Sounds from the Grove
Delius's earliest composition is also his most beloved, and it was inspired by the orange groves of Florida.
Delius also fell in love with America, but not with any of our country’s most iconic spots. Instead, he saw beauty in Appalachia and Florida. Appalachia is an expansive area made up of multiple states. So, in his work Appalachia: Variations on an Old Slave Song, Delius did not attempt to capture the essence of such a large and variable territory but of African American music instead. But what about his Florida Suite?
The Florida Suite has turned out to be Delius’s most famous composition. This is strange considering it is also the first piece he composed. It seems a modern sentiment that Delius’s earliest work has the most staying power. Florida Suite lovers are like purist rock fans that all proclaim their favorite bands’ earliest albums to be the best. The suite was written before Delius had spent any time studying at a conservatory (he began at Leipzig in Germany two years later). And the only reason he was in Florida at all was because his family had forced him there.
Delius’s father wasn’t entirely supportive of his son’s musical aspirations. His father was a businessman and he expected his son Frederick to follow the same career. When Delius shirked his business responsibilities to spend more time composing, he was shipped off to America to manage an orange grove in Florida, so the story goes.
But apparently Delius was one to make the best of any situation. And so he used his temporary exile to create something beautiful.
Daybreak, the first movement of the suite, introduces the iconic theme — a sweeping melody sung by the violins, with woodwinds and flutes trilling in the background like exotic birds. It’s not difficult to hear the influence of Grieg. The piece clearly channels Morning from the Peer Gynt suite. If the similar names alone don’t clue you in, the stylistic similarities are overwhelming. Both start slowly and build in dynamics and intensity like a sunrise. Both use woodwinds and the flute, to set a scene with sound.
After the building sunrise, the style of Daybreak shifts to that of a lively dance (7:33 in the version included here). We hear the first preparations for the morning’s labor on an orange grove. It sounds like a wonderful place to live and work, a paradise.
Admittedly, the Florida Suite highlights an elegance not typically associated with Florida today. But if you think back to a time in the state’s history before the strip malls and crowded beaches; before franchise-filled suburbs; and even before we’d introduced invasive species like pythons, constrictors, and Disney World tourists, perhaps Florida was once an elegant place. I imagine it would seem particularly idyllic to a young British composer working on an orange grove, still viewing America as the halcyon New World.
There are traces of something more forlorn in the piece’s second movement, By the River. I’d be imposing my own romantic narrative to suppose that Delius was expressing a longing to have his creative passion accepted, as a career, by his family. But it’s hard to ignore the sound, more minor in quality than the previous movement. The melody’s tone drops in each repetition.
Perhaps there is some truth to this idea, though. Despite his ultimate success in making composition a career, Delius never did become close to his family. In a collection of letters compiled by Lionel Carley, it is reported that Delius once said of his family “To hell with them all!” — later in life, long after the Florida years, at his father’s funeral, no less.
It wasn’t just family that discarded poor Delius. Both critics of his time and today write off his work as immature. In 1927, The Musical Times reprinted part of a 1908 review of the premiere of In a Summer Garden. This review is particularly harsh, but uses language that appears time and again when discussing Delius:
“With regret it must be admitted the word ‘failure’ was largely writ across the score; even a clever programme annotator could not pick out a single theme to set forth, and one cannot remember a single phrase of this aimless meandering. It is possible that fog obtained, and enforced itself on the musician’s score!”“Aimless meandering,” is the phrase that sticks out here. Shapeless and formless are the most consistent criticisms leveled at Delius’s compositions. There is undoubtedly some validity to these criticisms. Delius does seem to fixate on single, beautiful phrases in his works, only loosely tying them together or repeating them in lieu of actually progressing the piece.
I don’t generally agree with the idea that his compositions are shapeless, though — particularly in the Florida Suite. The melody is different in each movement, and strong in each. The phrasing is repetitive, yes, but it’s phrasing worth repeating. But, admittedly, one of my notable faults as a listener is my own fixation on single, beautiful phrases.
Delius was more successful elsewhere. American composers tend to get most of the credit for incorporating the stylistic qualities of African American music into their work, but there’s something novel about a European doing the same thing. And though Delius visited Appalachia in person as a young man, during the same years he was working the orange groves, he didn’t immediately compose a piece for the area as he did with Florida. He waited to revisit Appalachia in his music for over a decade, after his conservatory training. It is, unsurprisingly, generally regarded to be the stronger of the two pieces — amongst critics, anyway. The Florida Suite is largely more popular and well known.
And despite what classical critics may think, there’s something charming about the Florida Suite, that first composition. Luckily Delius isn’t alive to learn which of his works became most successful. I imagine it would be disheartening to hear that your later attempts, the works created once you were supposed to have more experience, receive less attention.
The naiveté of the Florida Suite is what makes it so beautiful, Delius’s willingness to repeat the same phrases without bothering with a complicated progression. And it’s the naiveté that links the man and the state. Youth and abandon will always be associated with Florida thanks to spring breakers, despite the number of retirees that flock to the state each year. We can hear a youthful abandon in the suite, I think. Delius abandons the path before him, embraces what is near, and translates his experiences into music. • 29 March 2013
Mary Sydnor is the Assistant Editor of The Smart Set and the Art Attack page on Philly.com. She has also written for Table Matters and the Philadelphia Daily News.
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