Frederick Delius (1862-1934), was an English composer who, in my opinion, is not as highly rated as he should be! He’s composed pieces such as The Mass of Life and the absolutely wonderful In a Summer Garden (which I will write a blog on at some point!). I’ve chosen to look into one of his most impressive orchestral works, The Walk to the Paradise Garden which he uses as an extended scene change in his 1910 opera, A Village Romeo and Juliet. Many say that Delius reached his artistic maturity with this work, even though he was around the age of 45 at the time, which is fairly late to reach artistic fruition. I believe this is somewhat enhanced by some of the main themes of the opera, which include spirituality, nature and acceptance of life.
Delius ended up writing his own libretto for this opera, after unsatisfactory attempts were made by other people. The source of this text was taken from Gottfried Keller’s novella Romeo and Juliet auf dem Dorfe (1876). The story essentially follows the love story of two young peasants, who are stuck between a feud between their families and at the end of the story they resolve to commit suicide together, on a hay barge after singing the last duet (Love-Death) in the same kind of vein as in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (sounds familiar, right?). So with this story in mind, Delius splits his libretto into six main scenes, which each explore a different spiritual state. The main themes that run through all of the scenes relate back to the juxtapositions of nature and how this affects human suffering. Therefore, the last scene represents the one moment of happiness the couple find within nature (which does not make them suffer in any way) and this is in the paradise garden.
The Walk to Paradise Garden wasn’t actually a part of Delius’ initial set up of the opera and it was only added in before the Berlin premiere in 1906 (with the first every premiere being in 1901). The piece is between scenes 5 and 6 and is essentially an extended scene change, however, it has become much more than that as it is now known as one of Delius’ most impressive orchestral works. The piece brings together themes from the previous 5 scenes and it creates an absolutely wonderful demonstration of thematic development and fruition.
The piece starts with a horn and bassoon, who introduce a lovely, warm theme which is soon passed around to the oboe and English horn throughout this work. I really enjoy the laid-back feeling of this theme and how relaxing it is. This theme is manipulated and developed throughout the orchestra and it does seem that the winds take a more prominent place within some of these sections. The opera’s ‘love theme’ is emphasised a lot within the more climactic sections of the work, especially after the first climatic section involving upper strings and winds. A colour B Major interlude is heard and this represents the couple finding that swift moment of peace within nature. Its an incredibly moving piece of music which radiates such wonderful colour in coherence with nature and finding oneself through spiritual means.
So from the initial theme at the beginning, you can hear the winds and brass taking a more solo approach to the thematic development. The timbre between the lower strings and the winds blends so well and creates such a calming atmosphere. An extended oboe solo is heard, which again is this first theme. The clarinet and bassoon then take this over, with a rich string accompaniment. From this point the upper strings take a more prominent place and start becoming more involved with the thematic development. The timpani roll encourages and teases the strings into a beautiful crescendo of sound, which culminates in a much thicker orchestration and higher registers being played by the flute and oboes. The climatic section is just heart-wrenching and the upper register played by the strings is just so good! The texture thins slightly after this point and the oboe and flute take the theme over once more. A call and response technique is used between the strings and upper winds, which grounds this developed theme more into the fabric of the piece. I really like the way Delius goes between the different woodwind instruments to create different timbres with the same/similar theme, it very much creates a soothing, complex but still interesting piece of music.
The flute then brings us into the next section, with the woodwinds and horns being at the forefront and bringing the tempo and feeling down to a lower level. A beautiful flute solo is heard, which is shadowed by the violin and oboe. As far as I am aware this section is a real highlight between the two points that the couple are walking between (the fairground and a mountain inn). Following this you can hear another climatic section fast approaching, with the upper strings leading this section. The trumpets enter, which of course makes it all the more brilliant (not bias at all!). This section is so luscious and flowing that you cannot dislike it! Again the climax is brought back down and a wonderful harp progression, twinned with a calm (ha!) trumpet is heard and it makes the atmosphere all the more sweet and calming.
The music thus starts dying away very slowly, with the tempo ceasing somewhat and the themes being repeated as a kind of farewell from the woodwinds. The piece ends very softly and trails off into silence, which represents the couple returning to their lives, which eventually ends with their union in death.
This is an absolutely wonderful piece of music and is well worth a listen. Even if you don’t listen to it with the story in mind, it is still a wonderfully calm piece of music, which is probably why it has been recorded separately from the opera many times. If you like this I am sure you’ll really enjoy Delius’ music as his music is so pure and so easy to listen to.
You’ll have the chance to hear this work live this Saturday (27th January), if you’re in Sheffield, as Endcliffe Orchestra will be performing it. Yours truly will also be playing, so why not come down and enjoy some classic classical music!