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Delius, Frederick Theodor Albertlocked

  • Diana McVeagh

Frederick Theodor Albert Delius (1862–1934)

by Ernest Procter, 1929

Delius, Frederick Theodor Albert (1862–1934), composer, was born on 29 January 1862 at Claremont, Horton Lane, Bradford, Yorkshire, the grandson of Ernst Friedrich Delius (1790–1831) and the fourth of the fourteen children of Julius Delius (1822–1901) and his wife, Elise Pauline Krönig (1838–1929). Both his parents were born in Bielefeld, Germany. His father moved to Bradford to work in the wool trade; he was naturalized in 1850, and married in 1856. Delius's younger sister Clare in her Memories (1935) recalled their father as a disciplinarian, with 'a ledger mind' (Delius, Memories, 96) whose 'guiding influence … was fear' (ibid., 22). He was, however, a just man, and not averse to the arts: Joseph Joachim and Alfredo Carlo Piatti made music at the Delius home. Little Fritz (the name with which he was baptized and which he used until he was about forty) played the piano and the violin, improvising with ease. Hearing Chopin's posthumous E minor waltz opened an 'entirely new world' (ibid., 48) for him.

Early life

Delius was a strong, athletic boy who delighted in roaming the Yorkshire moors. He attended the Bradford grammar school (1874–8), then the International College at Isleworth (1878–80). The family took it for granted that he should enter his father's trade. He was sent first as the firm's representative to Stroud in Gloucestershire, where his handsome appearance and charming manners won him friends and business success. For Delius, however, it meant that he could slip up to London for concerts. Next he was sent to Chemnitz, but neglected his duties in favour of trips to Dresden, Leipzig, and Berlin (where he heard Wagner's Die Meistersinger). Then it was Scandinavia, where, as his sister put it, he associated with 'such figures in the textile world as Ibsen and [another Norwegian dramatist] Gunnar Heiberg' (Delius, 63). Ibsen's revolt against the conventions that hinder self-expression, together with the majestic Norwegian mountains, fortified Delius's self-reliance. Next his father tried him in France. Three years passed (1880–83) before Delius senior admitted that his son was a black sheep in the wool trade and set him up as a citrus fruit farmer in Florida (1884).

The old Spanish plantation called Solana Grove was run down. In a wooden chalet, alone, amid lush vegetation on the banks of the broad St Johns River, Delius dreamed and found himself. He laid musical foundations unexpectedly. One summer night, while he was sitting on his veranda, there came to him the distant sound of the plantation workers singing. He experienced a 'state of illumination'; and the memory haunts some of his greatest works. Christopher Palmer (Delius: Portrait of a Cosmopolitan, 1976) suggests that Delius's idiom was influenced by the strange untutored harmonies of the black labourers and their longing for the ‘promis' land’. Also, by chance Delius met Thomas Ward, a Brooklyn organist convalescing in Jacksonville; Ward taught him for six months, and Delius later claimed that Ward's were the only lessons from which he derived benefit.

Delius earned his keep by teaching music in Danville, Virginia (1885–6), and briefly in New York, and then, with his father's support, he studied at the Leipzig Conservatory (1886–8), working under Hans Sitt, Carl Reinecke, and Salomon Jadassohn (though according to Patrick Hadley no trace of this formal instruction can be found 'except in certain of his weaker passages'; DNB).

At Leipzig Delius met Christian Sinding, a fellow student, and Edvard Grieg. A walking tour in Norway (1887), the first of many, confirmed the 'profound, mystical and indelible' (Beecham, 2) influence of that country. Grieg intervened on his behalf with his father, who grudgingly granted Delius a minimal allowance but never came to accept his son's distinction.

