Delius House at Jacksonville University, Part One: Grove Mythos

by Tim Gilmore, 6/30/2023

1. House of Legend

On its hill of tall pines, the house perches, marooned from its legends, forgotten all over again, out of place. More than 60 years ago, Jacksonville University brought it here from its original grove, from the site of its stories, the truth of which is often hard to ascertain. What was the young English composer really doing out there? Was his love for the music of the formerly enslaved respectful or a kind of colonial appropriation?

For decades, the cottage stood open during the annual Delius Festival, which local newspapers acclaimed as “one of Florida’s oldest and internationally known music events.” Once a young Valerie Kennedy sat on this porch in the twilight with her future husband and together they watched a spider spin an entire web. Her father, Professor Gurney Kennedy, who taught composition here, never liked Delius’s music.

Wasn’t it in this house that Frederick Delius learned the music of former slaves and transcribed banjo music to violin? Is it really his piano inside, or was his piano broken up for firewood a century ago? Was it in this house that he impregnated a young black woman, and if the legend be true, where might the grandchildren of that child’s children be now?

2. Variations on Themes

The first night the 22 year old Fritz (later Frederick) Delius spent isolated in the fecund and lubricious wilderness of Florida, he heard the music. It was late March 1884. There was something decrepit about England, something fresh and wild about America. Delius loved Walt Whitman – “Urge and urge and urge, / Always the procreant urge of the world” – who spoke from some primordial tide resprung in the “new world” of this ancient continent, and Florida seemed America at its most wild and lush.

sketch of Frederick Delius by Christian Krohg, from Verdens Gang Norwegian newspaper, October 23, 1897

He certainly hadn’t wanted to work for his wool merchant father. After poring over maps in the family library back home in Yorkshire, he’d convinced his father, Julius Delius, that his fate lay with the citrus industry in Florida. He thought citrus took care of itself; you just hired pickers and packers. He immediately changed his mind, but not before his father bought him a grove south of Jacksonville, about 100 acres. Surely this move would force his son, who tended to waste all his time in theatres and concert halls, to be productive and industrious.

from the Delius Festival program, 1961, image courtesy Delius Association of Florida

At Solano Grove, the overgrowth overwhelmed him. The land reeked of flower and of rot. “Palms and a live oak with a spread of 90 feet stood in front of the shack that would be home,” wrote Gloria Jahoda in her 1967 book The Other Florida. “The shack had wooden porches in front and in back, four tiny rooms where it was so hot you could hardly breathe and a detached kitchen with a wood stove. There was no bathroom.”

Its builder, however, a New Yorker named Guy Pride, considered the house a “substantial cottage,” in the words of William Randel’s 1971 article “Frederick Delius in America,” constructed in “the Yankee style,” facing the St. Johns River 50 feet away. Randel notes the house had “two chimneys [that] served the four fireplaces,” and added, “The term ‘shack’ or ‘shanty’ applied to this house by authors of books on Delius is wildly inappropriate,” though he admits Delius himself, in Romantic hyperbole, called the house a “shanty.”

Randel referred to Jahoda’s 1969 book The Road to Samarkand: Frederick Delius and His Music as “a readable blending of fact and fiction,” while Daniel Grimley’s 2018 book Delius and the Sound of Place argues Jahoda’s book creates a “familiar colonial vision of the exotic, albeit one that acknowledges […] the legacy” of slavery. On the other hand, Don Gillespie’s 1996 book The Search for Thomas F. Ward, Teacher of Frederick Delius, makes a cogent case that Solano Grove was less important than Delius’s Jacksonville salon experiences and meeting Ward, a transplanted New York Jesuit organist, whose musical instruction Delius would call “the only lessons from which I ever derived any benefit” and who was buried in an unmarked grave.

3. The City and the Grove

That first night, the story goes, Delius stayed up and smoked cigars and listened to the banjo-picking and singing coming from the house of the Andersons, the family of black caretakers. America was not just the re-seeding of Europe in indigenous tribal land, but of Africa too. “Hearing their singing in such romantic surroundings,” Delius says in Eric Fenby’s 1937 book Delius As I Knew Him and in the 1968 biopic, A Song of Summer, “it was then and there that I first felt the urge to express myself in music.” According to Delius, Elbert Anderson taught him the words and melody of the song that became the epilogue for the 1902 composition, “Appalachia: Variations on an Old Slave Song, with Final Chorus.”

If Julius Delius thought Solano Grove would force his son to be industrious as a matter of survival, Jacksonville, marketing itself as “Winter City in Summerland,” disrupted the plan. Writes Randel in 1971, “Jacksonville, during the winter season at least, was a veritable hive of culture – a role encouraged by the thousands of refugees from colder climes.” From December to March, the city’s population tripled and quadrupled.

