he knew he was alone,”[ii] often attending concerts and arranging for chamber music to be performed at home. He was a prosperous wool merchant with a keen sense of business. Elise was “not musical at all, but she had great imagination, and was rather fantastically inclined. She was very romantic…”[iii] Together, in full Victorian comfort, they helped raise Fritz from initial weak health to be an active and robust lad. Fritz played games with his brothers and enjoyed the Yorkshire countryside, savouring in particular the game of cricket, an interest which remained for life.

Fritz took early piano and violin lessons in addition to living in a musical household, but never with the [iv]view to a career in music. His liberal and gentle nature was noted from an early age to be at odds with his more rough and demanding father, a conflict left unresolved throughout the childhood years.[v] His childhood musical training was neither rigid nor rigorous. The boy would entertain company with improvisations and playing by ear, using a natural technique dissimilar from established keyboard practice.[vi] Julius was glad to have a son that was able to participate in musical events. Music by Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven was frequently performed. It was a peaceful and happy beginning to a tumultuous process of changing musical style and unrelenting family struggle that would follow in the coming years.

Frederick’s first profound musical moments came shortly after joining a preparatory school in Bradford. Hearing performances of Chopin’s E minor Waltz at age 9 and of Wagner’s Lohengrin at age 13 made major impressions on the boy. Compared to the works of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, the rhapsodic style and rich harmonic texture of these later romantic masters was striking. Chopin and Wagner would remain among Delius’s favourite composers throughout his life.

Frederick’s lack of scholastic progress in Bradford prompted a change of schools in 1878. His parents sent Frederick and his younger brother Max to a larger school in Isleworth, a city in Middlesex within easy reach of London, allowing Frederick access to the active London concert scene. This contact with musicians and their music inspired the young man and exposed him to a variety of musical ideas.

In 1879, another important developmental event occurred. Frederick was seized by a fit of laughter in the midst of his confirmation service in Church, rendering its symbol meaningless. Delius would remain anti-religious, at times fiercely, throughout his life. An equally important religious formative moment preceded the bout of laughter while still in Bradford. Bradlaugh (a teacher), watch in hand, had called on his creator to strike him dead within two minutes if He really existed, a moment which in old age Delius credited as having had a lasting impact.[vii]

Schooling days over, the time came for Frederick to join the family wool business. He had by this time inwardly decided to become a musician, an idea sharply rejected by his father, who already had two sons clearly unfit for commercial success and the assumption of business responsibilities.[viii] Frederick, in contrast, was a charming, handsome, and level-headed young man with bright potential. The conflict of professional goals between father and son grew with the passage of time and would be the source of much mutual frustration. Julius attempted first to entice and later to isolate his son into submission. He placed Frederick in a series of jobs within the company in different cities from 1880 – 1884, hoping to ensure his son’s allegiance to the trade. In each instance, however, Frederick’s attention would soon turn to other attractions that that city or region had to offer, such as active concert scenes, music teachers and lessons, or other musical company, invariably leading him away from his duties. Thus was Frederick employed, in order, in Bradford, Stroud (Gloucestershire), Chemnitz (Germany, near Berlin, Leipzig, and Dresden; where he also studied violin with Hans Sitt), Bradford, Sweden (as a traveling salesman, from which he traveled to Norway), Bradford, St. Etienne (the center of the wool trade in France, a purposely non-musical location; from here he traveled to Monte Carlo where he gambled everything he had, making a half-living until his father discovered his location), Bradford (after stopping at his artistically sympathetic Uncle Theodore’s lavish home in Paris, where he secured comfort and, later, funding), Norway, and finally Manchester.[ix] In Manchester it finally became clear to Julius that Frederick was not going to join the wool trade. Each trip to Bradford featured strong words of fatherly reproach and Frederick’s account of what he had (or had not) been doing. In some cases, as with his second trip to Norway, Frederick begged to be sent out again for a ‘fresh start’ to a location more suited to his success, fully aware of the dual nature of his interests. The length and cost of this ordeal, wrought with poor business decisions, personal conflict, and the constant threat of a cut or reduced allowance (reduced funds are what led Frederick to Monte Carlo), shows the depth of the disagreement. Even at the end of four years, neither was able to convince the other of his opinion. After years of fighting, they were no closer to a solution.

The two finally came to a compromise of sorts. Unable to persuade his parents to let him study music, Frederick was able to convince his father that his future lay in orange farming in Florida. Florida, in Frederick’s eyes, was an untamed frontier, filled with the promise of adventure and freedom. He often dreamed of its isolation and potential as a place for his soul to bloom while pouring over travel resources at the local library.[x] To Julius it represented a reasonable alternative to the idea of his son becoming a musician. Arrangements were made and Frederick became the master of a small orange farm in Solano, Florida, in March 1884.

Frederick’s tenure as a fruit farmer was far from productive. Oranges and shaddock (grapefruits) were forgotten and found rotting on the ground within a week of Frederick’s arrival.[xi] The tropical air, lush vegetation, and secluded home turned his mind to other matters. He finally had time to think and compose while the basic tasks of the grove were completed by hired help.