Delius's father's brother Theodor, living in Paris, became his friend, mentor, and benefactor. In 1888 Delius settled near him, and by 1894 he belonged to a circle of artists and writers, among them Paul Gauguin, August Strindberg, and Edvard Munch (described by Lionel Carley in Delius: the Paris Years, 1975). He was found to be attractive, warm-hearted, spontaneous, and amorous. He was also industrious. As well as short pieces, he had already composed (1886–7) the Florida Suite, privately performed in Leipzig in 1888. His symphonic poem Paa Vidderne was performed in Christiania (Oslo) in 1891, and Gunnar Heiberg commissioned incidental music for his play Folkeraadet, a political satire, produced there with some controversy in 1897. Hans Haym in Elberfeld conducted Over the Hills and Far Away in 1897. The operas Irmelin (1890–92, first performed in Oxford, 1953) and The Magic Fountain (1894–5, first performance by the BBC, 1977) were composed; and Koanga was begun in 1896.

Innovation and audacity

Delius met the artist Helena Sophie Emilie Rosen (1868–1935), known as Jelka, the granddaughter of the composer and pianist Ignaz Moscheles, in 1896. She was no Sunday painter, but worked in her studio up to ten hours a day and exhibited in the Salon des Indépendants. Later she impressed Beecham by her 'gravity of thought and a quiet intensity of emotion' (Beecham, 79). She and Delius were brought together by their shared passion for Nietzsche. She had been given permission to paint in the romantic garden running down to the River Loing of a house in Grez-sur-Loing, a village 40 miles outside Paris on the edge of Fontainebleau. Delius visited her there, and in 1897 she bought the house. He returned to Florida on business, and she wondered if she had lost him. On his return he simply took up residence at Grez, which became his home until he died. In 1903 Delius and Jelka were married.

From then on Delius's life, apart from visits to Paris, Germany, Norway, and London, was spent in those calm and idyllic surroundings. There were no children. Marriage did not curtail his affairs with other women: Jelka was often distressed, but remained devoted. Supported by his father, then by his wife, Delius never had need to earn. His uncle's death in 1898 brought him a legacy: he used part to buy Gauguin's painting Nevermore (now in the Courtauld Inst.). The rest allowed him to mount a concert of his music in London on 30 May 1899, conducted by Alfred Hertz. The second half comprised excerpts from Koanga. All the music was new to the country of his birth. Some critics were baffled, but many commented on the innovation, the audacity, and above all the vitality of the music—estimates which might surprise later generations who came to regard Delius as a languorous sensualist.

Delius then promoted his music in Germany, where interest was rising. Jelka's German painter friend Ida Gerhardi (her portraits include several of Delius and Jelka) became his fervent ambassador. Haym produced Paris in Elberfeld in 1901, and in 1904 there were first performances there of Koanga (under Fritz Cassirer) and Appalachia (variations on an old plantation song), and the piano concerto, and in Düsseldorf of Lebenstanz. In A Village Romeo and Juliet (1899–1901, first performed in Berlin, 1907) influences of Grieg, Strauss, and Wagner were banished or fully absorbed. Delius found his authentic voice: passionate, regretful, individual, introspective. The tale is of idealistic adolescent love, shadowed by the sinister, seductive Dark Fiddler and ending in an ecstatic double Liebestod. The interlude, Walk to the Paradise Garden (composed later, and popular in concerts), sums up the opera's beauty and pathos. In Sea Drift (1903–4, first performed in Essen, 1906) an adult relives in memory a boy's first anguished experience of bereavement, through the seabird's loss of his mate. Delius described how 'the shape of it was taken out of my hands … as I worked' (Fenby, 36), and was 'bred' from Whitman's poetical and his musical ideas. Of course there are thematic allusions and balances, tonal and rhythmic relationships, but the sensations seem to arise spontaneously from the melting chromaticisms and colours.

In 1907 Thomas Beecham, then aged twenty-eight, heard Appalachia under Cassirer in London and instantly became a sympathetic advocate. (Delius, still a prodigious walker, exhausted poor Beecham on a Norwegian holiday in 1908.) Granville Bantock, Norman O'Neill, Percy Grainger, and Ernest Newman also admired Delius's music, which began to make headway in England. He briefly became involved in the Musical League, one of his few excursions into musical politics. Bantock conducted the première of Brigg Fair at Liverpool in 1908. That year Delius himself conducted Appalachia at Hanley in Staffordshire; he was an infrequent and inept conductor, though he did conduct the première of the first Dance Rhapsody at the 1909 Three Choirs festival—strange context for a composer who in 1912 defiantly declared 'I believe … in no doctrine whatever … in complete annihilation as far as our personal consciousness goes' (Carley, Letters, 2.86).

