Obituary: Eric Fenby

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Although he was a successful teacher and the composer of much music, mainly for chamber groups, Eric Fenby's name will always be associated with that of Frederick Delius.

An admirer of his work, he approached Delius in 1928 at a time when the composer, after years of illness, was almost entirely paralysed and blind; his mind was perfectly clear, but he was unable to sit at a piano or use a pen, and had been forced to give up composition. He was dependent on his wife for his most basic physical needs. Fenby, then 22, offered his services as amanuensis and to his surprise, but to his delight, the offer was accepted. The young Yorkshire musician journeyed to Delius's home at Grez-sur-Loing, near Fontainebleau, in October that year and remained with Delius until his death in 1934.

In spite of his German name and parentage, Delius was a fellow Yorkshireman, born in Bradford. It was the Yorkshire connection as much as his admiration for Delius's music that inspired Fenby to put himself totally at Delius's service. Fenby himself came from a warm, close and loving Scarborough family, and his parents and siblings were all musical. His sister Ann became a successful singer, first in concerts and later musical comedies. Eric studied music, sometimes formally with private instruction, but to a great extent he was self-taught. He began early to compose, his first works being performed at local promenade concerts. He then cut short his own budding career to become the vehicle through which Delius was able once again to return to composition.

He was first asked to make a transcription for two pianos of the previously unperformed "A Poem of Life and Love" so that the composer could hear it played by Fenby and a visiting friend. This worked so well and pleased Delius so much that Fenby then devised a method by which Delius could dictate notation to him, and in this way a new late period of his composition became possible. Most of the works thus produced were introduced to the public by Thomas Beecham, who had long championed Delius's music, and by the young Malcolm Sargent.

This, together with the poignant story of his illness, created a new interest in the music of a composer who, although widely respected abroad and by musicians at home, had never had much success with the British public. As a result Delius was made a Companion of Honour in 1929 by George V, who was not known for his musicality, mainly as the result of Delius's new reputation and the sympathy of the public, who now saw him as a tragic genius. In the same year Beecham staged an important six-day festival in London devoted to Delius's music, in which Fenby took an active part. He travelled from Grez to London with the Deliuses and helped the composer to communicate with well-wishers, performers and the press. Delius sat through the performances in a bath-chair in full view of the audience.

When Delius died in 1934 Fenby returned to London, where he became Music Adviser to Boosey and Hawkes. He continued his own career and began to teach, becoming Music Director at the North Riding College of Education in 1948, and eventually, in 1964, Professor of Harmony at the Royal Academy of Music, where he remained until 1977. But his professional life remained inextricably involved with the music and the posthumous reputation of the dead composer. In Delius As I Knew Him (1936), he recounted the story of their relationship. He also contributed a Delius biography to the "Great Composers" series, published in 1971, recorded the three violin sonatas with Ralph Holmes and Yehudi Menuhin, playing the piano part himself, and through his advocacy was responsible, usually with the assistance and participation of Beecham, for a considerable increase in the number of available Delius recordings.

When Ken Russell decided to film the life of Delius as one of his controversial television documentaries on composers, Fenby was asked to write the script in collaboration with the producer. The result, A Song of Summer (1968), was repeatedly shown in Britain and elsewhere. Objections were made to Russell's expressionistic, often shocking and savage, treatment of composers, but not to the Delius film, which had a haunting gentle quality, the result of Fenby's compassionate script.

Eric Fenby was active on musical committees, a founder of the Delius Society, of which he became the president in 1964, and he served as a council member of the Composers' Guild of Great Britain, and its chairman in 1968. He was a fluent talker and lecturer, and as a teacher was known for his kindness and helpfulness to students and young musicians. A Festschrift Delius Companion was published as a tribute to him on his 70th birthday.

Eric William Fenby, musicologist, composer and teacher: born Scarborough 22 April 1906; Music Adviser, Boosey and Hawkes 1936-39; Music Director, North Riding College of Education 1948-62; Artistic Director, Delius Centenary Festival 1962; OBE 1962; Professor of Harmony, Royal Academy of Music 1964-77; President, Delius Society 1964-97; married 1944 Rowena Marshall (one son, one daughter); died Scarborough 18 February 1997.