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Delius: The Crucial Value of His Paris Years

by John Cobley

Wednesday Feb 27th, 2019




Delius spent eight unrewarded years in Paris from 1888 to 1896. He arrived there at the age of 26, having just graduated in violin and composition from the Leipzig Konservatorium. His sponsors (father and uncle) were expecting him to confirm the talent that the famous composer Edvard Grieg had enthused about. Expectations were high. But although he showed consistent dedication to his craft, Delius’s compositions were not performed in the concert hall and his songs were rarely published.


Accordingly, throughout his Paris years, he continually needed to assure his family that he was worth their financial support. His father patiently waited for signs that his son had talent, but gradually grew more reluctant to provide funding. Even his Uncle Theodor, who was much more sympathetic towards Delius’s ambitions, finally cut off financial support. 


Of course, as a young man, Delius enjoyed the social life of Paris, but he showed remarkable self-discipline towards his craft. Back in 1888, he had ambitions to be an opera composer. He had come to Paris after 18 months of none too successful studies in Leipzig—“a failure” according to Eric Fenby (Delius, 1974, p.24). So strong were his operatic ambitions that almost all of his work in Paris focused on operas and songs. “I want to tread in Wagner’s footsteps,” he wrote in an 1894 letter. (Lionel Carley, Delius: The Paris Years,p.60)  Even in 1896 he was writing, “Almost all my time I spend on my opera.” (Carley, Delius: A Life in Letters 1862-1908, p.106) In his Paris years, Delius completed two operas (Irmelin, 1892, and The Magic Fountain, 1895) and began a third (Koanga). Neither of the completed operas was staged. He had more success with his songs. His Five Songs From the Norwegianwas published in 1890. Two years later, a collection of songs, some of which were based on poems by Shelley, Heine, Tennyson and Verlaine, were published in two volumes. In 1896 another five songs were published.


Nevertheless Delius’s self-belief remained strong. He continued to compose with little hope of actually hearing his music played. Faced with regular rejections for performance and publication, Delius showed remarkable tenacity. It must have been hard to maintain his confidence after mixing with such successful friends like Gauguin, Strindberg and Munch.


In light of his eventual success as an orchestrator of tone poems, it is easy to conclude that Delius was wrong to focus on opera. There is some truth in this, but he received enough encouragement, especially from Edvard Grieg, to believe that his talents were in song and opera. And indeed many of his later masterpieces featured voice. 


Nevertheless, to outward appearances this obviously talented man made little progress in Paris. Eight years of dedicated composing had produced unpublished and unperformed works--works that with a very few exceptions attracted very little interest. As Alan Jefferson put it: “Delius was by now 36, yet only one of his works had achieved public performance.”(Delius, p. 40)


Yet these eight years were crucial to Delius’s development, a development that eventually led to his success much later, after the completion of his fourth opera (A Village Romeo and Juliet) in 1901. In fact, Delius’s talent developed very slowly. It took him many years of composing to find his true voice. Delius was a “late arriver.”


“Late arriver” was coined by Bill Evans. In several interviews the celebrated jazz pianist talked about jazz musicians finding an individual voice: "I think having one's own sound…is the most fundamental kind of identity in music. But it's a very touchy thing how one arrives at that. It has to be something that comes from inside, and it's a long-term process.” (Enstice & Rubin, Jazz Spoken Here, p. 140)


Evans called jazz trumpeter Miles Davis a “late arriver”: “He just constantly kept working and contributing to his own craft. . .  And then at one point it all came together and he emerged with maturity, and he became a total artist…making a kind of beauty that has never been heard before or since." (Keyboard, 1981) Another “late arriver” for Evans was singer Tony Bennett, who “always worked and dug and tried to improve’ and who finally was able to “transport the listener way beyond other singers in his category.”


Evans’ “late arriver” description also applies perfectly to Delius. The composer didn’t arrive at his own “sound” until he was into his forties. And it was certainly “a long-term process,” stretching from as early as 1882, when he was just 20. Delius needed to work hard for more than 20 years to find his inimitable orchestral sound.


But would he have developed faster had he kept away from the distractions of Paris and stayed in the quiet of the countryside that he knew suited him best and that enabled him to compose?


To answer this question I need to go to another jazz musician, someone who coincidentally worked as Bill Evans’ bassist for eleven years, Eddie Gomez: “I tell [music] students they need to know something about Caravaggio or Velázquez or Turner or Picasso or Vermeer. They need to know something about George Bernard Shaw. Know stuff about things other than music, so you can broaden your artistic sensibility.” (“For Eddie Gomez 72ndBirthday,” Jazziz, 2012) 


The artistic environment of Paris provided Delius with “stuff about things other than music” that was crucial to his development “from inside” (See Evans above). Thus his interaction with artists like Gauguin and Munch, with writers like Strindberg, and with other creative people he met in places like the Molard studio and Mme Charlotte’s famous crémerie—all his socialising--was part of what Bill Evans called “a long-term process” that would eventually lead to “a total personality.” Paris helped Delius form his own personality.


And to achieve this, Delius availed himself of all the resources of a big city. He needed not only to mix with musician, writers and artists, but also to attend concerts. As a composer, he needed to hear orchestral music and to keep in touch with contemporary composers. This could only be done in the large European cities. So he put up with an alien urban life for eight years, eight years that were made bearable by regular escapes from the metropolis—his annual summer vacations in Norway or in Brittany as well as his short periods living outside Paris but within easy reach.


Delius’s considerable output over his Paris years does contain hints of his ultimate personal voice. These hints can be heard, for example, in the early Paa Viddene(1890-1) and even more clearly in Over the Hills and Far Away(1893-7). However, listening to these pieces in comparison to On Hearing the First Cuckoo(1912) confirms strongly that the true Delius sound was still years ahead.


So although Paris brought Delius no successes, although it often kept him out of his ideal environment for composing, although it sometimes distracted him from his work, the years 1888 to 1896 were important for his eventual emergence as one of the most individual voices of western classical music. 

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