Later in life, Delius would credit his time in Solano Grove as among his most important. “It was at this time that Delius first saw clearly where his life’s work lay. His vision was no longer blurred by the artificialities of modern life. In his solitary communion with Nature he had found himself and realized that he could trust his own intuition against others’ reason.”[xii] In his own words, “I was demoralized when I left Bradford for Florida … In Florida, through sitting and gazing at Nature, I gradually learnt the way in which I should eventually find myself … Nobody could help me. Contemplation, like composition, cannot be taught.”[xiii] Eric Fenby, who lived with the aged Delius decades later, continues further, connecting this time to the formation of something central to the composer’s work:

Since those days when the stillness of nature had first calmed the troubled waters of his soul, he had known in his heart that he had something to give, something to say about life in terms of music that no one else could give or say. This noble urge which stirred him so strangely was the only spiritual thing in life for which he had reverence, and this remained so unto the end of his days.[xiv]

Not all of Frederick’s time was spent in dreamy isolation or contemplation. There are fantastic stories of alligator hunts, encounters with rattlesnakes,[xv] romance with a Negro woman,[xvi] and a child fathered.[xvii] Delius was fascinated with the Negroes and their style of improvised singing. These sounds had a lasting impact on his compositional style. “Negroes are certainly the most musical people in America. Sitting on my verandah after my evening meal I used to listen to the beautiful singing in 4 part harmony of the Negroes in their own quarters at the back of the orange grove. It was quite entrancing…”[xviii]

Delius soon felt the need to add a piano to his small house in the jungle. On a trip down the river to Jacksonville, Delius visited a music store and tried a number of instruments. As coincidence would have it, Thomas F. Ward, an organist from New York, passed by the store while Delius was playing and was struck by the beauty of sound. The two became acquainted and instant friends. Ward, an excellent and trained musician in Florida to recover from tuberculosis, accompanied Delius back to Solano Grove with the piano, where he stayed for six months as Delius’s companion and instructor. Ward, warning Delius from the outset that he would be worked hard, focused on counterpoint, as he already sensed Delius’s mastery of harmony. Delius learned and loved the music of Bach, which he occasionally heard on the organ when in Jacksonville with Ward.[xix] Ward also modeled a strong work ethic to Delius that would never leave him.[xx] Delius learned very quickly, later citing this time as one of the most important in his compositional development. Only one solo song survives from this period of time.

Time passed and Julius Delius’s contacts reported on the state of Frederick’s progress. Dismayed, Julius made arrangements to purchase the grove in an attempt to refocus his son’s attention toward farming, but without success. Frederick eventually felt the need to leave his tropical paradise, because he wanted to study music with professors at the Leipzig Conservatory.[xxi] When this request was refused by his father, he determined to become financially independent and go to Leipzig however possible. Delius soon found himself in Danville, Virginia, teaching violin lessons to a rich man’s daughters as well as theory and composition to people of the town. Despite his modest success in this role, his parents discovered his location a year later and, convinced at last of their son’s determination to become a musician, agreed to pay for studies in Leipzig.


Frederick, now age 24, began his studies in a flurry of musical activity. “During this first year at Leipzig, Delius, like other students, intoxicated with his own enthusiasm, thought of little else but music; all his days and a good part of his nights were spent in hearing music, writing music, playing music, and talking music.”[xxii] Leipzig, the Gewandhause, and the Conservatory seemed to be the center of the musical universe, its streets breathing the legacy of Bach, Mendelssohn, Goethe, and Schiller. Touring artists included Tchaikovsky and Brahms. His instructors included Hans Sitt (violin), Carl Reinecke (composition), and Salomon Jadassohn (harmony and counterpoint.)[xxiii] It was enough to make the young Delius’s head spin. Here, he had a chance to dream and to be shaped by the greatness of the trends and biases of 1880’s German music. It reaffirmed his sense of destiny of composition on a grand scale, though he would quickly discover that his own artistic path was not the one sold and taught in Leipzig.

Another important development in Delius’s life at this time was his growing connection to Norway. Frederick quickly became the friend of a number of the Conservatory’s Norwegian students. Two of these, Christian Sinding and Johann Halvorsen, shared Frederick’s appetite for Leipzig’s musical activities and, later, his frustration with some of the Conservatory’s limitations.

Delius traveled to Norway in the summer of 1887, where he hiked through the inspiring landscape, stopping at strangers’ houses, fishing, and lapping up the rural lifestyle. While staying with a family on a rainy day and scanning the bookshelf of a son studying in Christiania, Delius picked up a copy of Frederick Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. Delius devoured it, continuing later to read all of Nietzsche’s output, which was highly influential to his view of life, philosophy, and his artistic calling. Delius also visited Edvard Grieg, whom he had met the previous winter in Leipzig. Grieg, then 44, and Delius developed a close friendship that would last until Grieg’s death in 1907. It was the first of 17 summer trips to Norway.

Delius’ second year of studies included increased concert attendance, increased frustration with his instruction, and decreased attendance in class. His compositions, frequently evaluated by Jadassohn as “False!” (the same reaction he gave to Grieg years earlier), were at odds with his instructors’ teachings.[xxiv] His individual artistic vision was less and less stimulated by the Conservatory’s routines. Later in life, Delius evaluated his musical instruction as such:

It was not until I began to attend the harmony and counterpoint classes at the Leipzig Conservatorium that I realized the sterling worth of Ward as a teacher. He was excellent for what I wanted to know, and a most charming fellow into the bargain. Had it not been that there were great opportunities for hearing music and talking music, and that I met Grieg, my studies at Leipzig were a complete waste of time. As far as my composing was concerned, Ward’s counterpoint lessons were the only lessons from which I ever derived any benefit. Towards the end of my course with him – and he made me work like a nigger – he showed wonderful insight in helping me to find out just how much in the way of traditional technique would be useful to me … And there wasn’t much. A sense of flow is the main thing, and it doesn’t matter how you do it so long as you master it.[xxv]

Regardless of his appreciation for Ward and Florida, Delius would not comply with his father’s wish to resume growing oranges following the completion of his two year course. An important meeting between Julius and Grieg was arranged in London in 1888 to discuss ‘a matter of the utmost urgency.’[xxvi] Grieg, who was on tour and whose stature as Norway’s leading composer impressed Julius, called Frederick a genius and was able to convince Julius to continue his son’s allowance in pursuit of a musical career. Frederick had next to no proof of his potential. The total number of people who had listened to his music to that point, following a single self-funded performance, was two. He had nothing to show for his studies but an undeveloped musical vision. Without Grieg’s intervention at the end of Delius’s time in Leipzig, Frederick’s path to full-time composition would have been much more difficult.

