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This book, invaluable to anyone who cares about Delius’s music, first appeared in 1936, two years after his death. I first read it in a 1966 revised edition published by Icon. Delius aficionados who own the original book will need to know to what extent this new edition differs. In most respects it is the same book, with only minor modifications. These include a ‘Publisher’s Note – Updated 8 April 2019’ which describes this book, a little puzzlingly, as ‘the first authorised version since the Faber issue of 1981 and those derived from it’. There is a new eight-page introduction by Tommie Haglund, replacing the Introduction by Sir Malcolm Sargent from the Icon paperback. Haglund is a Swedish composer born in 1959. As hestudied composition with Fenby and became a passionate admirer of Delius’s music, would not a short biographical introduction have been useful?

The most important addition is the splendid selection of illustrations, including 15 photographs, a sketch of Delius in oils and a pencil drawing of Fenby, both by James Gunn. The new Appendix I equals the original Appendix II – Delius’s Methods of Composition, with scores: a page of A Song of Summer and the complete second song Songs of Farewell. A new Appendix II, comprising 10 pages of helpful notes on the text, is followed by an author’s Afterword to 1981 Edition, and a summary of ‘The Delius- Fenby Legacy’ – a list of works for which Fenby acted as amanuensis. The original 30 music examples, found within Part Two: How He Worked, are reproduced here, while the excellent photographs are a bonus.

For those unfamiliar with Fenby’s achievement, I should say that this is a story of remarkable selflessness and stoicism in dealing with an increasingly demanding and cantankerous Delius. Fenby does not disguise the harsh, autocratic and unattractive aspects of the ailing composer’s personality, and one wonders at the forbearance ofhiswife Jelka. Without Fenby’s patience some of Delius’s greatest works – including A Song of Summer, Songs of Farewell and Idyll – would never have been created. Fortunately the celebrated musicologist and critic Ernest Newman advised Fenby to record his immediate impressions at once. Otherwise, as Fenby writes, ‘truth might have yielded more kindly to charity’. As it is, we have an admirably honest account laced with a wisdom perhaps surprising in a relatively young man. Back in Yorkshire, Fenby had been playing a boring chess game when someone switched on a radio broadcast of A Mass of Life. This proved to be the catalyst for Fenby’s obsession with Delius’s music and led (‘after much soul-searching on clifftop walks’) to his decision to offer his services. ‘It was in ... a mood of intense gratitude for all the loveliness Frederick Delius had brought into my life, that I first wrote to him, in the hope that it might give him pleasure to know that his music had meant so much in the life of a very young man.’ Bradford-born Delius and his wife Jelka had lived in Grez-sur-Loing in north-central France for 30 years when Fenby arrived in 1928. Delius was blind and paralysed. Fenby tells his story vividly and with typical Yorkshire candour. In one memorable scene (described on pp 74-5, with a publicity still 30 pages later) Delius, among his beloved Norwegian mountains, is carried in an improvised chair on poles, a seven-hour ascent with Percy Grainger at one end and Mrs Delius with two servants at the other. ‘Enormous clouds now piled themselves up … but at the great moment [sunset] … the clouds dispersed’. Minutes later a dense mist settled over the scene.

In passing, I must mention the 1968 Omnibus film A Song of Summer, a Ken Russell masterpiece from long before he sadly became self-indulgent. Based on Fenby’s book, this is one of the finest documentaries ever shown – from long before the BBC began their corrosive dumbing-down and consigned the arts to the bottom drawer.

This handsome hardback is limited to 250 copies. Whether one loves or loathes Delius’s music, Fenby’s book remains a classic of music literature. I cannot readily think of any comparable first-hand account of a composer at his labour.

Philip Borg-Wheeler Read the full review on Agora Classica


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