'These attractive songs are the music of a passionate young romantic … There are faint echoes of Grieg and Wagner, even, in a group of delicately atmospheric Verlaine settings, and also of Fauré and Chausson. Yet so distinctive was Delius’s sinuous harmonic style that even the simplest song could be by no one else … Yvonne Kenny is, as ever, a scrupulous, sensitive artist, always alive to mood and character. She vividly catches the bardic desolation of Twilight Fancies, the sensuality of In the Garden of the Seraglio and the wayward charm of The Nightingale Has a Lyre of Gold. Her poised, soft singing is heard to beautiful effect in the Verlaine songs, and in an exquisite setting of Ben Jonson’s So white, so soft, so sweet is she' (The Daily Telegraph)
'This beautifully recorded disc is a welcome addition to a relatively neglected area of the Delius discography. Delius composed some 62 songs, of which Yvonne Kenny and her sensitive partner Piers Lane have chosen 25; they seem completely attuned to their world, all atmospheric yet achieved with the utmost economy of means' (BBC Music Magazine)
'Kenny's voice remains a peachy, beautiful implement … She brings sensual colours to both word and tone; and she relishes the decadent voluptuousness of Verlaine's French … As with most of Hyperion's song recordings - no company is more experienced in this field - the balance of voice and piano is ideal and one can well imagine oneself at the Wigmore Hall in the company of Kenny and Lane' (International Record Review)
'This attractive recital of settings … Kenny's control of line is rock solid and her way with the music's shifting moods admirably precise. Piers Lane's accompaniments, too, are immaculate' (Classic FM Magazine)
'Kenny's voice and Lane's accompaniments are well recorded, very lifelike without being too clos e… the best available right now, and therefore recommended to admirers of his music and to Lieder collectors willing to stray a bit from the beaten path' (Fanfare, USA)
'This is a peach of a disc' (Delius Society Journal)
'Yvonne Kenny's vibrant, affecting timbre is just right for this repertory, tracing the lines (both musical and poetic) with expressive finesse. Only in "To Daffodils", following its adventurously winding, climbing vocal line, is one struck by the difficulties that lurk in these pages, and the Australian soprano dispatches them with ease, always keeping the lightness of mood and delicacy of sentiment required. Much the same can be said for her collaborator, Piers Lane, who excels at the piano in suggesting Delius's light haze of orchestral patina' (Opera News)
Young Venevil [1'32]
Il pleure dans mon cœur [2'27]
La lune blanche [1'36]
O schneller, mein Ross [1'40]
Delius composed sixty-two songs, over half of which are of a Scandinavian flavour—largely as a result of his long-standing friendship with Edvard Grieg. This wide-ranging recital encompasses the full gamut of his passions: Norwegian, Danish, French, German and English settings all sit happily within his oeuvre.
Born in Bradford to German parents, Delius spent his formative years escaping from an England which he scarcely regarded as ‘home’ and from the family business of wool trading. As things turned out, it was the travel involved in the latter parentally imposed occupation which gave our aspiring composer the opportunity and inspiration to emigrate, setting up camp first in Sweden and eventually in France.
A young Englishman and self-imposed exile create a heady mix of cultural references which our Anglo-Australian artistes clearly regard as ‘home territory’: these performances by Yvonne Kenny and Piers Lane are enthralling and draw the listener in to a world rich in multi-cultural allusion and unashamed beauty.
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Although Frederick Delius (1862–1934) is widely known for his purely orchestral works, such as Brigg Fair and On hearing the first Cuckoo in Spring, the voice was an essential part of his musical palette and songs take an important place in his output. Of the sixty-two that he composed with piano accompaniment, over half were settings of Norwegian and Danish poems, with twelve English, eleven German, seven French and one Swedish. More than with any other English-born composer, Delius’s songs and the poems he selected reflect the cosmopolitan life of an artist who, besides English, was conversant in German, Norwegian and French.
Born in Bradford to German parents, for the greater part of his life he was to live outside England, settling eventually at Grez-sur-Loing, near Fontainebleau, in France. While a young man, much against his will, he was apprenticed for three-and-a-half years to his father’s business, the wool trade, periodically being sent abroad, first in 1880 to France. Whenever he could he escaped to places on the Continent that interested him, only to be recalled home for his lack of business application. But the following year he was dispatched to Sweden, and it was from there he visited for the first time the country that for the rest of his life was to become his spiritual home—Norway—not just for the beauty of its mountainous landscape (‘the high hills’) but for the friendships he was to forge, among them with its leading composer, Edvard Grieg. In 1884 luck came his way when his father agreed to his going to Florida, ostensibly to manage an orange plantation. Life on the St Johns River with the sound of Negroes singing proved both a revelation and a turning point in his musical career. While in America he composed his first two important songs, settings of Norwegian and Danish poets, almost as if to signify his break from England.