Five part-songs survive from Delius’s time as a student in Leipzig. Found amongst counterpoint exercises and containing corrections in a foreign hand, it is likely that these pieces were completed as a part of Frederick’s coursework. They also possibly served as respite from the demands of his much larger Florida suite.[xxvii] Less complex than his mature works, they bear the marks of a young composer learning his trade.


The year was 1888, and Frederick moved to the Paris forever captured by the impressionists Degas, Manet, Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro, just before its change to Gauguin’s more brutal, post-impressionist artistic atmosphere. Though his location within the country would change a few times, this move to France was his last. The first 9 years were spent in locations in or near Paris, a period marked by increased compositional output and an active social life. Though he shied away from most musicians, claiming to find them boring, he associated with many well-known composers, artists, and writers.

By 1891, Delius had moved around Paris and its environs and had traveled to Norway, Leipzig, Brittany, and Jersey. He lived in Croissy-sur-Seine, which was then a small town just outside of Paris, much patronized by the Impressionist painters.[xxviii] His lifelong friendship with Edvard Munch, who drew portraits of Delius in 1890 or 1891, was blossoming. Frederick gave up Croisy apartment in the summer of 1891 before taking a trip to Norway, where he visited the Bjørnsons, the Griegs, and conductor Ivan Holter. Delius returned to Paris in October.[xxix] It is likely that this trip affected his choice of text in the part-song of late 1891 – “Her ute skal gildet staa.” Delius’s showed great enthusiasm for Norway and Scandanavian circles while in Paris too.[xxx] One of his Scandanavian friends was the Swedish sculptor Christian Eriksson, for whose house warming party “Her ute skal gildet staa” was produced.

An additional chapter in Delius’s personal life at this time centers around Helene ‘Jelka’ Rosen. The two met for the first time in 1896 at a dinner party, discussing the music of Grieg and the writings of Nietzsche. The method of their courtship clearly anticipated the type of relationship that would ensue: one of Jelka, a talented painter, giving herself completely to Frederick’s artistic enterprise.

She wisely realized that he was likely to resent obvious attention and affection and that she must avoid showing any jealousy. There were plenty of occasions when she might have done so, for Delius, with his remarkably good looks, was seldom without female company and she was rather plain … They continued to meet and became close friends. They walked together when spring came and often ate late at Delius’s apartment. Because he always composed at night and became fidgety when the meal was over, Jelka never tried to stay longer than she was wanted. It was perfectly clear to her at this early stage that music came first in their friendship; and her tact and understanding at a time when she wanted above all else to be with Delius showed that she loved him deeply.[xxxi]

In 1897, following a period of romantic uncertainty, Jelka bought a house at Grez-sur-Loing, a village near Fontainebleau, well known and loved by Delius. Delius made numerous visits although he remained uncommitted. Following a brief return to Solano Grove in Florida for a variety of purposes (he had been considering a permanent return and there were a number of romantic entanglements,)[xxxii] Delius sent word to Jelka at Grez that he was coming to visit the next day. He arrived and, to Jelka’s surprise, announced that he was staying, which he did until his death. The two were married in 1903.[xxxiii]

Delius finally felt relaxed and was able to devote all of his energy to composition. An inheritance from his Uncle Theodore in 1898 secured this way of life.[xxxiv] Delius composed Mitternachtslied Zarathustras and Five Songs in 1898 and La Ronde se deroule for orchestra and the opera Paris in 1899. He was less compositionally active in 1900 and 1901, as he suffered some financial embarrassment, severed his connections to the Florida plantation, buried his father, and suffered his first physical deterioration. After finishing A Village Romeo and Juliet in 1901, an opera some identify as his first mature work, he composed his best known choral works: Appalachia (1902), Sea-Drift (1903), and Mass of Life (1905).

A visit to Berlin in early 1907 for the premiere of A Village Romeo and Juliet led Delius to the honor of being the subject a monograph written by German musicologist Max Chop,[xxxv] Delius’s first, and won the praise of composer Engelbert Humperdink. Around this time, Delius maintained a good working relationship with Harmonie Verlag of Berlin, which published the three part-songs of 1907-1908.

Delius achieved further success in 1907 during a trip to London in the spring for performances of the Piano Concerto (1906) and the English premiere of Appalachia, which inspired the performance of at least seven of his major works the following year.[xxxvi] Admirers such as Balfour Gardiner, Percy Grainger, Norman O’Neill, Roger Quilter, Cyril Scott, Granville Bantock, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Philip Heseltine were soon among Deilus’s supporters. Newly invigorated ties to England also led to Delius’s involvement with the Musical League, an organization devoted to promoting the performance of new English music. The organization, which did not last as long as hoped, boasted Sir Edward Elgar as its president and Delius as the Vice-President. The short-lived tenure of the Musical League reinforced Delius’s luke-warm opinion of English music at the time.

“I am afraid artistic undertakings are impossible in England – The country is not yet artistically civilised – There is something hopeless about English people in a musical and artistic way, to be frank, I have entirely lost my interest and prefer to live abroad and make flying visits” (written to Granville Bantock.)[xxxvii]

However, the excitement stirred in England for the music of Delius was red-hot.

