BOOK REVIEW / A battered fjord concertina: 'Grieg and Delius' - Lionel Carley: Marion Boyars, 19.95 pounds

BORN in Yorkshire of German parents, married to a German wife, and living and dying in France, the national allegiances of Fritz Delius (as Frederick was christened) have always been a little confusing. Most of the letters in this Chronicle of their Friendship in Letters were written in the last decade of the last century. And at this period a strong passion for Norway and Denmark confused the picture even more; 'Mr Delius,' The Daily News stated categorically in 1899, 'is of Scandinavian parentage'.

Certainly the Scandinavian influence was strong. In musical terms it came almost entirely from Edvard Grieg, whom Delius had met in Leipzig in 1888 while he was studying at the Conservatory and Grieg was visiting the city. 'There's Mr and Mrs Grieg,' said the Norwegian composer Christian Sinding as he and Delius strolled towards lunch one morning. And from then on Delius and the Griegs - those 'two quite small people', in Delius's words, were firm friends.

Delius's already firm enthusiasm for the Fjords bound him to the the older man's heart, and every evening for the next few months the two met after dinner to consolidate their relationship with rubbers of whist.

Their friendship was vitally important to the younger composer in particular. 'I tell you frankly,' Delius wrote to Grieg a year or so after Leipzig, 'never in my life have I met a nature which has won all my love as yours has. I have become egotistic without realising it & you are the only man who has ever changed that & awakened the feelings which I now have for you.'

Established as an up-and-coming Bohemian in Paris, but still very much in with the Scandinavians (Munch was his particular friend), Delius even started dedicating songs to Mrs Grieg, a renowned singer. 'Her name,' Grieg was forced to reply to the first manuscript that arrived inscribed for his wife, 'is Nina not Lina'. The lad soon got the hang of it. And so it went on. Scores shunted between Paris and Troldhaugen, the Griegs' retreat near Bergen (the two composers were quite capable of going for years without actually hearing each other's music) and Grieg became a responsible, if not - on paper at least - a detailed, critic of the young men's work. 'One or two things will come over very well,' he comments on one composition: 'it is only as concerns the piece as a whole that I have my doubts'.

The intimate of Kings and Queens, of Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Bruckner, Grieg's opinion no doubt carried weight with the young composer. Certainly it made an impression on Herr Delius, Senior: it was Grieg, after all, who had persuaded him, over dinner in the Metropole Hotel in London, that young Fritz should be preserved from service in the family wool firm and launched on a musical career with a continued stipend from Papa.

The relationship and the letter- writing between Delius and the Griegs cools considerably after not much more than five years. A less than respectful treatment by Delius of the Norwegian national anthem, suggests Lionel Carley, may have affronted the nationalist Grieg; though the older composer's description of Delius - a talented 'and modern' musician - perhaps hides a deeper reason. The generations were going their inevitable different ways, and Ninna Grieg's attempt at continuing the correspondence, with maternal, possibly envious, enquiries about the young man's love affairs is met with a half-hearted response at best.

The story of these letters is not, it must be said, a very dramatic one. Quite a number of them have appeared already, in the same editor's Delius: A Life in Letters, and one can't help wondering whether the full treatment - 'visiting card with addresses in Grieg's hand' and all - is entirely merited.

Deliophiles, Griegophiles and similar will no doubt rejoice; and the biography of both composers is fuller as a result. But our understanding of their music and personalities is not much altered. A few good paragraphs and a couple of plumpish footnotes might have done the trick. An entire Chronicle was taking things just a bit too far.