Frederick Delius: Nature-Poet In Music

Tim Farrand

For an introduction to the works of Frederick Delius (1862-1934), it is perhaps best to start with the topic of Nature.

Delius’s Background

Delius was born in England but lived most of his life in the town of Grez-sur-Loing, just south of Paris. At Grez, Delius spent most of his time in the wild back garden that covered the distance between the house and the river Loing.

In between growing up in England and moving to France, Delius lived two years each in America (mainly Florida and Virginia) and Germany (attending the Leipzig Conservatory). When he wasn't in his garden in Grez, his favorite location would be hiking the mountains of Norway where he would spend many of his summers.

Everywhere Delius went, it was the natural landscapes that interested him most.

The Everglades in Florida, the mountains of Norway, and his own wild garden by the river were just a few of the many places that can be found in Delius's works.

Nature as a Guiding Force

In a series of letters to the young Philip Heseltine, Delius stated that Nature alone was his guiding source of wisdom. Contemplation and solitude in nature, especially in the mountains, were the source of Delius's own personal philosophy and spirituality. 1

The musicologist Hubert Foss notes that "with some aptness" Delius has been called "a nature-poet," but his recounting on nature is not that of nature in and of itself. Rather, Delius was more concerned with the impact that Nature had upon himself as a human being. 2

This is felt most strongly in the tone poems from the latter half of Delius's middle period such as On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring and In a Summer Garden.

Delius may introduce the hint of a bird song, such as the Cuckoo in On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, or the smallest "utterances of living things," but his Nature-poems, at their core, express the spiritual feeling of being in Nature. 3

Just the titles alone of these works express the feeling of being within—instead of simply looking upon—the landscape. On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring represents that special moment when one hears the sound of the birds after the long silence of winter. The cuckoo bird itself is secondary to the excitement the sounds of nature have at the coming of spring which can often bring with it a sense of nostalgia for the time that has past.

Listen first to the shimmering, almost glossy opening that brings to mind the chill of a bright morning in early spring with patches of snow lingering upon the grass. The two-note cuckoo call can be heard in the clarinets:

A sense of nostalgia or reflection can be heard later in the piece, highlighting the melancholic quality of the cuckoo's solitary call:

Contrast this with an excerpt from Delius's beautiful earlier representation of spring in his Idylle Printemps. This work was written during his Apprentice Period and aspects of his later style can be heard alongside more traditional musical elements such as hints of German Romanticism or the distinct folk-like simplicity that Delius would have encountered in the music of the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg:

In a Summer Garden

Delius's In a Summer Garden comes at the height of his middle period which can be defined as his Sensual Period.

Delius's sensuality combines sound, smell, touch, taste, and sight, which can all be found within works such as In a Summer Garden.

Again, the title of the work suggests something about its content. It is not "the" summer garden but rather the impact of being in a summer garden that Delius conveys. The work is experiential rather than representational.

Two Summer Gardens

There are two paintings by Delius's wife, the artist Jelka Rosen, that illustrate this piece perfectly.

The first, In a Summer Garden (1905), was painted three years before Delius composed his work by the same title.

The painting portrays a lush garden with a path lined with flowers and shaded by the branches of a tree.

Jelka Rosen, In a Summer Garden (1905)

The viewer is thrown directly into the garden. The perspective is one of presence inside the garden, encompassed within the garden, and only contemplating the objects of the garden.

In essence, you cannot do anything but take in the beauty of nature.

Art and nature are what is fine - the rest seems so small now. - Jelka Rosen to Frederick Delius

Jelka’s In a Summer Garden is very similar to Impressionist paintings of gardens during this same period. They often show wild, natural gardens with a single path leading forward. Take, for instance, paintings of Monet's garden:

John Leslie Breck, Garden at Giverny (In Monet’s Garden), (between 1887–1891)
Claude Monet, The Artist's Garden at Giverny, (1900)

Consider the painting's relationship to the opening of Delius tone poem In a Summer Garden. A painting gives everything at once to the eye while music has to introduce each element one at a time. Consider the similarities and differences between Jelkas painting and the first section Delius's tone poem by the same title:

Delius in his Garden

The second painting by Jelka that relates to In a Summer Garden is a portrait of Delius in their garden at Grez that represents an incredibly accurate visual portrayal of Delius's philosophy regarding the relationship between the individual and Nature.

In the work, Delius is quite literally in the garden. In fact, one could say he is a part of the garden itself, at once distinct from it and yet very much a part of it.

Jelkas Rosen, Delius in his Garden at Grez (Early 1900s)

His white shirt appears like a natural extension of the white flowers surrounding him. There are very few discriminating features and his face is shadowed by the overgrown plants. Delius appears completely overtaken by nature, having become a part of it. This is very much the feeling one gets from Delius's nature-music.

The feeling of oneness with nature is perhaps perfectly expressed in the middle section of In a Summer Garden. Ordinary time seems to stop and the listener is absorbed into the harmonies of the piece:

Transience of the Individual

Delius held fast to the concept of Nature being the eternal element while the individual is merely a transient spectator. Like a flower, each individual comes up from the earth and returns to it without any real impact upon the eternal force of Nature.

Delius, always coming back to the poetry of Walt Whitman, would be familiar with stanzas such as the following meditation upon the Calamus plant in "Scented Herbage of My Breast":

Scented herbage of my breast,
Leaves from you I glean, I write, to be perused best afterwards,
Tomb-leaves, body-leaves growing up above me above death,
Perennial roots, tall leaves, O the winter shall not freeze you delicate leaves,
Every year shall you bloom again, out from where you retired you shall emerge again

. . . 

That you will one day perhaps take control of all,
That you will perhaps dissipate this entire show of appearance,
That may-be you are what it is all for, but it does not last so very long,
But you will last very long.

Or the incredible passage from Song of Myself, 6, Whitman's answer to a child asking, "What is the grass?":

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of their mothers' laps,
And here you are the mothers' laps.

. . .

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier. 

This idea of the Individual being simply a transient element within the eternal cycle of Nature is  expressed in Delius's late Austere Period. The luxurious and sensual style of In a Summer Garden is replaced by an awareness of the unmovable force of Nature, completely undisturbed or even impacted by the Individual within it.

Feel the icy nature of the Winter movement from Delius's North Country Sketches, a prime example of a work from his Austere period. The chill of the air is palpable with the harp and woodwinds representing the unyielding force of Nature:

Nature can be found in almost every work by Delius in one form or another. Regardless of the period, "the sound of [Delius's] music enters not only the ears but the soul of the ordinary man." 4


1  Delius’s philosophy on nature was laid out in a number of letters to Philip Heseltine. These can be found in the collection Frederick Delius and Peter Warlock: A Friendship Revealed. Heseltine used the name Peter Warlock as a pseudonym throughout his life. In particular, letters 150 and 366 discuss Delius’s philosophy in detail.

2 Hubert Foss, “The Instrumental Music of Frederick Delius,” Tempo (Delius Number), no. 26 (Winter 1952-53): 32.

3 Ibid, 32.

4 Ibid, 33.

May 11, 2021

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