Delius House at Jacksonville University, Part Two: Festival of the Pantheistic Mystic

by Tim Gilmore, 6/30/2023

cont’d from Delius House at Jacksonville University, Part One: Grove Mythos

1. House Catalyst and the Delius Festival

In Clare Delius’s 1935 book Memories of My Brother, Martha Bullard Richmond read that the composer had once lived on a former Spanish plantation south of Jacksonville. Richmond, a member of the Friday Musicale, formed in 1890 to bring culture to community, wondered if the house could still be there. In a 1966 handwritten manuscript, she recalls the adventures she had in finding it.

the cottage in Solano Grove, image courtesy Delius Association of Florida

In May 1939, she contacted the St. Johns County tax collector who introduced her to a local turkey hunter who knew the place. She traveled by taxi four unpaved miles, eventually locating “a faint entrance to the two-mile woods trail to the riverfront.” When she saw the house, she wrote, “It no longer had a single room that was weatherproof and only one that had a floor. When we reached the river, the magnificent view, the huge old oak tree, the grace and character of the tiny cottage, even in dilapidation, were incredible. Magnolias, old peach and lemon trees surrounded the house. We dared not believe that we had really found the Delius cottage.”

Back in 1906, the Friday Musicale, a product of the wealthy wives of the Woman’s Club Movement, held a meeting focused on “the life and works of Frederick Delius,” but it was Richmond’s interest that led the Musicale to start hosting an annual Delius Memorial Concert in the ’40s. In “The Delius Festival of Jacksonville,” a 1986 University of Florida master’s thesis, Mark Alan Stoneman writes that the concerts “set a precedent for the establishment in 1961 of a regular event honoring the composer.”

fire-damaged image of Claudia L’Engle, the founder of the Ladies’ Friday Musicale. She was 29 when she died in 1895.

Richmond purchased the cottage and a surrounding acre at Solano Grove in 1943. She wanted to bring pilgrims to the site, but it seemed so remote. As annual concerts continued, proposals to bring the house to Jacksonville University catalyzed the possibilities of a new festival. Organizers dismantled what was left of the house, brought it to campus, then reconstructed it.

from The Miami Herald, May 14, 1967

Retired Humanities Professor Sharon Scholl remembers visiting the grove and says, “When they moved the house, there was almost nothing left of it. What they put up at JU was so rebuilt it was almost a different house.” The college dedicated the house to the composer’s memory at the inaugural Delius Festival in 1961.

image from the 1963 Delius Festival program, courtesy Delius Association of Florida

Through the years, people donated pianos and musical scores and books until by the time Stoneman wrote his thesis, Jacksonville University had the largest collection of Delius materials in America. In 1966, Delius’s own piano moved back into the house. In other years, JU received his original score for Koanga and the only two known printed copies of the original publication of Zum Carnival. Fenby donated several items, including Delius’s 1884 notebook of counterpoint exercises with Thomas F. Ward and the manuscript score of A Song of Summer, written with Fenby as amanuensis in 1931.

2. Auralizing the Score

When Sharon Scholl joined the JU faculty in 1966, she helped William Hoskins, president of the College of Music, judge the composition contest. Hoskins taught synthesizer and electronic music and would release an album of compositions for Moog Modular Synthesizer called Galactic Fantasy, Eastern Reflections in 1979. In those early years, Scholl says, “Applicants couldn’t send a recording. So you just looked at the music and sort of imagined it. They called it ‘auralizing the score.’ Not many people could do that well, so it boiled down to me and Bill Hoskins.”

image courtesy Alpha State NYC

Composer Byron Adams calls his 1977 winning composition for baritone and chorus “beneath contempt really,” but says Brenda McNeiland – bassoonist, singer, choral director and JU professor – conducted the piece “so brilliantly” that “I got the prize.” Now Professor Emeritus of Musicology at the University of California-Riverside and scholar-in-residence for the Bard Music Festival, Adams, whose work has been performed on both coasts as well as in England and France, recalls the Delius Festival fondly.