St. James Hotel, 1880s

At the center of town, black musicians entranced Delius. “At several of the hotels,” writes Randel, “the Negro waiters doubled as singers, with daily vocal concerts for patrons and passersby; if Delius paused only long enough to eat one meal in the city before going on to Solano Grove, he may well have had his introduction to Negro spirituals and folk songs.”

from the 1966 Delius Festival program, image courtesy Delius Association of Florida

Alexander Campbell told a reporter, in March 1884, the month Delius arrived in Florida, that his downtown music store had recently sold eight pianos in one day. Of the 40 organs he’d sold in one month, 19 went to black musicians. He said “the colored trade” bought “more guitars than banjos and four organs for every piano.” Campbell later published and sold Austrian-born Jacksonville resident William Jahn’s Moonlight Dream Waltzes and — dedicated to his friend Jahn in 1885 — Delius’s first published work, Zum Carnival, a polka for piano.

photo of Jutta Bell-Ranske, year unknown, courtesy British Library

Another St. Johns County neighbor, the Norwegian Jutta Bell-Ranske, a cousin of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, gave music lessons in Jacksonville, where she convinced Delius to play Schumann on violin in the drawing rooms of Woman’s Club members. When he wandered into the music store of Merryday and Payne, which opened the month after his Florida arrival, Delius sat down at a piano and started playing black spirituals he’d learned in the grove. There the enigmatic Thomas F. Ward approached him and soon offered him music lessons. By the summer, Delius was offering violin lessons at “Bingham House, cor. of Julia and Forsyth Streets” and was fully immersed in the city’s music.

4. Art Birthed from River and Skull

Delius moved from the grove to the city, then in 1885 to Virginia and in ’86 back to Europe, where he studied music formally for the first time in Leipzig, an experience he considered a waste compared to what the fugitive Ward taught him in Jax, then moved to Paris for eight years.

Differing accounts create confusion about his relationship with a French woman Randel names “Marie-Léonie, Princesse de Cystria,” though other writers claim mysteriously that her name remained unknown. Either way, in early 1897, when Delius boarded ship for New York en route back to Florida with a Norwegian violinist friend, the woman disguised herself as a man and surprised Delius by having secretly boarded ship with him. Randel says the French woman must have “gone her separate way” by the time Delius returned to Jacksonville, though Jahoda says the three of them moved into the little house at Solano Grove together, where Delius absorbed himself in writing new music. In a letter he writes from the grove, he mentions having two Parisian friends with him.

Delius’s most famous Florida-inspired music begins with The Florida Suite, which he wrote in Leipzig in 1887. In 1896 and ’97, he wrote Koanga, an opera set among slaves on a Florida plantation, often considered the first major European musical score to incorporate African-American musical material.

the blind and paralyzed Delius, being read to by a nurse at Grez-sur-Loing, circa 1930, image courtesy Delius Association of Florida

When Delius composed Appalachia in 1902, he claimed to incorporate music he’d first learned from Elbert Anderson at Solano Grove 18 years earlier. Just as Langston Hughes would write, in 1922, “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins,” Delius, in 1911, wrote Summer Night on the River of the St. Johns through Florida and the Loing in France, where in Grez-sur-Loing the German artist Jelka Rosen, whom Delius had married in 1903, painted impressionistic garden and river scenes, including Delius in His Garden at Grez sur Loing.

“Delius in his Garden at Grez sur Loing,” by Jelka Rosen, early 1900s, courtesy British Library

In the 1960s, Gloria Jahoda found Julia Sanks, one of the black laborers who’d known Delius at Solano Grove. Now between 90 and 100 years old – Sanks herself wasn’t sure of her age – and living in St. Augustine, she remembered how the Delius who came back to the grove in 1897 was a different man than the one who’d left in 1885. When he returned, he’d lose himself so wholly in composing music that he’d forget to eat. “Long as he make his music,” Jahoda quoted Sanks, nothing else mattered. “He didn’t have no conveniences.”

back of the 1984 Delius Festival program, image courtesy the Delius Association of Florida

Years before the English writer D.H. Lawrence moved, ostensibly to recover from tuberculosis, to Taos, New Mexico, where he wrote the novel St. Mawr and began The Plumed Serpent, a mutual friend named Philip Heseltine, better known as the composer Peter Warlock, recommended Lawrence move to Delius’s 100 acre grove south of Jacksonville.

In 1915, Lawrence began telling famous writer friends like Katherine Mansfield, Aldous Huxley and Michael Arlen what he’d heard about the grove, declaring to Mansfield, “Let us all live together and create a new world” and describing England as “destruction and dying and corruption.” Delius advised against it, telling Heseltine, “To let him go to Florida would be to let him go to disaster.”

image courtesy the D.H. Lawrence Ranch Initiatives

Delius’s fame rose in England as his health declined. Neither Jelka Rosen nor Delius was faithful in any conventional sense and the composer had contracted syphilis prior to their marriage when he lived in Paris. Eventually his syphilis would leave him blind and quadriplegic, a strange, pale and immobile figure whose music seemed to have flown full-born from his head like the ancient Greek goddess Athena, birthed from the split skull of her father, Zeus.

from the 1962 Delius Festival program, image courtesy Delius Association of Florida

cont’d as Delius House at Jacksonville University, Part Two: Festival of the Pantheistic Mystic