Energy and contemplation

In the Mass of Life (1904–5) Delius testified to his atheism. With Cassirer's assistance, he selected the words from Nietzsche's prose-poem Also sprach Zarathustra (part of the closing section, 'Mitternachtslied', had been performed at his 1899 London concert). The larger part of the mass was produced in 1908 in Munich, and Beecham conducted the complete work in London in 1909. It is the grandest and most ambitious of Delius's concert works, needing four soloists, a double choir, and a large orchestra. In music that touches extreme poles of physical energy and rapt contemplation, Delius celebrates the human 'Will' and the 'Individual', and the 'Eternal Recurrence of Nature'. If there is a weakness, it is (as in all Delius's output) occasional rhythmic monotony.

A group of shorter orchestral works—concert favourites—shows characteristic features. In Brigg Fair (1907), variations on a Lincolnshire folk-song collected by Grainger, the simple modal melody is supported by sliding and juxtaposed chromatic chords; often in Delius a chord has an instant rather than long-term function. In a Summer Garden (1908, revised 1911) and Summer Night on the River (1911) are refined examples of his orchestral pointillism, and of the way in which he seems to improvise a structure. In fact, the music—condensed and elliptical—is made from evolving motifs and groups of chords. Delius generally avoids symmetry and stable tonal centres; he creates a continuous harmonic flow of tension and delayed resolution, mirroring a stream of high emotional experience. In On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1912) the spacing and placing of even the diatonic chords, let alone their chromatic alterations, make for a mood almost hypnotic in its poignancy. These exquisite idylls, for all their composer's German descent and French domicile, spell ‘England’ for most listeners. Their influence is felt in many an evocative piece of comparable length by composers of the English pastoral school, though not all Delius's followers achieve his concentration.

Songs of Sunset (1906–7) carries the sweetness almost to swooning point, apt for Ernest Dowson's world-weary verse. In writing for voices Delius concentrates little on the energy and imagery of words, more on what mood the words evoke. His unaccompanied partsong On Craig Ddu (first performed in 1907) shows this. The choruses of Song of the High Hills (1911–12, first performed in London, 1920) are wordless: human voices paradoxically increase the sense of solitude. To this cooler period belong North Country Sketches (1913–14), consisting of evocations of his still-loved Yorkshire moors, and Eventyr (1917). If not austere, they are certainly bleaker. In 1909–10 Delius composed Fennimore and Gerda, his sixth and last opera (first performed in Frankfurt am Main, 1919), to a libretto drawn from Jens Peter Jacobsen's novel Niels Lyhne: it deals with the division between romantic dreaming and reality, though Delius oddly gave the opera a happy ending. Awkward in shape and in length, laconic compared with A Village Romeo, it has been called a contemporary conversation piece. Delius's operas, often deemed undramatic, respond to sensitive treatment which sustains their atmosphere.

In 1911 the young Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock) wrote to Delius, beginning an exchange of letters which, together with his book (1923), give an insight into Delius's views on morality and on his obligations to his gifts. He scorned the bourgeoisie, the common herd, and despised conventional ties which inhibit the artist. He distrusted academic learning which killed instinct, and stressed the value of perseverance, application, and concentration of energy.

Between 1913 and 1916 Delius composed his Requiem, dedicated 'to the memory of all young Artists fallen in the war'. Again he took the text from Nietzsche—how wryly he must have smiled at using the titles 'mass' and 'requiem'! When Albert Coates produced it in London in 1922 it offended recently bereaved Christians, denying as it does an afterlife and offering instead the pantheistic renewal of Nature. Shorter than the mass and continuous, it is—until the final ecstatic affirmative return of spring—Delius's sternest work. Together with the sinister Arabesque (1911, 1915; first performed in Newport, Wales, 1920) to a text by Jacobsen'Knowest thou Pan?'—the Mass and the Requiem present Delius's ‘creed’.