Of all the fortunate encounters Delius enjoyed throughout his life, perhaps none was so fruitful as his association with conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. Beecham, who first heard and was converted to Delius’s music in 1907,[xxxviii] single-handedly raised England’s awareness of its ‘native son’ from obscurity to popularity. Beecham, a conductor of independent financial means, organized several concerts of Delius’s music, including a 4-day Delius festival in 1929 that featured most of the composer’s compositions.[xxxix] “The success of the Festival was unquestioned and at none of the six concerts was there a seat unoccupied.”[xl] Unaccompanied part-songs were performed by the London Select Choir, conducted by T. Arnold Fulton, on Wednesday, October 23rd, at 8:30 pm at the Aeolian Hall, along with other selections. The part-songs selected for performance by Beecham were, as listed in the program, “The Splendour Falls,” “On Craig Ddu,” “Midsummer Song,” and Two Unaccompanied Choruses (to be sung of a summer night on the water).[xli] The early part-songs and “Wanderer’s Song” were omitted. Delius, in an address to the crowd at the closing concert, called this festival “the time of my life,”[xlii] despite his usual disregard for public opinion. Beecham also edited many of Delius’s scores and was his favorite interpretive conductor.[xliii]

The later portion of Delius’s life was marked by greatly diminished health, causing physical dependence on Jelka and others, an inability to transcribe musical ideas, and an apparent change in disposition. Frederick, who had contracted syphilis in 1895, suffered from steadily deteriorating health with noticeable setbacks in 1901, 1910, 1922, and 1926. Gradually, his strength all but vanished, leaving him confined to a wheelchair in great physical discomfort. Traveling became more difficult, though he made medical trips to Wiesbaden in 1911, Biarritz in 1918, and Cassel in 1924. He and Jelka also fled for approximately 1 year to England from the advancing German Army in 1917, the year he composed Two Songs to be sung of a summer night on the water. He lost the use of his eyes and his hands became paralyzed in 1922. The purchase of a motorized car in 1923 was undoubtedly intended to make transportation at least a little more possible. Delius traveled to Cannes in autumn and spent Christmas at Rapallo, the year he composed his final part-song. Some friends found his character to sour in this period. However, within this frail shell, his mind and his drive remained strong. Many of Delius’s works were completed during this period of time, including “A Dance Rhapsody” (No. 2; 1916), “Eventyr” (1917), “Hassan” (1920), and “A Late Lark” (1925).

Eric Fenby, a young Delius devotee and musician from Yorkshire, England, provided an unusual and highly successful solution to some of Delius’s needs. Deeply distraught at the knowledge of Delius’s inability to compose because of poor health, Fenby offered himself as an amanuensis to Delius for 3 or 4 years to attempt the completion of unfinished works. He arrived at Grez in 1928. Their methods were slow and took time to develop (Delius’s ability to communicate was significantly reduced), but in time the two were able to complete many compositions, including “A Late Lark” (1925), “A Song of Summer” (1930), the Idyll (1930), Caprice and Elegy (1930), the Fantastic Dance (1931), Songs of Farewell (1932), and the “Irmelin Prelude” (1932). Fenby also made arrangements of La Calinda, Fennimore and Gerda – Intermezzo, and Two Aquarelles (arrangements for strings of the part-songs of 1917.) Fenby’s contribution to the Delius legacy also includes a poignant memoir written in 1936, entitled Delius As I Knew Him.

Frederick Delius finally died on June 10th, 1934. His approach to death through pain was not one of fear or regret. “Not being able to see does not trouble me. I have my imagination. Besides, I have seen the best of the earth and done everything that is worth doing; I am content. I have had a wonderful life.”[xliv] In accordance with a late wish, Delius was laid to rest in England the following May. His wife, also in serious physical condition, died of cancer on May 28, 1935, two days after Frederick’s second burial.   She was interred beside her husband. During the year that separated these deaths, key decisions were made regarding the estate, leading to the establishment of the Delius Trust. This collection of important material and funds for the promotion of Delius’s music remains active today.[xlv]


Delius’s Personal Characteristics and Beliefs

The complex character of this colorful musician was comprised of numerous seemingly opposite components. At first glance, perhaps the prevailing public view, Delius appears to have been exclusively strong willed, individualistic, wry, stern, severe, hard working, and uncompromising. Some of these traits originate from his fatherly example, some from his Victorian upbringing, while some also come from the example of his Uncle Theodore in Paris. Theodore Delius exemplified the upper-class, ‘highly civilized’ standards of late 19th century Paris, an outdated manner of conduct preserved by Delius throughout his life.[xlvi] While he was a young man in Florida, Delius also learned the value of focused hard work from Thomas Ward, a virtue he cherished for life. This, combined with his earnest conviction that he must create great art, led to a highly disciplined routine. His curt and insensitive demeanor was fueled by his strong distaste for time wasted by small-talk, insincere pleasantries, or even the attendance of his concerts of his music when not necessary for his artistic development.[xlvii] His skill with many languages, natural sharp wit, and broad range of experience made him fiercely intimidating and at times quite difficult to please.[xlviii]

One anecdote involving Delius’s acidity, as well as the strength of his personal charm, involves the male nurses who helped to care for him in his late sickness. They were part of a Protestant brotherhood, each of whose beliefs Delius, completely dependent on their care, would attack without mercy in the midst of attention. One brother, dissuaded from his faith and highly attracted to Delius’s charm and philosophy, was removed by the brotherhood and proceeded to kill himself in grief over being barred from returning to Delius.[xlix]

This harsh portrait of the man is incomplete, however. In addition to these brash characteristics, Delius possessed a sensitive, fun, and peaceful nature. In the presence and interpretation of certain friends, those of keen wit and an eye for irony, the teasing and intolerance was a playful game without the slightest trace of malice. Close friend Percy Grainger gives a clear indication of this:

Hearing that a certain musician who was visiting him at Grez was an ardent Christian Scientist (a fact that the musician had not mentioned to him, however) Delius regaled his guest with ‘Of all the stupid things in the world, Christian Science is the stupidest.’ And he went on by the hour teasing the man. But had the man admitted his belief and stuck up for it, Delius would have listened to him quite tolerantly, and a jolly and graceful discussion might have ensued. For Delius was never afraid of an argument, nor impatient in it. Nor was he thin-skinned. In my own case, knowing I was a vegetarian and a teetotaller, he would ask me at meal-times what I was eating and drinking. When I replied, ‘Bread and milk and a glass of water’ (or the like), he would lay into me with ‘Why be such a kill-joy? Why don’t you enjoy a nice big steak and a mug of beer?’ If I retorted, ‘Yes, and be blind and paralyzed like you at the age of 70,’ he would merely chuckle.[l]

Grainger goes on to mention and emphasize the lack of sternness and grimness of Delius’s character, including the words “To be with Delius was to feel oneself participating in a constant ritual celebrating enjoyment.”[li]

Similarly, Delius displayed sensitivity and encouragement to numerous friends and colleagues. He would often receive scores from unknown, aspiring musicians, which he would return with positive comments whenever possible. Personal letters to a variety of artists and musicians repeatedly displayed his friendliness, pleasant attitude, and willingness to be helpful. His sympathy for developing artists was likely a reflection of the encouragement he often wished he had received in his own developmental years.

Perhaps the most telling symbol of Delius’s personality is his music itself. Impossible to fully capture in words, the character is neither insensitive nor harsh, but precise, demanding, highly emotional, and filled with a keen interest in beauty.

Delius’s philosophy was distant from the beliefs of any organized religion. Though raised in the church, he clearly separated himself from all aspects of the church and Christian theology. The philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche influenced him strongly.[lii] Eric Fenby recounts Delius’s description of his introduction to Thus Spake Zarathustra early in his travels in Norway: “It was the very book he had been seeking all along, and finding that book he declared to be one of the most important events of his life. Nor did he rest content until he had read every work of Nietzsche that he could lay his hands on.”[liii]

Delius often advocated his position of atheism. Numerous encounters are recorded, including a heartfelt plea to Eric Fenby during his stay at Grez. “Eric, I’ve been thinking. The sooner you get rid of all this Christian humbug the better. The whole traditional conception of life is false. Throw those great Christian blinkers away, and look around you and stand on your own feet and be a man.”[liv] Similarly, Delius’s convictions and call to free thinking were included in his compositions. The texts of Nietzsche, Walt Wittman, and other non-religious writers were frequently set in his vocal music. Delius’s love of nature, inspired by Wittman in particular, is also frequently reflected in Delius’s programmatic compositions.

Delius’s friends included many famous musicians and artists. They provided fun, artistic counsel, professional assistance, and physical assistance during his late sickness. While in Paris, Delius freely associated with August Strindberg (dramatist), Paul Gauguin (painter), Wladyslaw Slewinski (painter), Alphonse Mucha (founder of Art Nouveau), and Maurice Ravel (composer). Norwegian friends included composers Edvard Grieg, Christian Sinding, and artist Edvard Munch.[lv] Later friends included musicians Percy Grainger, Sir Thomas Beecham, Balfour Gardiner, Bela Bartok, Zoltan Kodaly, Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock,)[lvi] painter Carl Larsson, and writer Robert Louis Stevenson.[lvii] Despite a highly publicized visit of Elgar to Grez in 1933 and various musical connections, the two were never fully at ease.

The issue of Delius’s nationality is another interesting aspect of the composer’s nature. Despite his birth in England, Delius’s only return to this land, aside from brief visits, was in the form of a dying wish for an English grave. While his stay in France was longer than in any other country, his connections to Germany, America, and Scandinavia remained equally strong. Christopher Palmer, author of a lengthy study on the subject, offers the following view:

The more we probe the question, in fact, the more uncomfortably do we become aware that in classifying Delius as an exclusively English composer the English claim an unwarranted privilege, for they are but one of a number of possible contenders for the distinction of ownership. Delius was a curiously stateless man, a wanderer over the face of the earth who never really settled and struck roots anywhere.[lviii]

Cosmopolitan may be the best description of Delius’s nationality.[lix] He had little concern for politics, war, or patriotism, feeling that his art was beyond the bounds of any national style or identity.


Delius’s Musical Style

            Occupying a singular position within the body of historical European art music, unique in technical, theoretical, and esthetic matters, it is difficult to discuss Delius’s music in the way one would discuss the music of more conventional composers. The use of contrasting reference to composers of a similar but slightly different nature (for instance, comparing the sonata form of Mozart and Beethoven, or defining the characteristics of Buxtehude’s music within the context of Northern German Baroque keyboard music) is difficult to apply in Delius’s case. His disregard for conventional theory and style make comparison very difficult. Primarily self-taught, he purposely maintained geographic and artistic distance from his contemporaries and the current musical trends. Some broad characteristics can be assigned and labeled as typical of a certain period and style, but much remains quite difficult to describe in the normal, academic sense.

Delius’s choice of forces and genre was fairly conventional for his time. He typically wrote for orchestra, preferring large ones, content with the sound that they were able to produce.[lx] Much of his public success came through the popularity of his programmatic tone poems, a then somewhat outdated genre championed by Richard Strauss, who expressed great admiration for Delius’ music: “I never dreamt that anybody except myself was writing such good music!”[lxi] Other compositions included works for choir, soloists, and orchestra, opera (without much success), piano solo, chamber music, and solo songs. The works for chorus and orchestra enjoy the greatest popularity today, if any of Delius’s music can be considered popular, including Appalachia (1902), Sea Drift (1903), A Mass of Life (1905), Songs of Sunset (1907), Arabesk (1911), Requiem (1916), and Songs of Farewell (1932).

