Classical: On The Air

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The Independent Culture
A NUMBER of years ago there was a broadcast of the kind which only seemed possible on BBC Radio 3, giving us a unique opportunity to examine in depth a special aspect of the workings of a composer's mind. What we heard was a rare performance, possibly the first since its premiere, of the early version of Delius's In a Summer Garden, and it turned out to be revelatory. The work, in its final shape as most of us know it, is one of the pinnacles of late romantic musical poetics, perfect in all details, utterly unpredictable in structure, yet for a composer who appears to improvise his pieces, astonishingly cogent in its formal dialectic.

What the original version taught us was that in spite of its incidental riches it lacked tautness, and those who doubt Delius's formal mastery and hear only a meandering progress, might change their minds after observing how ruthlessly the composer cut in essentials and how unerringly he retained meaningful asides.

Of all late romantic masters Delius is one of the most deserving of such scrutiny since his methods have rarely been subjected to hard analysis, and have all too often been dismissed as mindless.

In the light of that old broadcast, it was fascinating to explore further the thought processes that make Delius's art uniquely mysterious. The story of how the blind composer set the young Eric Fenby to work on an early piece of his in order to break him in and see what he was capable of, is known to all readers of Fenby's biographical masterpiece Delius As I knew Him. That work was A Poem of Life and Love, dating from 1918, and it was eventually to be transformed some 10 years later into A Song of Summer with Fenby's aid as amanuensis.

On Tuesday evening both pieces were performed in BBC Radio 3's Composer of the Week and, once again, we could witness Delius's uncanny instinct for bringing structural concision to material that was in danger of sprawling.

A Poem of Life and Love was being given its first ever performance by Vernon Handley and the BBC Concert Orchestra, and it would have confirmed the doubts of those for whom Delius's thought straggles in inconsequentially. But relieved of much untidy and unfocused material, it becomes a lyric masterpiece as A Song of Summer, now serene, now ecstatically striving in perfect equilibrium.

Another aspect of creative progress was examined in Radio 3's weekly series Sound Stories. In this case it was the characteristics of music written by composers who have reached great old age and the week ended with some of the music Vaughn Williams composed in his eighties. I sometimes think that there is little of musical expression and structure in composers of young and middle years which cannot be generally understood, but that old age brings to creators a command of such mysteries as can only be fully graphed by those who, too, have left their middle years behind. Such at least seems possible with the movingly distanced vision of Vaughn Williams's Ninth Symphony, whose puzzling finale closed the programme. We feel here that musical symbols from Vaughn Williams's past which once had sensuous impact, have now been fined down and placed in a strangely elliptical context. Perhaps bodily experience was now a matter of memory leaving the spirit in a new relationship with intellect.