Solano Grove, Delius Pilgrimage Site

by Tim Gilmore, 7/9/2023

Beneath oaks and river birch trees and pines, the swamp on either side threatening these pitted dirt roads, I’m tracking the Solano family, the composer Frederick Delius, the Albertsons — children of slaves, Martha Bullard Richmond, Gloria Jahoda, Don Gillespie and scores of unnamed pilgrims who’ve found their way through these dense wilds.

I’m looking for a lost memorial and for the ghostly remains of old orange trees, but I’m also searching for the wilderness Frederick Delius romanticized all his life and the “sound of place,” as biographer Daniel M. Grimley calls it, that haunted and grew through the composer’s music.

Delius House at Solano Grove, 1939, photo by Carver Harris, Martha B. Richmond Delius Collection, Jacksonville Public Library

“Surely,” Clare Delius wrote in her book, Memories of my Brother, in 1935, “the spirit of my brother must return often to Solano Grove.” Might I catch sight of him at some distance out here in this neverending green? It wasn’t the cottage that birthed the Romanticism, though Delius fans eventually brought the house to Jacksonville as a shrine, but the brutal primordial Florida landscape.

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

Aluminum signs nailed to trees warn, “Roadway Subject to Flooding,” and at times the swamp covers the road wholly. More than a mile in, scuppernong vines and saw palmettos and marsh grasses hum with mosquitoes and yellow flies. Cottonmouths slither in brackish waters. I’ve known this landscape all my life. You can wax Romantic in full-on explorations of this fertile muck and morass as Slough of Despond, but to call it Paradise is a lie easier told from elsewhere.

It was in Memories of My Brother that Martha Bullard Richmond, a member of the Ladies’ Friday Musicale in Jacksonville, read of Delius’s once having lived on an orange grove 45 minutes south of the city. She wondered if the house could still be there. Though others had searched for it and failed, Richmond would become a new kind of Delius pilgrim.

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

It was out in the grove in March of 1884 that Delius claimed to have spent his first night smoking cigars and listening to the music of black caretakers not 20 years after Emancipation. “Hearing their singing in such romantic surroundings, it was then and there that I first felt the urge to express myself in music,” Delius told composer Eric Fenby, his amanuensis from 1928 until the elder composer’s death from syphilis in ’34.

Portrait of Frederick Delius by Jelka Rosen, 1912, image courtesy Delius Association of Florida

The young Fritz (later Frederick) Delius, son of a German wool merchant living in Yorkshire, felt no interest in joining the family business. His father failed repeatedly to keep him out of concert halls and theatres. Plotting as far an escape from parental authority as possible, Fritz convinced his father Julius that Florida’s citrus industry could make him responsible. Before he could change his mind, his father had bought him an orange grove of about 100 acres on the other side of the Atlantic.

Eric Fenby and Frederick Delius, original caricature by Richard Cole

“[At Solano Grove] I used to get up early and be spellbound watching the silent break of dawn over the river.” That’s Fenby quoting Delius in a 1984 monograph, On Delius in Florida, which he presented at the annual Delius Festival in Jacksonville. “Nature awakening – it was wonderful! At night the sunsets were all aglow – spectacular.” Waxing primitivist, he continued, “Then the coloured folk on neighboring plantations would start singing instinctively in parts as I smoked a cigar on my verandah.”

from Etude Magazine, August 1950

Listening now to “Daybreak,” the first section of Delius’s 1887 Florida Suite, I wonder how much I hear “Morning Mood” from Edvard Grieg’s 1875 Peer Gynt Suite. A Norwegian neighbor of Delius’s at Solano Grove, Jutta Bell-Ranske, was Grieg’s cousin and drew the 22 year old Delius into playing violin in the drawing rooms of Jacksonville socialites. After he left Florida, he met Grieg at Liepzig Conservatory, where in 1888 his music instructor Hans Sitt conducted the Florida Suite for an audience of three people: Delius, Norwegian composer Christian Sinding and Grieg himself.

