- Delius and Norway by Andrew J. Boyle
As with people from many small countries, Norwegians take an almost pathological delight in foreigners showing interest in their homeland. Not so with Frederic Delius. The British composer visited Norway almost every other year from 1881 to 1923, sometimes for months, and expressed again and again how important the Norwegian landscape was to him. Still, he is rarely on the programme of Norwegian orchestras and his music is almost never heard there. This is one of the issues Andrew Boyle addresses in his book Delius and Norway, where he sets out to show both the impact of Norwegian nature and culture on Delius, and Delius’s role in Norwegian culture. His aim is to retrieve Delius from the traditional view as a composer of English summer idylls, and to show the role the mountains—and the Oslo fjord— played in his life. Boyle uses the name Kristiania, which was the name of Norway’s capital in the days of Delius; for the sake of clarity, I use the present name Oslo in this text.
The question of homeland is not as clear-cut as it may seem today, with Delius safely entombed in the British canon. We tend to think that globalisation was something that began in the 1990s, but Delius is a good example of the travelling artist of the nineteenth century: he was of German origin, born in England, lived in France, and spent large parts of his life in Norway. He wrote, in a farmhouse in a valley in the Norwegian inland, an opera set in a slave plantation in Louisiana, and he composed Over the Hills and Far Away, a piece of mountain music, in an orange grove in Florida.
Boyle wants to reappraise several aspects of the Delius reception. One thing is how his relationship with Norway was not only about splendid solitude in majestic mountains, but as much about socialising with local artists in the towns and villages along the Oslo fjord, where the upper classes of Oslo would retreat for saltwater baths, sailing, and sun in the short but intense Norwegian summers. Another, even more profound question, is Boyle’s emphasis on how Delius’s “summer music” should be heard in [End Page 65] this context, and not as eulogies of the English or French rural landscapes which early commentators associated with this part of the composer’s works.
When it comes to musical analysis, the tools in Delius and Norway are rather crude, mainly dealing with two categories which Boyle calls mountain music and plateau music. This is not very problematic, given that the book is an account of cultural and political history and not of Delius’s musical method. The biographical descriptions are concentrated, without the florid embellishments and dramatisations that sometimes flaw biographical books; Boyle keeps to what the sources tell us, and rarely ventures speculatively into the mind of his subject. He needs but a few pages to describe Delius’s childhood in Bradford in 1862, as son of a German wool merchant attracted by the town’s burgeoning wool industry. The young Delius was dispatched around Europe in the family business, but would seize the opportunity to immerse in musical life wherever he went.
After his first trips to Norway in 1881 and 1882, he made a short stint as a citrus farmer in Florida (where his neighbour happened to be a young singer from Oslo). From this point on, the pace in the text slows down, and renders Delius’s travels to Norway in all the detail that the sources—mainly letters—allow for.
Delius and Norway gives a concise overview of the cultural situation in nineteenth-century Norway, an important backdrop to understand the emerging post-colonial nation that Delius was so attracted to. Boyle describes how the composer encountered not only the mountains and fjords that drew so many Englishmen in the last decades of the nineteenth century, but also the cultural complexity brought...