In the autumn of 1886, after rather more than two years in America, he enrolled at the Leipzig Conservatorium, a move that was to prove of value to him more for the friendships he made, especially among Scandinavian musicians and artists, than for what he learnt musically (in his own words ‘a complete waste of time’). The Norwegian composer Christian Sinding (1856–1941) was prominent among these friendships and it was he who in 1887 introduced Delius to Edvard and Nina Grieg, who were also staying in Leipzig. They dined together regularly, played whist and often went to the opera, Delius later recalling: ‘We never missed a [Wagner] performance.’ Delius’s summer holidays were frequently taken in Norway, on occasions staying with the Griegs.
Delius’s familiarity with Grieg’s songs more than likely encouraged him to continue in that genre, and between 1888 and 1890 he wrote two sets of Norwegian songs, the first of five and the other of seven, both of which he dedicated to ‘Frau Nina Grieg’. (Nina was herself a singer; Delius dedicated his Ibsen melodrama Paa Vidderne to Edvard.) On receiving the Five Songs and thanking him for the dedication, Grieg himself wrote how delighted they were with the songs. ‘There are so many beautiful and deeply felt things in them’, he remarked, even quoting three bars from Longing. With Delius still steeped in Wagner, Grieg added a cautionary note: ‘A Norwegian melody and a Wagnerian treatment of the voice are dangerous things indeed to try to reconcile.’ Perhaps recognizing his occasional influence on the younger composer, Grieg clearly felt that he and Delius had much in common. ‘How strange that I have set nearly all the texts too’, he observed.
The subject matter of the Norwegian songs, often balladic in style, varies from princesses and lost love to what were to become typically Delian nature themes: sunset and summer evening. Delius generally set contemporary poets and the Seven Songs are mainly of verses by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832–1910) and Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906), with both of whom Delius was to become acquainted, and one by Aasmund O Vinje (1818–1870). The appeal of the most popular song, Twilight Fancies, lies in its simplicity, the opening fifths on the piano representing the echoing horn-call of a herd boy at sunset that evokes in the princess a yearning (‘What is it I long for?’), while Young Venevil delights the listener with its vitality and its echoing refrain. These Norwegian songs, which have an appealing youthful freshness, were to be the first notes of Delius with which his future wife, the German artist Jelka Rosen, became acquainted after their first meeting in 1896 in Paris. A mutual interest was established at a dinner party when, at the request of friends, Jelka sang two Grieg songs, and when Delius visited her at her studio, he took with him his Seven Songs from the Norwegian and later the Five Songs. ‘Oh, what a glorious revelation these songs were to me! The harmonies, the “Stimmung” were so delightful, more so than anything I had known before in music’, she wrote.
The writer whose verses Delius most frequently set was the Danish poet and botanist Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847–1885). Delius was to adapt Jacobsen’s fatalistic novel Niels Lyhne for his last opera Fennimore and Gerda (1910), and the Arabesque for baritone, chorus and orchestra (1911) is also a setting of a Jacobsen poem. All but one of the Seven Danish Songs (1896–7) have verses by Jacobsen. In the Garden of the Seraglio depicts an exotic perfume-laden moon-kissed scene with minarets, while Irmelin Rose recalls by name Delius’s first opera Irmelin (1890–92), based in part on the same legend of the beautiful princess who rejected all suitors, and each verse ends with the principal theme from that opera.
In 1888, his Leipzig days over, Delius effectively made Paris his home for eleven years, a move that received his father’s blessing only after the intervention of Grieg. Here once again he struck up strong friendships with many artists and writers, among them Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch and August Strindberg. While his orchestral tone-poem Paris (1899) was a valedictory essay on a city close to his heart, his settings of Paul Verlaine (1844–1896) show another reflective side. Il pleure dans mon cœur, with its repeated opening cadence, and Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit were composed the year before the poet’s death. Originally set in French, when both songs were published as a pair in 1910 with French and German words, Delius instructed his publisher that they ‘must in no case be translated into English’. Perhaps their joint publication spurred Delius to consider other verses by Verlaine and La lune blanche was composed that same year with Chanson d’automne the following year, even though the former verses had already been set by Gabriel Fauré and both by a young Reynaldo Hahn. Chanson d’automne is built on a characteristically Delian progression of chords, and in these French songs Delius established a consistency of style and mood that is in close correspondence with the spirit of the verses.