Somewhere ahead of me tramps the wide and lazy St. Johns River, but it’s impossible to see through the lush monotony of thick green. Somewhere up ahead, if it’s still there, the face of the composer looks out from a medallion in a slab of coquina, the oceanic limestone native to Florida, but I don’t know that I can find it. Somewhere, previous wanderers have described an ancient oak that stood just outside Delius’s cottage, but these swamplands harbor countless such oaks.

“In front of the house is a garden with gardenias, hibiscus,” and nameless other “tropical flowers,” Delius wrote the German artist Jelka Rosen, his then-future wife, on his second trip to the grove in 1897. The house stands “in the middle of the orange trees,” while “an enormous honeysuckle creeps” over “the verandah,” and “in front of the house to the right and near the river,” he said, an ancient live oak stands.

Delius says he and the two Parisian friends who accompany him, including a mysterious Frenchwoman who disguised herself as a man and surprised Delius by secretly boarding ship with him, have caught a small alligator and placed it in a barrel and that he will bring Jelka the skins of lots of snakes he’s killed. “I am sorry I cannot bring some of the flowers or a piece of the moonlight nights or some of the magnolia blossoms and orange blossoms.”

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

The question of who most influenced Delius in his youth depends on who’s interpreting his story. The three main possibilities come down to Grieg, an enigmatic Brooklyn organist named Thomas F. Ward seeking better health in Florida, and some Romantic combination of the primordial Florida landscape and, in a colonial mindset, its untrained black musicians making wild primitive music in the hot humid night.

The implicit racism of that last item raises questions about the influence of black Southern music on the wealthy German merchant’s English-born son. Supposedly Elbert Anderson, the young black caretaker of the grove, taught Delius folk songs that influenced pieces of his 1902 Appalachia and other work. Is Delius giving black music new and due respect or is his use of it a colonialist appropriation? His 1896 and ’97 opera Koanga, set among slaves on a Florida plantation, might be the first major European musical score to incorporate African-American musical material.

Don Gillespie’s fascinating 1996 book The Search for Thomas F. Ward, Teacher of Frederick Delius, argues that Solano Grove was less important than Delius’s having met Ward in Jacksonville. Gillespie wondered how a chance meeting between the two men at Merryday and Paine, a music store on Bay Street a block from the Jacksonville waterfront, could have led to the “immortality” of one man, Delius, and the “historical oblivion” of the other, Thomas Ward. The latter was 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.

So in 1969, Gillespie “searched out Solano Grove.” He found the grove because Martha Bullard Richmond had found the grove. On November 17, 1940, The New York Times reported, “Florida research workers […] have not only found Solano Grove, but […] have had the old orange plantation surveyed after careful examination of its title, and […] have even discovered in more or less ruined condition the old four-room dwelling where Delius lived and where he captured so many of the old slave tunes which recur in such works as Koanga and Appalachia – the latter built around the motif ‘Oh honey, I am going down the river in the morning.’”

Richmond’s handwritten manuscript describes her 1939 travels and travails through a St. Johns County far more overgrown and less populated than it is today. She describes finally finding “a faint entrance to the two-mile woods trail to the riverfront” and eventually the dilapidated cottage, the “huge old oak tree,” and “magnolias, old peach and lemon trees.”

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

In fact, said The New York Times in 1940, “The existing authorities on Delius all agree that, when Delius achieved fame, efforts to locate the house and even the grove failed, after painstaking inquiries, and it was concluded that the whole tract had once more been reclaimed by the impenetrable wilderness.”

Gillespie found the St. Johns River spanning three miles wide and “the remains of a giant oak from Delius’s and Ward’s time.” He abandoned a dissertation topic on Delius and Ward at the University of North Carolina, but throughout a music publishing career in New York in the 1970s, the grove, he writes in his 1996 introduction, “kept beckoning me to return.”

Even the way Ward and Delius met is open to debate, however, depending on various sources. It’s possible that German-born Jax lumberman Edward Suskind, “whose home was a gathering-place for Jacksonville’s music lovers, befriended Delius and located a teacher for him” – the organist of Jacksonville’s Church of the Immaculate Conception. Ward’s return with Delius to Solano Grove, where he gave him music lessons in the summer of 1884, has been fictionalized and mythologized dozens of times, though few specifics exist of their experience together here.