Byron Adams, photo by David Volpe

When Adams was a high school student and later, majoring in piano at JU, the festival “was the event around which classical music-making in Jacksonville revolved.” As a teenager, at the Friday Musicale, he played all of Delius’s solo piano music “from memory, but there are only a handful of such works,” and second piano in Delius’s Piano Concerto, “while my piano teacher, Professor Mary Lou Wesley Krosnick, played the outrageously demanding solo part brilliantly.”

Frederick Delius and Eric Fenby, circa 1930, image courtesy Delius Association of Florida

That was the year the composer Eric Fenby, most famous for having been amanuensis to Delius when he was paralyzed from the neck down and blind, coached Adams personally. Fenby lived with Delius for the last six years of his life and frequently attended the festival in Jax. The festival, most years, included screenings of the 1968 film A Song of Summer, directed by Ken Russell, about Fenby’s relationship with Delius. “I sat next to Fenby and his lovely wife at one of those screenings,” Adams says, “moved but discomfited when I noticed the tears streaming down Fenby’s face during certain scenes.”

still from A Song of Summer, 1968

Adams remembers sitting on the porch of the Delius House at JU and looking out over the St. Johns River. He loves Delius still, though he remembers how his composition professor, Gurney Kennedy, “detested Delius’s music.”

3. “It Was the Place.”

image courtesy Delius Association of Florida

By 1929, the English had come to love Delius as a strange, pale, death-like wraith, born of German parents in Yorkshire, his music always more popular in Germany and France. His young amanuensis, Eric Fenby, pushed Delius’s wheelchair into the Queen’s Hall at Langham Palace, soon destroyed by the bombs of World War II, but now the epicenter of throngs of fans filling the streets for a Delius Festival.

Frederick Delius at the Queen’s Hall, London, 1929, by Ernest Procter, image courtesy Art UK

Not 40 years later, Jahoda writes of the various transfers of ownership that led to moving the cottage from the grove to campus in 1961. Jacksonville’s Delius Festival occurred until 2004. The cottage still sits perched among tall pines on its hill, once again rotting, neglected, porch boards fallen through, a lonely shrine, its pilgrimages forgotten or gone astray. Jahoda suggests the move may have been made on mistaken impulses.

“Surely,” Clare Delius wrote in her book about the composer in 1935, “the spirit of my brother must return often to Solano Grove.” It wasn’t the house that birthed the Romanticism, but the brutal primordial Florida landscape. The school left a marker, made of coquina, inset with bronze-ish face of the composer and explication, but no one seems to have visited the site, if it’s still there, for the last quarter century.

Delius death mask and score, from the 1963 Delius Festival program, image courtesy Delius Association of Florida

According to Jahoda, by the time JU moved the house, squatters had used Delius’s old humidity-buckled piano for firewood. If she’s right, it can only have been another piano that was donated to JU in 1966.

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

When she traveled through the woods into the grove six decades ago, Jahoda spoke with an old black man beneath a chinaberry tree who knew of “the music maker,” and whom she quoted, “The white folks taken his house and moved it up to Jacksonville.” Then he smiled at her and said, “They ought to’ve known better, hadn’t they? It wasn’t the house he cared nothing about. He’d as lief had any kind of roof to lay his bones under. It was the place he set store by. He purely loved the river.”

Rosen reading to Delius, quadriplegic and blind, early 1930s, image courtesy Delius Association of Florida

Julia Sanks regretted that though she sang him hymns, Delius never became a Christian. She blamed his father, saying, “He could’ve made gospel hymns, but his daddy rebuke him into loose music.” She demanded Jahoda pray with her for Delius’s soul there in her tiny house on Evergreen Street in St. Augustine, for “he such an unbeliever.”

Julia Sanks’s house in St. Augustine, 1960s, from Gloria Jahoda’s 1967 book The Other Florida

Philip Heseltine / Warlock would put it differently in his 1952 biography: “Delius is, indeed, a pantheistic mystic whose vision has been attained by an all-embracing acceptation, a ‘yea-saying’ to life . . . the realization that change and death are only apparent.”

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