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Delius and Norway

Delius and Norway
By Andrew J. Boyle
The Boydell Press
A review by RC Speck

Students of the Romantic period of music know well that nationalism was all the rage for a good part of the 19th century. Often, composers drew great inspiration from their nations or ethnicities or from the majestic geography of their native lands.

Frederick Delius was certainly one such composer, but with a twist. He was English but became fixated on a foreign land in his music: that of Norway. Author Andrew Boyle chronicles Delius’s love affair with this neighboring nation and illustrates clearly how landscapes, particularly mountainous ones, can become reflected in music.

Much of Delius’s love for Norway stemmed from his close friendship with Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. The two shared, among other things, a love for walking and hiking, and it was Grieg who took Delius on his many tours of the mountains of Norway. Pieces such as Paa Vidderne (On the Mountains) and Over the Hills and Far Away were in part results of Delius’s love for Norway. Boyle takes Paa Vidderne down to its musical notation to show how themes such as peaks and plateaus play out in the composer’s imagination.

A regular in the salons of fin de siècle Paris, Delius rubbed shoulders with many famous artists including Paul Gauguin, August Strindberg, and Edvard Munch. He also formed a relationship with Norwegian nationalist author Knut Hamsun. He expressed his left-leaning politics and may or may not have had meaningful relationships with some more radical personalities. But the mountains of Norway always beckoned, and whenever Delius had the money, he visited to get “his old self back again.”

Boyle goes into great detail surrounding the low point of Delius’s career in Norway. In 1897, after a bitterly contested election regarding Norway’s independence from Sweden, a satirical play featured a piece of music from Delius which made fun of the Norwegian national anthem. After this, Delius was persona non grata in the land that he loved.

But even this event could not shake Delius’s self-confidence. After the turn of the century, he found great success in Germany and England. With his wife Jelka, he continued to visit and stay in Norway whenever he could. Even as his health declined after World War I, Delius would not sacrifice his frequent sojourns into Norway. He composed the tone poem Eventyr, the last of his odes to Norway, during this period.

Norway inspired Delius to compose around thirty-three pieces. These were drawn either from his own experiences or from Norwegian poems, the texts of which he set to music. In Frederick Delius, Andrew Boyle found not only a fascinating subject but an opportunity to show how a nation can inspire one to compose great music.

This book review appeared in the winter 2017–18 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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