In 1914 Delius was at the height of his fame. As the Germans advanced, the Deliuses retreated to England, where he was by now much fêted. Osbert Sitwell thought he might more easily be taken for a great lawyer than a great composer. Beecham in his biography (1959) wrote of the 'mingled cast of asceticism and shrewdness' (Beecham, 146) that one might find in a cardinal. Eugene Goossens remarked on Delius's querulous and penetrating voice (he was always a polemical conversationalist). Grainger discerned in his speech half-Yorkshire, half-German peculiarities. Delius wrote letters in English, German, French, and Norwegian; but as time passed Jelka took on more of his correspondence.

Hearing May and Beatrice Harrison play Brahms's double concerto in 1914 prompted Delius, now back in Grez after a visit to Norway, to compose a similar work for them (1915). It was the first of his mature instrumental works in the traditional classical forms that were not quite second nature to him (Deryck Cooke's 1962 articles, reprinted in A Delius Companion, 1976, offered analyses based on organic development). As well as chamber music, there are concertos for violin (1916) and cello (1921). In 1920 came a commission from the impresario Basil Dean to compose incidental music for Flecker's oriental drama Hassan. When the lavish production came out in London in 1923 it ran for 281 performances. The serenade became a hit, and the closing chorus, sung as the caravan passes out of sight, is incantatory.

Final years

During 1917 Delius began to show symptoms of the syphilis that he had contracted in 1895; but in 1921 the Deliuses built themselves a chalet in Norway. Despite treatment at sanatoria across Europe, by 1922 he was walking with two sticks; and by 1928 he was paralysed and blind. A young Yorkshireman called Eric Fenby heard of his condition, and that he was trying to dictate to Jelka, as he still wished to compose. For five years Fenby acted as his unpaid amanuensis, variously revising, completing, and composing Cynara (a setting of Ernest Dowson), A Late Lark (a setting of W. E. Henley), A Song of Summer, a third violin sonata, the Irmelin prelude, and Idyll (1932; a reworking from the verismo one-act opera Margot la rouge, 1901–2; first performed in St Louis, USA, 1983). Their greatest combined achievement, Songs of Farewell, settings of Walt Whitman's poems for eight-part chorus and orchestra, was dedicated to Jelka. It was first performed in 1932. By now Delius's self-reliance had hardened into egotism. Racked with pain and frustration, he became an intolerant, tyrannical figure. He loved to taunt and provoke Fenby, a sensitive and devout young man. Despite this, Fenby's devotion to Delius's music, his skill—telepathy, almost—and his compassion for the two lonely old people are frankly and movingly described in his Delius as I Knew Him (1936; the 1981 revision details the DeliusFenby legacy). In 1968 Fenby acted as consultant to Ken Russell's 'disturbingly life-like' (Fenby, 178) BBC television film, A Song of Summer, in which Max Adrian played Delius, Christopher Gable Fenby himself. There are no recordings of Delius's voice or person.

In 1929 Delius was appointed Companion of Honour, and in October that year Beecham mounted a magnificent six-day Delius Festival in London. Delius, in his bath chair, was present, and people who saw with sentimental pity that emaciated immobile figure gained a false impression, for his stoicism, mental acuity, and sardonic wit remained unimpaired.

Back at Grez the darkness was lightened by visits from Delius's many devoted friends, among them the composer Henry Balfour Gardiner, who had bought the Deliuses' house in 1923, allowing them to live there free (the war reduced their royalties, and Delius's malady brought extra expenses). The wireless and the gramophone now became valuable links to the musical world, though he listened to little music other than his own. In 1933 Elgar, in France to conduct his violin concerto with Menuhin, spent an afternoon at Grez. Delius, who not surprisingly rated The Dream of Gerontius a 'nauseating work' though he admired Falstaff, welcomed him warmly, and the two great composers chatted animatedly. 'A poet and a visionary' Elgar called Delius in his account of their meeting (Redwood, 94).

That summer Fenby, near breakdown, had to leave the Deliuses. 'What he suffered and what she endured' (Fenby, 103), he later recorded. In May 1934 Jelka sent for him to take charge of the household, as she had to be operated on for bowel cancer. Delius began to sink, and Jelka was brought from her hospital bed to sit at his side until he died on 10 June 1934.