A major difference between the late part-songs and other larger-scale works seems related to the limitations inherent in writing for a group of human voices – the vocal ensemble tied to a specific timbral spectrum, limited divisis, and limited pitch range. The major works exploit the greater number of sounds available from an orchestra, utilize more complex divisis, and cover a wider range of pitches. Due to their length, they are also often more structually complex than the part-songs.

Delius’s taste in the music of other composers reveals much of his musical ideal, without settling the issue of strict stylistic classification. Percy Grainger summarizes Delius’ views of other composers and styles as follows:

Delius preferred Ravel’s music to Debussy’s – an unusual judgment. He detested Brahms and … made great fun of the Mozart-cult. (“If a man tells me he likes Mozart I know in advance he’s a bad musician.”) Haydn and Beethoven he liked no better, and it was impossible to interest him in Richard Straus or Stravinksy and other would-be moderns. Schoenbergism he dubbed “the wrong note craze”, and when a young Hungarian musician played some Hindemith to him Delius burst out with: “I only know one thing; that that composer has a vulgar soul (eine gemeine Seele).”

As far as I can remember he never varied in his admiration for Bach, Chopin, Wagner and Grieg; though even here it was difficult to foresee his changing moods. One year he would say “Play me lots of Bach.” When I would return next year with my trunk full of Bach he would exclaim: “You know Bach bores me. Can’t you play me Chopin’s F minor ‘Ballade’ – the best of the lot?”[lxii]

In addition, Delius held the music of Elgar, Parry, and other English composers in very poor regard.[lxiii] Neat labels for Delius such as impressionist,[lxiv] 20th century English,[lxv] and romantic[lxvi] are each in some way flawed. References to Delius’s music as ‘curious’ or as occupying “a more shadowy place in English music”[lxvii] may be the most accurate designations available.

Delius’s method of composition, though described as free-formed, did have certain patterns. Always at the piano, his method involved improvising a series of chords, exploring these chords in various inversions and keys, placing them in sequence, improvising their rhythmic durations, and then distributing the tones to various forces. Different periods in time brought slight variations to this pattern, but this basic process remained essentially unchanged from boyhood to maturity.[lxviii]


Critical Response to the Music of Frederick Delius

Perhaps the best measure of an individual is the comments of friends and colleagues. The following opinions reflect a great deal about the manner in which Delius and his music were regarded by his peers – close friends and prominent musicians of the day.

Written in 1950 by Percy Grainger: “To my ears it seems that in Delius’s music the most tender and subtle feelings of modern life are voiced in the most poignant and soul-reaching tonal speech. As Bach and Wagner did in their time, so Delius in his time seems to have succeeded in gathering together all that is of celestial beauty in the tonal idiom of his generation, and to have succeeded equally in divesting his muse of all that is pedantic, ugly, dry, and mechanical.”[lxix]

Written in 1959 by Sir Thomas Beecham: “What is his future to be? Opinions are bound to differ and widely. For myself I cannot do other than regard him as the last great apostle in our time of romance, emotion and beauty in music.”[lxx]

Written in 1936 by Eric Fenby: “This music has a way with it all its own, and, unless that way is grasped instinctively and immediately, conductor, player, and singer alike might just as well shut up their Delius scores and give them away. The music of Delius is not an acquired taste. One either likes it the moment one first hears is, or the sound of it is once and for ever distasteful to one. It is an art which will never enjoy an appeal to the many, but one which will always be loved, and dearly loved, by the few.”[lxxi]




Timeline and Works[lxxii]


1862: born – January 29






1868: Violin lessons with Mr. Mauerkeller of the Halle Orchestra

1869: Violin lessons with Mr. Haddock of Leeds


1871: Preparatory school in Bradford

1872: heard Chopin’s E minor Waltz


1874: Bradford Grammar School

1875: heard Lohengrin at Covent Garden



1878: sent to Isleworth


1880: determined to become musician; joined family business

1881: traveled to Stroud and Chemnitz with work

1882: studied violin with Hans Sitt in Chemnitz; Bradford, Sweden, Norway, Bradford, St. Etienne, Monte Carlo, Paris, Bradford

1883: Norway – met Ibsen

1884: Bradford; sailed for Florida in March; met Ward

1885: to Danville as Professor of Music at Roanke College; composed “Two Brown Eyes”

1886: left Danville in spring; Bradford en route to Leipzig; composed Florida

1887: Norwegian holiday – met Grieg and Sinding; composed “Durch den Wald”, “An den Sonnenschein”, “Ave Maria”, “Sonnenscheinlied”, “Frühlingsanbruch”

1888: Florida performed in Leipzig (audience of two); Grieg spoke to Julius Delius; moved to Ville d’Avray, France; composed Five Songs from the Norwegian, “Paa Vidderne”, Hiawatha, Rhapsodic variations (unfinished), Two pieces for orchestra, Pastorale

1889: moved to Croissy-sur-Seine; composed Sakuntala, Little suite for orchestra, Seven Songs from the Norwegian (1889-1890), Légendes

1891: met Gauguin; moved to Rue Ducouédic; composed “Her ute skal gildet staa”, Song cycle from Tennysong’s Maud, Three Shelly Lyrics

1892: composed Irmelin (1890-92), Sur les cimes, Sonata for violin and piano

1893: composed The Magic Fountain, Legend, String quartet

1894: quarreled with Theodore Delius

1895: composed Two Verlaine Songs, Over the hills and far away

1896: met Jelka Rosen; brief trip to Florida; composed Romance for cello and piano, Romance for violin and piano

1897: Jelka bought Grez house; Delius moved to Grez; composed Koanga (1895-97), Seven Songs from the Danish, Norwegian Suite (for play Folkeraadet)

