on 11 July 2007
This is a truly remarkable story that will appeal, whether or not the reader has any interest in 'serious' music. Fenby brings to life the atmosphere of tension that prevailed in the home of Frederick Delius, a self-absorbed egotist. Although his attitude to the then-blind and paralysed composer bordered on reverence, Fenby never loses his clear-headedness when assessing Delius' faults and idiosyncrasies.
This is a wonderfully-written book that shows Fenby to have been both sensitive and extremely tough. He had to be both to deal with a unique and difficult genius like Delius. The author was fortunate to enter a milieu that brought him into close contact with some of the great names in the music world of the late 1920s and early 30s: Edward Elgar, Peter Warlock, and Percy Grainger. His portraits of these and other musical luminaries are charming and insightful.
Although it was my love of Delius' music that drew me to this book, I found 'Delius as I Knew Him' most rewarding for its insights into its author, who was clearly a good and selfless man.
This is a reprint of a book that was written as long ago as 1936, and is a fascinating account of Eric Fenby's relationship with Delius as his amanuensis during the final six years of the composer's life. The story of how Fenby, a young musician from Yorkshire, wrote to the blind and paralysed Delius offering his services is well-known, and was immortalised in the film "Song of Summer", but there are insights in the book that no film could reproduce. The work is in four sections. The first of these ("An Interlude in the Life of Frederick Delius", pp.1-127) and the fourth ("The Sundown", pp.213-34) are best read consecutively, as they deal respectively with Fenby's arrival at the composer's home in Grez-sur-Loing, the day-to-day routine, and Delius' decline and death (at which Fenby was present). The image is one of a unique, if often fraught and difficult relationship, in which the composer's creative spirit was revived, making possible some important late works (Songs of Farewell, A Song of Summer, Cynara, Violin Sonata No.3) which would otherwise never have been written. Delius comes across as an aloof, solitary figure who lived for his art, and who depended very much on his longsuffering wife Jelka to organise his daily routine and facilitate his creative periods. In her own way she was as indispensable as Fenby in ensuring that those final works were written. Along the way we meet a string of interesting visitors, including Sir Thomas Beecham, Balfour Gardiner, Philip Heseltine (alias Peter Warlock), Percy Grainger, and "old Raspberry" (actually E.J. Moeran, although Fenby seems not to have known this [p.59]). Even Elgar and Bax put in brief appearances.
The second section of the book ("How He Worked", pp.129-57) is a fascinating account of the working methods developed over some considerable time by Delius and Fenby, liberally illustrated with musical examples, and an appendix to show how a couple of compositions made it from rough sketches to full score - very interesting for the musicologist. In the main the composer seems to have named the individual notes(C, A, F#, etc) in a fever of activity, while Fenby scribbled them down.
The third section ("Some Aspects of the Man and the Composer as I Knew Him", pp.159-211) contains some interesting insights into Fenby's own assessment of Delius as a composer. It is perhaps surprising to learn that, although Fenby is usually perceived as a young devotee, eagerly devouring all that Delius ever wrote, his admiration was remarkably selective, and focuses largely on a comparatively restricted period between 1899-1905 (with exceptions, of course). He certainly knew that Delius could write poor, uninspired music and was not on fire all the time. Perhaps the most curious part of this chapter is a discussion on the comparative merits and demerits of Delius' Nietzschian atheism and Fenby's own unshakeable Christian beliefs. The upshot of this is that Delius would have been a better composer had he been a Christian, which seems to me a strange argument. Fenby laments the lack of joy in Delius' works, and suggests that no composer would have been better fitted to provide this had he had the faith of a Palestrina, or a Victoria. All this is to argue, very oddly to be sure, that no music can be "perfect" unless it has a Christian sub-stratum.
Musicologists and music historians alike will no doubt already be familiar with Fenby's work, but it also makes fascinating "general interest" reading, providing an insight into what was surely one of the most remarkable working relationships in the entire history of music.