Introducing a revealing new film by John Bridcut
Ahead of the first broadcast of his new film 'Delius: Composer, Lover, Enigma', film-maker John Bridcut reflects on his fascination with a composer still widely misunderstood.
As would be the case for many people of my generation, my starting point for this film was Ken Russell's Song of Summer, which was a drama about Delius's final years. I think it is the best composer film that Russell ever made. It relies very heavily on the book by Eric Fenby, Delius As I Knew Him, where Fenby describes going over to France and getting drawn into this extraordinary nursing process. Delius was quite a depressive man and was blind and paralysed for the final period of his life – it is an immensely powerful story.
The end of Delius's life is very well documented but the early part of his life is relatively unknown. If you compare the documentation that he left to that of other composers I've made films about – Elgar and Britten – both of them were meticulous in keeping letters and recording every single day of their lives. But with Delius there are great chunks of his life where we know virtually nothing. So it's fascinating to try to fill in the gaps.
The first decades of the 20th century were a fantastic period for music. So much music was written that has stood the test of time. It would have been very difficult to be a composer working at that time and not be completely obliterated by Ravel, Rachmaninov, Elgar et al. And Delius doesn't really fit in – Christopher Palmer calls him a 'cosmopolitan' composer, which I think is correct. It's hard to pin him down as far as his nationality is concerned. He hardly composed any music in England at all. He wrote a little in England during the First World War when he was evacuated from France. He actually has a good claim to be considered an American composer; he wrote two American operas, which are both astonishing with a strong jazz influence. And you could even say that he was a Norwegian composer. He was obsessed with Norway, he loved Norway, and yet he lived most of his life in France. And still the place he had most success was Germany, and he had a bit of a Yorkshire accent, according to Neville Cardus. I found Delius’s internationalism really interesting.
And then there's the whole business about what the music is really about. While preparing this film, I was at a Delius seminar and a lady in the audience expressed the view that all of Delius's music is about nature. And the chair of the panel said, 'Well, I'm afraid I have to disagree with you, madam, because I believe that all of Delius's music is about sex!' And, in a way, they are both right. After all, the natural world is largely based around sex and regeneration. Delius was very anti-religious, he had no truck with doctrine, his belief was in the eternal life of nature, and the life-force of nature as expressed through human relationships. That was what he spent a lot of his time experiencing throughout his life; he was very hedonistic.
There's a fascinating scene in the film where Anthony Payne compares Delius to Stockhausen and talks about Stockhausen's invention of ‘moment form’, where the composer can construct moments of musical interest and place them in any order. It doesn't matter what order you put the moments in because you are not interested in structure or musical development, it's all about experiencing the musical interest and the pleasure of the sound in the moment. And he says that this is very similar to Delius's music. Delius is interested in trying to express the pleasure of the musical sound at that moment – carpe diem – the pleasure is in the moment before it vanishes. And that's how he lived his life as well.
In the film we feature an amazing letter that Percy Grainger wrote a few years after Delius's death to an American biographer of Delius, saying that 'he practised immorality with puritanical stubbornness'. Which is a wonderful phrase and absolutely captures him. Because Delius was a very sensual man – he had lots of affairs with many women around Paris. And the amazing thing is, for most people, that kind of hedonistic lifestyle is ruinous and they go to rack and ruin. There are many examples of people who have lived a life of pleasure and, in the end, their life has no meaning. But he actually defies this in that he was a hard worker, wrote an amazing amount of music, was very disciplined and had a puritanical work ethic; all this was coupled with this obsession with finding pleasure.
So that, I think, is the driving force behind his music. It may be a bit of a shock to some, but a number of people in the film comment on it. Even pieces like In a Summer Garden, which begins with a quite pictorial description of a garden, become quite emotional and erotic in the musical language quite quickly. And if you miss the eroticism in Delius's music, then you are missing the point. Maybe that's one of the reasons why his music makes people feel uncomfortable and why they don't respond to it. Some resist Wagner and Richard Strauss for similar reasons.
For purely commercial reasons Delius wrote things like On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, but even in those pieces you can hear the erotic content of Delius’s music. If people want to consider Delius's music as something purely based in nature they can, of course, but I personally find it a much richer experience to listen to the sensual, emotional undertow of the music. Delius was a man constantly searching for ecstasy.
'Delius: Composer, Lover, Enigma' will be broadcast on BBC Four on Friday, May 25, at 7.30pm.
Interview by James McCarthy