1898: death of Theodore Delius; composed Five Songs, Nachtlied Zarathustras

1899: trip to London for concert; composed Paris: The song of a great city

1900: financial difficulties; composed Two songs from the Danish

1901: sold Florida plantation; Julius Delius died; Delius’s health showed first deterioration; composed A Village Romeo and Juliet (1900-01), “Black Roses”

1902: composed Appalachia, Margot la Rouge

1903: married Jelka Rosen, September 28; composed Sea Drift


1905: composed A Mass of Life (1904-05)

1906: saw Grieg for the last time (in Norway); composed “Concerto for piano and orchestra in one movement”

1907: close association with Percy Grainger; composed “On Craig Ddu”, Songs of Sunset (1906-07), “Cynara”, Brigg Fair: An English Rhapsody

1908: conducted In a Summer Garden in London; composed “Wanderer’s Song”, “Midsummer Song”, “The Nightingale has a Lyre of Gold”, Fantasy : In a summer garden, A Dance Rhapsody (No. 1)


1910: health deteriorated; friendship with Heseltine started; met Bartók; composed Fennimore and Gerda (1908-10), “La lune blanche”

1911: went for cure to Wiesbaden; composed Arabesk, Life’s Dance

1912: saw Mother for last time; summer in Italy; composed A Song of the High Hills (1911-12), Two pieces for small orchestra

1913: correspondence with Heseltine at its peak; composed “Hy-Brazil”, Two songs for children

1914: in London for performance; Flees Grez (German military advance) for a week; composed North Country Sketches (1913-14)

1915: stayed near London with Henry Wood and Sir Thomas Beecham due to war; composed Three Songs, “Short piece for string orchestra”, Sonata for violin and piano (published as No. 1)

1916: temporary return to Grez; composed Requiem (1914-16), “It was a lover and his lass”, Double concerto for violin and cello (1915-16), Concerto for violin, A Dance Rhapsody (No. 2)

1917: returned to England until end of war; financially pressed; composed Two Songs to be sung of a summer night on the water, Eventyr (Once upon a time), Sonata for cello and piano, String quartet (1916-17)

1918: went for cure to Biarritz; composed A song before sunrise

1919: composed “Avant que tu ne t’en ailles”, A Poem of life and love (1918-19), Dance for harpsichord

1920: composed Hassan; or the Golden Journey to Samarkand (incidental music)

1921: composed Concerto for cello

1922: lost use of both hands

1923: bought car; autumn holiday in Cannes; Christmas at Rapallo; composed “The Splendour falls on Castle Walls”

1924: went for cure in Cassel; finances easier; Mass of Life performed widely; composed Sonata for violin and piano (No. 2)

1925: composed A Late Lark, Air and Dance

1926: enjoyed the radio; health very poor


1928: Eric Fenby arrived

1929: attended Delius Festival in London (organized by Beecham)

1930: Fenby and Delius productive; composed Idyll, A Song of Summer, Sonata for violin and piano (No. 3), Caprice and Elegy

1931: composed Fantastic Dance

1932: given the Freedom of the City of Bradford (acknowledgment of his accomplishments in England); composed Songs of Farewell (1930-32), “Irmelin Prelude”


1934: died – June 10; Jelka operated on for cancer

1935: Jelka died – May 28; Delius buried in Limpsfield, Surrey



[i] Alan Jefferson, Delius (Great Britain: J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1972), 4.

[ii] Lionel Carley and Robert Threlfall, Delius – A Life in Pictures (Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1977), 2.

[iii] Ibid.


[v] Jefferson, 8.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Eric Fenby, Delius As I Knew Him (Great Britain: Faber and Faber, 1981), 171.

[viii] Jefferson, 9 – 10.

[ix] Ibid., 127 – 128.

[x] Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock), Frederick Delius (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974), 36.

[xi] Arthur Hutchings, Delius (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1970), 15.

[xii] Heseltine, 38.

[xiii] Fenby, 164.

[xiv] Ibid., 164 – 165.

[xv] Heseltine, 39.

[xvi] Christopher Redwood, A Delius Companion (Great Britain: John Clder Ltd., 1980), 122.

[xvii] Robert Anderson, Anthony Payne, and Lionel Carley, Delius, Frederick, The New Grove Dictionary of Music Online, ed. L. Macy, Accessed 5 June 2004, <>.

[xviii] Carley and Threlfall, 12.

[xix] Heseltine, 42.

[xx] Fenby, 167.

[xxi] Heseltine, 43.

[xxii] Ibid., 45.

[xxiii] Gloria Jahoda, The Road to Samarkland – Frederick Delius and His Music (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969), 78.

[xxiv] Ibid., 80 – 81.

[xxv] Fenby, 168 – 169.

[xxvi] Jefferson, 23.

[xxvii] Jahoda, 81.

[xxviii] John Boulton Smith, Frederick Delius & Edvard Munch – Their Friendship and Their Correspondence (Triad Press, 1983), 21.

[xxix] Ibid., 21.

[xxx] Ibid., 21.

[xxxi] Jefferson, 34 – 35.

[xxxii] Jefferson, 38 – 39; Redwood, 122.

[xxxiii] While the happiness of a marriage is difficult to gauge, Delius had this to say on the subject of wedlock to Eric Fenby much later in life: “… you must never marry … No artist should ever marry. He should be as free as the winds. Amuse yourself with as many women as you like, but for the sake of your art never marry one. It’s fatal. And listen; if you ever do have to marry, marry a girl who is more in love with your art than with you. It’s from your art only that you will get lasting happiness in life, not from love. Love is a madness. The physical attraction soon plays itself out. Passionate affairs are like fireworks flaring up only to fizzle out. You are a fool if you ever marry,” Fenby, 185.

[xxxiv] Jefferson, 130.

[xxxv] J.B Smith, 92, 163.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 93.

