Suggested Listening: “Sunset — Near the Plantation” from Florida Suite by Frederick Delius

Today’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC is, appropriately, coming to you from my home on the southeast coast of Florida.  Here is the third movement from Frederick Delius’ Florida Suite, performed below by the English Northern Philharmonia, David Lloyd-Jones conducting.

About the Composer:

Born in England to German parents, Frederick Delius (1862-1934) led a fascinating life, and was a bit of a musical late bloomer.  Growing up in a family of fourteen children, he learned violin and piano as a kid, though as a young man he abandoned these to follow in the footsteps of his father, a successful wool merchant.  However, he grew restless and disliked the business, finding little success.  So, in 1884, he was sent to the Sunshine State, USA to manage an orange grove.  While there, he took music lessons from a local organist, basked in the Florida sunshine, romanced (and possibly impregnated) a girl called Chloe, and overall ignored his managerial duties.  Two years later, he was in Leipzig at the famous Conservatorium, supported begrudgingly by his father and studying music seriously for the first time in his life at the age of 24.  It was there that he encountered the great Norwegian composer and Einstein lookalike Edvard Grieg, who convinced Delius’ still-skeptical father that the talented young composer had a bright future ahead of him.  (Side note: Grieg and Delius became close friends; Delius paid a number of visits to Grieg’s home in Bergen, and Grieg once described Delius as having “an exceptionally likable nature.”)  Settling in Paris in 1888, he began composing prolifically and to acclaim, his music often influenced by the places he had traveled — Florida, Germany, Norway, and elsewhere.  But then some bad news, in 1895: syphilis, which would slowly but surely kill him over the next forty years.  Shortly after receiving this news, he returned to Florida in hopes of finding Chloe (and possibly their alleged son), to no avail: she had disappeared.  So he married a German painter in 1903, moved to a peaceful village outside Paris, and continued composing until his failing health and increasing blindness stopped him.  Despite this, a young amanuensis helped him finish his incomplete works; when Delius died in 1934, all his musical ideas had come to fruition.

About the Piece:

Delius’ time in Florida had enormous impact on his life and work, and perhaps no piece better exemplifies this than his Florida Suite, written from 1886-87.  Though he had little interest in growing oranges, Delius fell in love with the scenery of Solano Grove, which lay on the banks of the St. John River outside Jacksonville.  He once wrote:

In Florida, through sitting and gazing at nature, I gradually learnt the way in which I should eventually find myself…hearing singing in such romantic surroundings, it was then and there that I first felt the urge to express myself in music.

The Florida Suite is a musical postcard — picturesque, melodic snapshots of scenes and sounds from around the grove.  The suite’s four movements are entitled “Daybreak — Dance,” “By the River,” “Sunset — Near the Plantation,” and “At Night.”  It was really hard to choose which movement to feature, and I highly encourage you to take a listen to the entire work, but I find the third movement completely charming and heartfelt and decided to share it here today.

The movement can be divided into three distinct sections, which I like to think of visually, sort of like scenes out of a movie.  The beginning through about 3:47 is the opening scene — a panorama of the landscape shot from above, the low strings introducing a longing melody later picked up by the bassoons and horns while distant flutes glint like sunlight off the river.  Around 2:52 we get a climax of this opening scene, the music swelling like a camera zooming in, the colors of the instruments and of the landscape becoming richer and tangible.

The second section begins around 3:48, with the soft yet steady tapping of the tambourine: it’s a folk song, the workers at Delius’ orange grove getting ready to head home after a long day’s work.  Hear that great, grating chord at 4:00, all jazzy and dissonant?  Next, the oboe enters at 4:34, and the flute at 4:47 — workers humming and whistling as they make their way along the paths amid the darkening rows of trees.  The camera follows them as the sun continues to set and the shadows grow longer, with a spooky, minor-key dance erupting at 4:53.  Then, at 5:38, the brass triumph as the sun sinks golden and glorious below the horizon — the workers pause to watch, until the colors fade, then they continue their trek home with the return of their tambourine-bidden tune at 6:56.

Finally, the third section starts at 7:19, the strings undulating like the waters of the St. John River, the very same melody from the opening scene arising once again at 7:39 as the workers arrive back to their homes and families.  The camera zooms out, taking in the scenery, still dimly lit with pale streaks of pink and orange sun, the harp and piccolo at 9:44 ultimately ushering in peaceful darkness.

I adore the Florida Suite and wanted to share it this week in particular because I just spent several days rediscovering some really great things about my home state.  A friend of mine who will be attending grad school here just came to visit; I took her on a tour, and was struck by all the things she found beautiful that I, having grown up here, definitely take for granted.  (Although I still could do without the humidity.)  I think Delius’ suite is a thoroughly delightful reminder that there is beauty and music to be found wherever there is a sense of place.  

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