Delius: On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring

Frederick Delius was born January 29, 1862, in Bradford, Yorkshire, England, and died June 10, 1934, in the village of Grez-sur-Loing, in the French département of Seine-et-Marne, where he lived the last thirty-seven years of his life. He was from a German family, probably of Dutch descent; Delius was accordingly baptized with the names Fritz Theodor Albert. He composed his tiny tone poem On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring in 1912, and its first performance took place on October 23, 1913, with Arthur Nikisch conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. The piece is dedicated to Balfour Gardiner, a British composer fifteen years Delius’s junior, who at the time was studying at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt. The first San Francisco Symphony performances, in October 1930, were led by Basil Cameron; the SFS most recently performed the work in February 1952, under the baton of Sir Thomas Beecham. The score calls for an orchestra of flute, oboe, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, and strings. Performance time: about four minutes.

Frederick Delius studied violin and piano as a youngster, but he showed no prodigious inclination toward a musical career. At the age of twenty-two, he left England for Florida, where he worked on an orange plantation and, rather as a sideline, undertook a systematic study of music theory with an organist in the region. This propelled him to further musical instruction at the Leipzig Conservatory, a magnet for international students in the late nineteenth century. He enrolled there in 1886 and studied with such teachers as the noted composer Carl Reinecke and the violinist-and-violist Hans Sitt. In 1888 he moved to Paris, and in 1897 he settled in the tiny village of Grez-sur-Loing (forty miles southeast of the French capital, just south of Fontainebleau), where he would remain for the rest of his life. Delius was not disposed to seek publicity for himself or his work, showing rather little concern about whether anyone was listening to his music or not. He was much ravaged in his later years by syphilis, which rendered him blind and nearly paralyzed. Sir Thomas Beecham, a strong advocate of the composer’s music, referred to this with sesquipedalian circuitousness: “Delius had suffered a heavy blow in the defection of his favorite goddess Aphrodite Pandemos who had returned his devotions with an affliction which was to break out many years later.”

During his formative years, particularly those he spent at the Leipzig Conservatory, Delius became immersed in the mainstream of Germanic musical tradition (including the advances of Wagner) and showed a special affinity for the works of contemporary Scandinavian composers. In fact, his stage works include incidental music to a Norwegian play (Gunnar Heiberg’s Folkeraadet) and an opera (Fennimore and Gerda) after the Danish novelist Jens Peter Jacobsen’s Niels Lyhne. Delius was unfazed by stasis in his compositions, which tend to unroll elegiacally over extended spans. His operas bear a certain kinship to the obsessive, sometimes dour, introspection of Ibsen and Strindberg, but his shorter works often display an appealing sweetness, resembling the music of his close friend Edvard Grieg.

A taste for Delius’s music is not a universal attribute of music lovers, but those who do like his ultra-relaxed, late-Romantic style can be fanatical in their devotion. Early on, his music found a mixed reception in his native land, and he never returned to Great Britain after he settled in France. Nonetheless, his works would eventually strike a sympathetic chord among the British, who responded with belated enthusiasm to the way he infused the tradition of English pastoralism with densely harmonized sounds redolent of the English organ-loft and alluded in a non-threatening way to the advances of Debussy and other exponents of “the modern French school.” “I never was a town-man,” he told Beecham when the conductor came a-visiting, “and I’m unhappy unless I’m in the country.” “He loves the garden and the river,” added his wife.

The conservative musical commentator Constant Lambert struggled to pinpoint how to classify Delius:

Delius is often classed among the ‘tone poets,’ ‘musical impressionists,’ and the like, and it is true that the greater proportion of his work is inspired outwardly by some poetical idea or actual poem. But, whatever its inception may be, his best work as it stands may be called purely musical in that its effect is not really dependent on any superficial realism or empty formalism. . . . Many writers have laid stress on the great influence of Nature in his work and have almost classed him as a Nature poet in music. Some of his titles (‘In a Summer Garden,’ ‘On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring,’ ‘Summer Night on the River’) certainly tempt one to such a classification. . . . But with Delius, the human passion and its background of elemental nature are inextricably woven.