Delius wished to be buried in his garden; failing that, in some country churchyard in the south of England, where people could 'place wild flowers' (Fenby, 227) on his grave—strange request for an exile and an unbeliever. As Jelka was too ill to travel, he was buried at Grez, then exhumed and reinterred at St Peter's, Limpsfield, Surrey, on 26 May 1935. Jelka died a few days later and was buried beside him.

At Beecham's suggestion Jelka had set up a trust from royalties which, together with the society founded in 1962, has promoted Delius's work. Beecham edited, propagated, and interpreted Delius's scores with unique understanding; above all, he recorded most of the concert works in performances which had been enthusiastically endorsed by the composer himself. His conducting at the Royal College of Music in 1934 of A Village Romeo and Juliet fully revealed the opera's seductive power. The Bradford Festival of 1962 and the fourth Delius Festival of 1982 encouraged scholarly reassessment of a composer whose professionalism, if highly individual, has tended to be underestimated. Delius's music is not everyday fare, but it enshrines his sense of bliss and aching loss at its passing. 'I have seen the best of the earth and have done everything that is worth doing; I am content' (Fenby, 73). The sentiment is worthy of the man who in his Requiem set the words 'I honour the man who can love life'.


  • R. Lowe, Frederick Delius: a catalogue of the music archive of the Delius Trust, London (1974)
  • R. Threlfall, A catalogue of the compositions of Frederick Delius (1977)
  • R. Threlfall, Frederick Delius: a supplementary catalogue (1986)
  • C. Delius, Frederick Delius: memories of my brother (1935)
  • E. Fenby, Delius as I knew him (1936)
  • E. Fenby, Delius as I knew him, rev. edn (1981)
  • T. Beecham, Frederick Delius (1959)
  • L. Carley, Delius: the Paris years (1975)
  • C. Redwood, ed., A Delius companion (1976)
  • L. Carley, ed., Frederick Delius: music, art and literature (1998)
  • C. Palmer, Delius: portrait of a cosmopolitan (1976)


  • 16 Ogle Street, London, archive
  • BL, corresp. with Philip Heseltine, Add. MSS 52547–52549
  • BL, letters to Sydney Schiff and Violet Schiff, Add. MS 52917


  • BL NSA, ‘Delius as I knew him’, 10 June 1974, T695R C1
  • BL NSA, Talking about music, 18, NP 6888WR TR1 C2
  • BL NSA, ‘Basil Dean on Delius’, BBC Radio 3, 20 Sept 1977; Talking about music, 284, BBC, 1982; documentary recordings


  • E. Munch, drawing, 1890, Munch Museum, Oslo
  • I. Gerhardi, oils, 1903, Frau Malve Steinweg collection
  • J. Delius, oils, 1912, University of Melbourne, Percy Grainger Museum
  • I. Gerhardi, oils, 1912, Gerhardi/Steinweg collection
  • E. Munch, lithograph, 1920, Munch Museum, Oslo
  • E. Riccardi, bronze bust, 1920, Royal College of Music, London
  • E. Munch, lithograph, 1922, NPG, Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio
  • A. John, pencil drawing, 1929, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery
  • E. Procter, oils, 1929, Royal Albert Hall, London
  • E. Procter, pencil sketches, 1929, NPG
  • E. Procter, study, 1929 (for his portrait), NPG [see illus.]
  • J. Gunn, oils, 1932, Bradford City Art Gallery
  • E. Kapp, crayon drawing, 1932, BM
  • E. Kapp, drawing, 1932, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham
  • J. Kramer, oils, 1932, Leeds City Art Gallery
  • photographs, repro. in L. Carley and R. Threlfall, eds., Delius: a life in pictures (1977)
  • photographs, Frederick Delius Trust, London
  • photographs, University of Melbourne, Percy Grainger Museum
  • portraits, repro. in Carley, Letters, 2, pl. 12 and 13

Wealth at Death

£2053 11s. 9d.—in England: administration with will, 27 March 1935, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]