Delius: A River in Sound

I am sitting by a leisurely flowing river. It is midday in late summer and the sun is intermittently reflected in the myriad currents and eddies, multiplied as a thousand dancing points of light. A light breeze stirs the surface, breaking up the even flow of the river and creating an ever-changing pattern of ripples and cross-currents. Small fish dart in and out of the weeds and pebbles at the water’s edge. Ancient willows bend their branches over the stream, creating dappled shadows that contrast with the shining surface of the water where it directly reflects the brightness of a sky at high noon.

This scene is real but if it has an analogue in any other medium it must be the music of Delius. His music above all sought to capture the feeling of being at one with nature, seemingly so close to it that all he needed to do was to translate his sense-impressions into musical notation. Just as the river gives life to the plants and animals which depend on it, so Delius’s music gives his motifs and melodies space to live and breathe, allowing them to dictate the course of his compositions without forcing them into the strait-jacket of academic form. All you needed to compose, he once told his amanuensis Eric Fenby, who took down music from the paralysed composer in the last years of his life, was ‘a sense of flow’. Delius’ music is often unobtrusive, like the quiet flowing of a river through thick vegetation that all but obscures it from view. It doesn’t draw attention to itself, and is consequently less often heard than the music of more dramatic composers such as Elgar and William Walton.

I must confess that I have only intermittently been aware of him as a distinct voice. I used to consider him as just another of those pastoral composers who seemed to dominate early twentieth-century English music, even if I was vaguely aware of his German ancestry and of the fact that he lived much of his life abroad in America and France. I remember sometime in the early nineties seeing Ken Russell’s film of Delius’ last years, Song of Summer, but little of the music played in the film stayed with me. I was aware that Kate Bush had written a song about Delius but wrote it off as just one more example of her quirky sense of Englishness. (In fact this strangely haunting song, almost devoid of lyrics but capturing Delius’ dreamlike appeal, was inspired by the Russell film.)

It was only when, thanks to reading a description of his choral work, Sea Drift, I was tempted to borrow the work from my local library that my initiation into his music began. This is a depiction of the sea, not so much in itself, as in Debussy’s La Mer, as a metaphor for the turbulent emotions experienced by a sea-bird who waits in vain for his vanished mate. In fact no verbal description could have prepared me for the sheer poignancy of this work, a hymn to life’s transience surpassed in its haunting beauty only by Mahler’s Das Lied Von Der Erde, written towards the end of his life when he knew he had only a few more years left to live. Mahler’s work is greater in its musical scope and possesses a sympathy for all living things that the more narcissistic Delius lacks, but Sea Drift is equally compelling as a portrait of the composer’s determination to re-create his fleeting experiences of life in musical form. As John Bridcut’s superb BBC documentary, Delius: Composer, Lover, Enigma makes clear, the artist wrote much of his music under the shadow of syphilis when, having sown his wild oats in the artistic and sensual maelstrom that was turn of the century Paris, he settled down to a secluded life in the village of Grez-sur-Loing and wrote a stream of vivid orchestral and vocal compositions in which he attempted to re-live his recollections of love and nature as the disease began to take hold.

Few composers have so unashamedly mined their personal reminiscences to provide the raw material for their compositions. In Delius’ case, it results in music which is almost cinematic in its attempt to fix the appropriate visual image behind every emotional impulse. One can see how his music appealed to Ken Russell, and it’s also no surprise that the film composer Bernard Herrmann could cite the music of Delius as his favourite. In a piece such as In a Summer Garden one can almost see the flowers nodding in the summer breeze, the bees visiting each flower in search of pollen and the river beyond the garden pursuing its lazy course through channels clogged with weeds until, perhaps joined by another stream, it broadens out into a majestic expanse of water gleaming in the summer sun. The scene could have been depicted by any one of the impressionist painters who were the composer’s contemporaries, yet Delius’ music adds something that paint is powerless to convey. The music is not so much a depiction of a garden in summer as of the memory of one as it presents itself to someone sensitive to the passing moment and to whom it is a symbol of sensual fulfilment coupled with the awareness of approaching autumn and decay; in other words someone like Delius himself

It’s at this point that many people part company with diehard fans of the composer. His music can seem merely the solipsistic expression of a selfish and narcissistic temperament. Yet, as with that other supreme egotist Wagner, he has a way of convincing us to share his worldview, due to the music’s extraordinary ability to re-animate our own experiences and longings. It does this not merely because it features melodies and harmonies with an irresistible appeal for the ear. Something in the very texture of the music, in the way broad themes and telling musical details are effortlessly knit together encourages us to identify with this music even if we might find the personality behind it unsympathetic.

I began this piece with an attempt to recreate the impression of sitting by a river bank and watching the unfolding scene in front of me. Despite my best efforts, it was impossible to take account of every detail while giving a sense of the bigger picture. The power of Delius’ music lies in the way it takes impressions and emotions that we encounter in our lives and works them into a larger whole. Like a river, the music blends individual elements into a seamless flow, a flow which also resembles the structure of our conscious mind as it sifts sense-impressions and memories to form a coherent sense of self. It is no accident that a contemporary of Delius, the psychologist William James coined the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’ to describe the continuous stream of thoughts forming the conscious mind. Long before James used the phrase, the philosopher Heraclitus pointed out that you can never step in the same river twice. As soon as we try to hold on to an experience, it is gone, to be replaced by something else. Gradually we become aware that our very consciousness will end in its present form, as we too are subject to the laws of change and decay. This gives to our lives a sense of impermanence whose poignancy artists have long attempted to give voice to. Among composers drawn to this theme, few have been as successful as Delius in creating music that feels like a ceaseless movement towards an unknown destination, as a river flows towards the sea.