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How Delius Fell in Love with Music in Florida

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, March 9th at 5 pm...The young Englishman watched the cigar smoke dance slowly as it dissipated into the hot, thick air. He was sitting on the porch of a cottage in an orange grove called Solano on a sleepy bank of a river named the St. Johns, a long, lazy waterway born in the southern marshes and in no hurry to creep up eastern Florida to lap, finally, into the Atlantic. St. Augustine was close by to the east, but 1884 St. Augustine was not yet a city, nowhere near a city, hardly a town. In this lonely grove by the river, in the wilderness of the Florida interior, St. Augustine could have been in Yorkshire, the young Englishman’s home, for all that.

He lit another cigar. As the smoke melted, barely lifted by the St. Johns breeze, 22-year-old Fritz Delius was happy to be far from St. Augustine, far from Yorkshire, and as far from his father as he could be.
In England, Julius Delius wanted Fritz to work in the family’s business, which started with wool, then expanded to other mercantile, and now added this orange plantation opportunity. Julius and his wife came from Germany to England and named their second son Fritz Theodore Albert, who’d eventually change Fritz to Frederick.

His business experience might charitably be called desultory. Apart from middling success representing the Delius firm in southern England, he had failed it in Germany, in Sweden, and in France, spending more time on occasional music studies or on French Riviera extravagances than on accounts. The Florida grove management scheme might have been Julius’s idea or even Frederick’s, but they both thought that a change of scenery to the New World might be profitable.

It wasn’t, not for the business. But it was the wilderness experience Frederick needed to become a composer.

While he sat, and while he smoked, former slaves and the children of slaves worked the grove and worked the boats. As they worked, they sang. They sang songs he had never heard before, songs old and pure. And then they sculpted fluid improvisations out of the songs, so that he couldn’t tell where the old ended and where the new began. And then, one evening, an epiphany struck him. Cigar ash dropped, unwatched, to the porch.

What happened was this: he was falling in love with music. He had to make this. This is what he would do.

He left America renewed, brimming with compositional vigor. His father, relenting, supported his music study in Germany. He composed there, moved to France and composed there, honed his skills, and not ten years later wrote these two works, Appalachia and Life’s Dance. He revised them numerous times, learning and crafting as he grew. Appalachia he called Variations on an Old Slave Song. A play by his Danish friend Helge Rode and a painting by their mutual friend, the Norwegian Edvard Munch, inspired Life’s Dance.

The sound of Delius is not to everyone’s taste at first. He takes his time winding it along. Just as you recognize it, he twists it again. It is smoke or a long, slow river. It is English music, surely, but English born in a Florida wilderness, taking its time through the humidity, dancing slowly in the occasional breeze. “In Florida,” Delius said, “In Florida sitting and gazing at Nature, I gradually learnt the way in which I should eventually find myself. Nobody else could help me.”

Frederick Delius (1862-1934). Life’s Dance (1898/1901/12)
Delius. Appalachia (1896/1903)

Sir Thomas Beecham in a revealing interview about Delius:


On the first Saturday of the month Jack Moore and I host Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection on WRTI 90.1 FM in Philadelphia and on the all-classical webstream at wrti.org. We also broadcast encore presentations of the entire Discoveries series (now 11 years and counting!) every Wednesday at 7 pm on WRTI HD-2. Look at an archive of all the shows here.