Flourishes of bird-song pervade the W E Henley setting The nightingale has a lyre of gold (a poem that in fact praises the singing of the blackbird), composed in 1910. For Christmas 1912 the eighteen-year-old Philip Heseltine, a passionate admirer of Delius’s music, sent the composer a collection of poems by Fiona Macleod and in less than a month he received a letter telling him that one of the poems, I-Brasîl, had been set. Fiona Macleod (the pseudonym of the Scottish writer William Sharp, 1855–1905, whose poems had already been extensively set by Arnold Bax) was to gain wider fame when his Celtic drama The Immortal Hour, set to music in 1913 by Rutland Boughton, became a runaway London stage success. Delius’s I-Brasîl, which to some extent was taken up in the tide of this ‘Celtic revival’ (at about this time he also contemplated setting W B Yeats’s The Lake Isle of Innisfree), is characterized by the Scotch snap. The poet hears the ‘sorrow on the wind’ calling him to the peace of a faraway land that is I-Brasîl.
Holger Drachmann (1846–1908) was another Danish poet to whom Delius turned at intervals. Summer Landscape was composed in 1902, while the earlier Summer Nights is one of the Seven Danish Songs which also exist in versions with orchestral accompaniment.
The exuberant O schneller, mein Ross (here receiving its first recording) to words by Emanuel Geibel (1815– 1884) dates from 1888 and later that year met with the approval of Grieg, who declared it excellent. Jelka Rosen was similarly impressed: ‘I love the accompaniment … it is just my summer Stimmung, and I manage to play it, a desperate effort, but so exciting!’ she wrote in June 1896. It was published in Paris that year, some printed copies bearing a dedication to the Princesse de Cystria, Delius’s one-time mistress who accompanied him on his return trip to America in 1897, which was probably the reason why, as Jelka later recalled, he asked for the copy he had given her to be returned.
It was in Germany that Delius gained recognition as a composer before England was to claim him as its own, and although he was not drawn towards the tradition of the German Lied, in 1898 he set four poems by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900, on whose philosophical writings Delius was to base his Mass of Life), having seven years earlier set some poems by Heinrich Heine (1797–1856). Unlike the Nietzsche group, the Heine settings were not published until their recent inclusion in the Delius Collected Edition, and while three of the songs form a clear group, a question mark hangs over the fourth. The manuscript of Aus deinen Augen fließen meine Lieder (also receiving its first recording), of which there is no other copy, is neither in Delius’s hand nor are the words from any recognizable work of Heine’s. It is only on Beecham’s authority, in his biography of Delius, that this song is grouped with the other three, the variant manuscript being found among that collection. The listener may judge for himself the authenticity of this pleasant song.
In December 1914, to escape the German advance in France, the Deliuses left their home at Grez for just over a year, staying for much of the time in England. The Four Old English Lyrics (Delius called them his ‘Elizabethan songs’) were written during this period of enforced exile at the suggestion of the wealthy patron and hostess Maud, Lady Cunard, who gave him two books of verses, The Queen’s Garland—Being Chosen Lyrics of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth and King’s Lyrics, in the hope that he might set some of them. Ben Jonson’s So white, so soft, so sweet is she and Robert Herrick’s To Daffodils (Delius’s penultimate song) are both poems of fading beauty and regret, moods with which Delius could identify only too easily in time of war while he stayed at Watford in a house leased for him by Sir Thomas Beecham.
The more vigorous Love’s Philosophy is the second of three settings of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822), a text perhaps more familiar in the later setting by Delius’s fellow-composer Roger Quilter. Composed in 1891, all three were first printed the following year with English words only. Delius was fastidious with regard to the translations of the poems he set. When in 1910 the Shelley songs were printed with German words as well, he found himself ‘battling against the publishers, who wish to print the words in their own language over the others’. He was insistent that ‘Shelley’s beautiful words must appear above, and the translation below’ and that in place of the German translations the publisher had supplied for two of them, including Love’s Philosophy, those made by his wife should be used as they ‘render the Shelley poem faithfully and fit the music exactly’.
With acknowledgement to Lionel Carley’s Grieg and Delius: A Chronicle of their Friendship in Letters (Marion Boyars, 1993) and Delius: A Life in Letters (2 vols, Scolar Press, 1983 and 1988).
Stephen Lloyd © 2007