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

Perhaps now I’m staring up at the old live oak that reached its much older limbs over Delius’s cottage before fans moved the house to Jacksonville University. There the house opened up to the annual Delius Festival from 1961 to 2004. Its trunk doesn’t span as thickly as those of many an ancient oak I’ve known, nor do its massive branches weigh to the ground before growing back upward again like Jacksonville’s Cummer Oak or Treaty Oak. Still, its many strong limbs encircle it, story after story, as though immobilized in whirl. Drapes of Spanish moss, silver and regal, no real moss at all but tightly clinging bromeliad, drip beneath the green of resurrection ferns ascending these muscled extremities.

I don’t doubt the Florida wilderness affected Delius profoundly, but I suspect nostalgia altered his recollections later in life. Having always known the primordial brutality of this climate and landscape, I can’t imagine how it might seem to someone from the cold rocky moors of Yorkshire, the land Emily Bronte eternalized in Wuthering Heights. Wouldn’t it seem even more antagonistic?

I’ve reveled in my own explorations of this violent ancient land-largely-water, in archaeological field schools and envisioning this city’s origins in my 2017 book, The Book of Isaiah, about Jacksonville’s founder, Isaiah Hart. “As though Florida had taken root in her ribs and broken her borders out from inside. The State of Flowers was also the State of Filth. In Florida, even the light was dirty, even when the light burnt brightest, whitest.” This is my own Romanticism of this place, but one based firmly in its excess.

image from the 1969 Delius Festival program, courtesy Delius Association of Florida

Now I’ve come to the composer. Whether or not his spirit still visits, as his sister said, his image remains on this strange memorial, this cenotaph, deep down in these woods. The river lies just behind it, obstructed by deep green. A fallen oak arches over a lush lane, an accidental gateway to the bower. Someone keeps this field of green maintained. Otherwise it would fall to the jungle in a single summer. Jacksonville University and the Florida Delius Association placed this monument here in 1992, 31 years after moving the house to JU.

Decades ago, a county road sign marking the dirt road to Solano Grove said, “Home of Frederick Delius, the Composer,” but like the abandoned wooden church beside the dirt road that old directions say will let you know you’re on the right path, it fell beneath Florida’s overgrowth.

The Delius who looks out from this slab of coquina never closes his eyes. He looks sleepy. Or maybe he’s just sick. The syphilis he contracted in Paris in the 1890s debilitated him for decades, eventually leaving him paralyzed from the neck down and blind.

But this Delius sees. He glances with snide side-eye. He looks supercilious, not like an artist overcome by the world and its beauty. An arch of resurrection fern grows from the top of the coquina, a rare oceanic sedimentary rock, full of fossils, fused together with the ancient remains of shells of mollusks and brachiopods and trilobites – those extinct marine arthropods some 500 million years old. From certain angles, these resurrection ferns look like an extra hairstyle, a mullet mohawk, atop the mostly bald pate of Delius’s likeness.

Today Solano Grove is called Solano Cove. Based on particular records that refer to the original Spanish land grant as being made to the Solanas, biographer Daniel Grimsby calls it Solana Grove. It feels like neither grove nor cove. It feels like most of Florida, sunken in semiaquatic nethersphere like the primeval broil from which life first – both against all odds and inevitably – cooked itself forth and crawled and teemed.

Martha Bullard Richmond thought at first of turning Solano Grove into a Delius pilgrimage site, but it was so far away and so hard to get to. After the cottage moved to Jacksonville University in 1961, the year of the first international Delius Festival, later festivals included trips to the grove. The truest devotees and most determined pilgrims always found a way to stand in the place they believed had formed the genius of Delius as if from the primordial ooze.

When Florida historian Gloria Jahoda traveled into the grove in preparation for her 1967 book The Other Florida, she 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.” He grinned up at her then 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.”