[xxxvii] Carley and Threlfall, 69.

[xxxviii] “The first performance in England of Appalachia is one of the half-dozen momentous occasions I have known over a period of more than fifty years.” – Beecham – J.B. Smith, 93.

[xxxix] Sir Thomas Beecham, Frederick Delius (Great Britain: Severn House Publishers, 1975), 201 – 204.

[xl] Ibid., 205.

[xli] Ibid., 203.

[xlii] Carley and Threlfall, 87.

[xliii] Fenby, 89 – 90.

[xliv] Ibid., 73.

[xlv] Ibid., 255.

[xlvi] Jefferson, 24.

[xlvii] Written by Delius in 1901 to Jelka while away in Berlin: “I am sick of losing time over concerts when they are not absolutely necessary for my development. I don’t care a d— for fame of any sort, and would rather be at my work,” Carley and Threlfall, 46.

[xlviii] Fenby, 16 – 17.

[xlix] Redwood, 126.

[l] Heseltine, 174.

[li] Ibid., 180.

[lii] Written by Delius to Eric Fenby: “I myself do not subscribe to everything Nietzsche said, but I hail in him a sublime poet and a beautiful nature. I want to make myself very plain to you as regards religions and creeds. Personally I have no use for any of them. There is only one real happiness in life, and that is the happiness of creating,” Fenby, 181.

[liii] Ibid., 171.

[liv] Ibid., 179.

[lv] J. B. Smith, 25.

[lvi] Following a period of intense corresponence, Heseltine stepped away from the friendship, though not before writing a book about Delius and his music. The following advice was sent by Delius to the young Heseltine in 1913 in response to questions regarding a life in music, as he wished, or the civil service, the wish of his mother: “I think that the most stupid thing one can do is to spend ones [sic] life doing something one hates or for which one has no interest – In other words it is a wasted life … I was entirely in the same position when I was your age & had a considerably harder fight to get what I wanted – I chucked up everything and went to America. One has every chance of succeeding when one does what one loves & I can tell you that I personally have never once regretted the step I took. The greatest pleasure & satisfaction I have experienced in Life has been thro’ music,” Barry Smith, ed. Frederick Delius and Peter Warlock – A Friendship Revealed (Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 2000), 76.

[lvii] Fenby, 42.

[lviii] Christopher Palmer, Delius – Portrait of a Cosmopolitan (Great Britain: Duckworth, 1976), ix.

[lix] Delius was certainly not in love with all aspects of England. He said this following a rendition of God Save the Queen sung in his honour after the performance of an opera in Norway: “For my part, they are welcome to sing it in a minor key,” Carley, 232.

[lx] Redwood, 129.

[lxi] Ibid., 123.

[lxii] Ibid., 127.

[lxiii] Spoken by Delius to Eric Fenby in response to a comment about English music: “English music? Did you say English music? … Well, I’ve never heard of any!” Fenby, 16.

[lxiv] K. Marie Stolba, The Development of Western Music, 2nd ed. (Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown Communications, Inc., 1994), 595.

[lxv] Lionel Carley, Frederick Delius: Music, Art, and Literature (Great Britain: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1998), 261.

[lxvi] Heseltine, 130.

[lxvii] Robert P. Morgan, Twentieth-Century Music (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1991), 129.

[lxviii] Regarding compositional technique and attempting to teach it, Eric Fenby recalls Delius saying the following: “You can’t teach a young musician to compose … any more than you can teach a delicate plant how to grow, but you can guide him a little by putting a stick in here and a stick in there. Composition as taught in our academies is a farce. Where are the composers they produce? Those who do manage to survive this systematic and idiotic teaching either write all alike … or they give us the flat beer of their teachers, but watered down … How can music ever be a mere intellectual sound that can be classified like the articles in a grocer’s shop? Music is an outburst of the soul. It is addressed and should appeal instantly to the listener. It is not experimental analysis like chemistry. Never believe the saying that one must hear music many times to appreciate it. It is utter nonsense; the last resort of the incompetent,” Fenby, 196 – 197.

[lxix] Heseltine, 179.

[lxx] Beecham, 221.

[lxxi] Fenby, 208.

[lxxii] Hutchings, 185 – 190; Jefferson, 126 – 135.




Anderson, Robert, Anthony Payne, and Lionel Carley: ‘Delius, Frederick’, The New Grove Dictionary of Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 5 June 2004), <>

Beecham, Sir Thomas. Frederick Delius. Great Britain: Severn House Publishers, 1975.

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Carley, Lionel, and Robert Threlfall. Delius – A Life in Pictures. Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Delius, Frederick. Complete Part-Songs. The Elysian Singers of London, Matthew Greenall, cond. Somm Recordings SOMMCD 210, 1997. CD.

Delius, Frederick. Complete Works. Edited by Sir Thomas Beecham. Vol. 17, Part Songs. London: Thames Publishing, 1988.

Delius, Frederick. Complete Works. Edited by Sir Thomas Beecham. Vol. 17a, Six Early Part-Songs. London: Thames Publishing, 1992.

Fenby, Eric. Delius As I Knew Him. Great Britain: Faber and Faber Limited, 1981.

Heseltine, Philip (Peter Warlock). Frederick Delius. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974.

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Redwood, Christopher, ed. A Delius Companion. Great Britain: John Calder Ltd., 1980.

Smith, Barry, ed. Frederick Delius and Peter Warlock – A Friendship Revealed. Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Smith, John Boulton. Frederick Delius & Edvard Munch – Their Friendship and Their Correspondence. Triad Press, 1983.

Stolba, K. Marie. The Development of Western Music, 2nd ed. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown Communications, Inc., 1994.

Threlfall, Robert. Delius’s Musical Apprenticeship. Great Britain: The Delius Trust, 1994.