Digby Fairweather – Delius : a kindred spirit, a conference and a CD

Digby Fairweather writes about the origins of his new suite To Frederick with Affection, a musical homage to composer Frederick Delius (1862-1934) commissioned by the Delius Society.

My first memories of Delius’ music came from my cradle-years. After my father had sung me a ‘goodnight song’ he would tuck me in; then retire to our big sitting-room and record-player to continue his on-record study of the Sir Thomas Beecham-Frederick Delius saga. So it was that – under my bedroom door – would float the strains of Brigg Fair, Sea Drift, Appalachia and more of what Beecham would have called Delius’ ‘lollipops’.

The music continued to float upstairs long after I was much too old to be tucked in. As vinyl overtook seventy-eights I continued to hear Delius’ music from my father’s player until a few years before he died in l978. By that time I’d moved into the harsh world of professional jazz music and for a time anything else took a decidedly back seat. But then, about ten years ago – in the Summer garden of an old friend Elizabeth Lincoln – I found and replayed a recording of Fennimore and Gerda and the beginnings of an idea began to form. Five years further on I bought the Naxos CD reissues of the original Beecham-Delius recordings and as I played them discovered that – despite the passage of around forty years – a great deal of the music still sounded familiar. Most remarkably within it I began to hear musical links with the jazz music that was flourishing by the time Delius, sightless and paralysed, died in l934.

It was my longtime partner-in-arts Chris Green (now a prominent member of the Delius Society) who first suggested that my enthusiasms might take some kind of concrete form. To my surprise and delight the Society approved of the idea (particularly as 2012 marked Delius’ Sesquicentennial) and commissioned me to write a short piece which – after a year or so of enhanced listening – turned into a full-scale suite titled To Frederick with Affection, written for my six-piece band, and lasting over half an hour. Recording the suite was quite a challenge and in order to do it justice I used trusted colleagues: Julian Marc Stringle (clarinet and alto) Chris Gower (trombone) Dominic Ashworth (guitars) Len Skeat (double bass) and Neil Bullock (drums). Interspersed with the more complex Delian pieces – ‘this actually sound like music’ Chris Gower reluctantly admitted! – were one or two jazz compositions that I thought Frederick Delius might have liked, including Harry Warren’s marvellous and harmonically challenging Octoroon (a direct reference to the composer’s roistering days in Florida!) and Kern’s Old Man River, recorded in l926 by the vocal group ‘The Revellers’; a favourite record of the composer and played in his house in Grez-sur-Loing when he was in light-hearted mood! In all cases the pieces were adapted to six-piece format and once we had respected their form, melody, harmonies and mood we blew along as usual.

Delius’ oeuvre is simply enormous – and I’m still working through it – but the sources that came back repeatedly as jazz-friendly for To Frederick with Affection included Brigg Fair Summer evening Fennimore (of course!) On hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring Sleigh Ride Daybreak Dance and Appalachia. I was also amazed at how Delius’ impressionistic colour-toned harmonies empathized with certain of the compositions of (highly different) contemporaries including Bix Beiderbecke, Debussy, Edward MacDowell (a Beiderbecke favourite), George Gershwin, Eastwood Lane and more. It was as if the ‘cloudy’ approach to writing that Delius (at least sometimes!) favoured had spread all around the musico-cultural landscape of the time and found expression in a lot of the piano music composed at the period too. So the CD – for that was now commissioned – might usefully, I felt, reflect the observation too.

I was equally surprised to find that other musicians had had similar thoughts and were prepared to help with mine. Alan Rogers – a fine pianist and colleague from the l970s – had already produced a solo CD in 2008 called ‘Connections’ and featuring the work of Beiderbecke, Debussy, Gershwin and other relevant contemporaries. Alan generously contributed two tracks to my collection (to find this beautiful album go here). And another most generous partner was classical pianist Paul Guinery – another prominent member of the Delius Society – whose thoughtful piano transcriptions of works like Delius’ Dance for Harpsichord further pointed up the connections with jazz composers like Bix. You can find Paul’s beautiful collection here

In researching Delius’ life and writings I was delighted to find something in the nature of a musical kindred spirit, and only one written statement of his gave me cause for concern: “There seems to be a very prevalent belief” he wrote in l929 ” – that any Tom Dick or Harry has the right to tamper with a work of art, even to the extent of altering it beyond recognition, and forcing it to serve a purpose its composer never dreamed of!” Oh dear. Well at least he liked Old Man River so there was definitely a jazzman in there somewhere

* Digby Fairweather is one of the participants in a major 150th birthday conference on Delius at the British library on 20th and 21st September

* The CD To Frederick with Affection is due for release on September 23rd. Thereafter it will be available through the usual channels and from Dig’s website.

Categories: miscellaneous

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