The most diligent of Delius’s champions was Eric Fenby (1906-97), who moved to France to serve as the composer’s amanuensis from 1928 until Delius died, in 1934. Two years later he published a memoir, Delius As I Knew Him, in which he provided this glimpse into a private moment in the hushed Delius household:

I played on until tea-time, and, when Mrs. Delius suggested that instead of reading aloud to him Delius might care to hear a gramophone record, I thrilled with expectancy, for it is always a fascinating thing to observe the effect of a man’s music on himself. He chose Sir Thomas Beecham’s beautiful record of his On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, and, sitting there opposite him in the quiet of that great room, with no fidgeting neighbours or disturbing faces to distract, one touched the very heart of Music in those exquisite opening bars. Never had the sound of strings nor [Léon] Goossens’ oboe-playing seemed so magical! A curious other-worldliness possessed him. With his head thrown back, and swaying slightly to the rhythm, he seemed to be seeing with those now wide-open yet unseeing eyes, and his spirit ebbed and flowed with the rise and fall of his music. . . . The pause at the turning of the disc did not disturb his rapture, and this going-out of himself through the noble love of music continued until after the lovely sounds of that final and singularly beautiful cadence had died away.

It would be hard not to sway to the principal theme, which rocks gently back and forth, essentially a slow waltz that Delius marks “with easy flowing movement.”  The melody, which repeats its melodic contours without the slightest self-consciousness, is borrowed from a folk song from the Øystre Slidre region of central Norway, “I Ola-dalom, i Ola-kjønn” (“In Ola Valley, at Ola Lake”). Delius would have known it through the piano arrangement his friend Grieg had published in 1897 as the fourteenth of his Nineteen Norwegian Folk Songs, Opus 66. Once the melody is given out, the cuckoo interjects its call repeatedly into the stillness by way of the clarinet.

Delius wrote this along with a companion piece, Summer Night on the River, reportedly on the urging of the pianist-and-composer Percy Grainger. A great deal of Delius’s music, Grainger pointed out, required a large chorus or a massive orchestra, and it wouldn’t hurt if the composer produced something that would be in reach of more modest ensembles. He published the pair together as Two Pieces for Small Orchestra, but On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring proved far the more popular of the two, and it is heard more often as a standalone piece than as part of a dyad. Shortly after the Two Pieces received their British premiere (with Willem Mengelberg conducting in Queen’s Hall, London, on January 20, 1914), the composer Peter Warlock wrote effusively to Delius: “The first piece is the most exquisite and entirely lovely piece of music I have heard for many a long day—it almost makes me cry, for the sheer beauty of it: I play it often on the piano, and it is continually in my head, a kind of beautiful undercurrent to my thoughts. For me, the deep, quiet sense of glowing happiness, and the mysterious feeling of being at the very heart of Nature, that pervades the piece, is too lovely for words.”

A postscript arrived in 1915, when Delius and his German-born wife were taking a good deal of heat for staying on the Continent during World War I rather than returning to England. Sir Thomas Beecham defended Delius’s “essential Englishness,” and backed up his cause by distributing to prominent society matrons copies of the record he had just made of On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. Unfortunately, reported Delius’s biographer Gloria Jahoda, the labels were reversed on some of the records. She relates: “One willing lady won ‘heaps of Delius converts, dear Tommy!’ with what had been marked as the Cuckoo and was actually a Polish dance by the composer Moszkowski.” Delius was no fan of Moszkowski’s compositions, and he was not at all amused when he learned of the mix-up.

James M. Keller

More About the Music

Recordings: Vernon Handley conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Chandos)  |  Thomas Beecham conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (EMI Classics)

Reading: Delius As I Knew Him, by Eric Fenby (Dover)  |  A Delius Companion: A 70th Birthday Tribute to Eric Fenby, edited by Christopher Redwood (John Calder)