Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Song of Summer

Delius, Kate Bush, Never for Ever.
When Delius first attempted to convey his music to Eric Fenby, the latter was aghast, since Delius simply uttered toneless renditions that seemed impossible to transcribe. The song makes reference to this - "Ta, ta-ta! / Hmm. / Ta, ta-ta! / In B, Fenby!" - and to Delius's syphilis. Much as I like the song itself, I find the original video embarrassingly dated.

On BBC4 this evening, as part of the tribute to the late Ken Russell, they finally repeated Song of Summer, Russell's 1968 Omnibus biographical drama portraying the final years in Delius's life (1928-1934) when a young musician, Eric Fenby, acted as live-in amanuensis to the blind and paralysed composer Frederick Delius.

It's based on Fenby's 1936 biographical account Delius As I knew Him (out of copyright in the USA, judging by its presence on the Internet Archive) and Fenby worked with Russell on the research and early production, coaching the protagonists. Though the direction is a little stodgy in places, and rather stereotypical in its depiction of the process of musical inspiration, it's a fine piece of work.

The cast - Max Adrian as Delius, Christopher Gable as Fenby, and Maureen Prior as Delius's wife Jelka, (and a cameo by David Collings as the indefatigable Percy Grainger) - by all accounts portray very accurately the tensions in Delius's isolated household in Grez-sur-Loing, and particularly the toll on the uptight and religious Fenby of collaboration with, and later nursing, the autocratic, syphilitic and anti-religious Delius. Fenby tells, for instance, how he was reduced to tears on the first attempts to transcribe Delius's music as Delius gave him the first phrase as a completely incomprehensible "High-tee-tigh-tee-tigh-tee-tigh" (I'm not sure where the "Ta, ta-ta!" version came from).They later worked out a successful modus operandi.

Delius As I Knew Him was written in a coyer era and not long after Delius's death, so didn't originally contain the revelation of the nature of Delius's illness. Fenby imparted this and other details to Russell ...

Soon after, Russell and Fenby went to Grez for a visit, and during that time Fenby revealed a number of facts not mentioned in his written account, the most notable of which was that Delius had actually died of syphilis.
- page 60, Ken Russell: the adaptor as creator, Joseph E Gomez, 1976.

... and they appear in the appendices to later editions. I mention it not out of prurience, but because, as Fenby writes, at least two biographical commentators connected Delius's illness with his abilities as a composer. Fenby writes:

Cecil Gray and Balfour Gardiner were both convinced that the onset of Delius's mature creative powers was intimately related to his contracting syphilis in the 1890s. So naïve was I that I had no inkling of the true nature of his malady, and was thunderstruck when one of the French doctors revealed it to me shortly before Delius died (just as enacted in Ken Russell's film).
- page 248, Delius As I Knew Him, Eric Fenby, Cambridge University Press, 1981

Though it probably shouldn't be, Song of Summer is findable on YouTube: part 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5.

- Ray

No comments:

Post a Comment