Two major European composers became smitten with American “Negro folk” melodies. Both spent time in America and both absorbed these folk tunes into their own compositions. One was Antonin Dvorak and the other was Englishman Frederick Delius.
Delius’ father was a hard-working German immigrant in Yorkshire, England. He expected his sons to follow in his footsteps into the wool trade. Frederick, however, had different ideas. As a last-ditch effort to get his son into business, Delius’ father bought an orange grove in Florida. He hoped that this would convince his son to give up his dream to become a composer. Instead, Frederick spent his Florida days getting to know the locals and soaking up the sounds from the ex-slaves who sang and played on the Florida plantations.
American Rhapsody is one of two versions of a set of variations on an old slave song. The rhapsody is the shorter of the two and was combined with other, more familiar American themes. Delius was unsatisfied with this version and returned to the song later in the more successful Appalachia.
The Florida Suite was written in 1887 when Delius was 24. It was his first major orchestral composition, written while the composer was attending the Leipzig Conservatory of Music. To get it performed, Delius provided the musicians with a keg of beer. The movement “By the River” is the closest to a big Romantic melody the composer ever came.
Delius first heard the ex-slave song with which he’d base Appalachia on while he was living in Danville, Virginia, teaching violin. The work, which was scored for chorus, orchestra and baritone soloist, was completed in 1903.
We’ll hear these works by Delius on An English Pastorale, Sunday at 9 am.