Delius (Song of Summer)


Delius (Song of Summer)
Dr. Hook
Russell Harty

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Segueing from “Babooshka” into its following track without a fade, Never for Ever continues its exegesis of British culture with “Delius (Song of Summer).” A sparse track whose runtime spans a mere 2 minutes and 51 seconds, “Delius” homages the English composer Frederick Delius with taciturn suggestions and discordant fragments of sound. Built around the conga-esque rhythm track of a Roland drum machine and animated by Paddy Bush’s shimmering sitar, “Delius” is a spectral track with snatches of a lyric, which largely consists of Kate Bush and backing vocalists Paddy Bush and Ian Bairnson singing Delius’ name. With its strident off-ness, embellished by such quirks as the outrageous rhyming of “syphilis” with “genius” and the peaceful harmony of a drum machine and sitar, “Delius” is an anomaly of Bush’s early career that sets a precedent for works like “Watching You Without Me” (to which its rhythm track bears similitude) or the entirety of A Sky of Honey.

Built on a verse that primarily shifts between the I and IV chords of B (B major 7th and E), “Delius” is melodically simple, working in rigid parameters to homage its subject. Providing an understated biographical statement of the composer without describing any of his life’s events, it conveys the cadences of Delius’ legacy with parsimony and depth.

To explain what Bush doesn’t, Frederick Theodore Albert Delius began his career as a full-time composer in Paris in 1886, channeling the influence of black music (which he discovered while failing to manage a Florida orange plantation) and European composers such as Wagner and Grieg into his own orchestral pieces (in a declaration of emotional hedonism, he described music as “an outburst of the soul” which is “addressed and should appeal instantly to the soul of the listener”). By the 1890s, he became popular in Imperial Germany thanks to the promotional efforts of German conductors. It took longer for Delius’ music to take off in his native Britain, but it eventually gained enough popular heft for Westminster to hold a six-day Delius festival in the late 1920s. By that point, Delius had contracted tertiary syphilis from extramarital affairs he’d conducted in Paris and was blind and paralyzed. In the final stage of his life, he was tended by his astonishingly dedicated wife Jelka Rosen, who gave up a genuinely successful art career to be his caretaker. Yet even with his devastating syphilis, he remained creative. From 1928 to 1934, Delius was assisted in his compositional efforts by a fellow Yorkshireman, Eric Fenby. For the duration of that time, Fenby served as Delius’ amanuensis, assisting him in the composition of some of his better-known pieces, such as the tone poem A Song of Summer, one of his more useful works for our purposes, as it provides the title of Ken Russell’s Delius biopic.

In terms of progenitors, Delius and Bush are operate in adjacent but separate traditions. Delius was heavily influenced by American music, particularly black music. He was fonder of popular music than some of his contemporaries (there’s a true-to-life scene in the film A Song of Summer where Delius jauntily enjoys listening to “Old Man River”) and was heavily influenced by his nostalgia for his plantation days. According to Delius, the black workers on the plantation “showed a truly wonderful sense of musicianship and harmonic resource in the instinctive way in which they treated a melody, and, hearing their singing in such romantic surroundings, it was then and there that I first felt the urge to express myself in music.” The implications of this statement are mixed in nature. On the one hand, channeling the innovations of black music into critically respected symphonies in the Jim Crow era was a step forward in terms of taking the musical abilities of black people seriously. Alternatively, there’s a distressing mystification of exploited black workers in Delius’ description. Their labor is something for him to enjoy personally, rather than a way for these doubtlessly persecuted people to alleviate the astounding difficulties of plantation work. As is the norm for popular music, Delius treats black people as inspirations for his own creations rather than innovators who paved the way for 20th century music.

Bush’s relationship to black music has more distance. I’ve expounded on how Bush is primarily a British songwriter influenced by English artists. Those English artists, such as Bowie and Ferry, were in turn publicly and unashamedly influenced by American black music. Bush’s own terribly white style has less to do with R&B. Lionheart is a quasi-jazz album, and Bush was a fan of Billie Holiday, but Holiday’s influence on her work isn’t nearly as obvious as the watermark of Ziggy Stardust or The Wall. It’s not that Bush doesn’t engage with the musical creations of racial minorities — she will later in her career, with results that range from well-intentioned misfires like “The Dreaming” and blatantly offensive works like “Eat the Music.” When we get to The Dreaming, we’ll have to talk about the rise of world music and Bush’s part in it, as The Dreaming pays more attention to ethnic minorities than the rest of her work (I’m going to spend a lot of the next few months arguing that The Dreaming is a flawed work of post-colonial horror). So while Delius is directly influenced by black music, Bush is only tangentially marked by it, in the same way that most artists who create popular music is going to touch on R&B or rock ‘n’ roll in some fashion. As things stand, both Delius and Bush have admiring but flawed views on black music, acknowledging its importance without fully understanding the struggles behind it.

“Delius (Song of Summer)” contains flashes of its subject’s life. “Oh, he’s a moody old man,” muses Bush, referring to Delius’ volatile behavior as reported by Fenby, then referencing Delius’ work by adding “song of summer in his hand.” The song plays out like a duet between Fenby and Delius — Fenby’s reserved nature and devout Catholicism often led to the young man becoming overwhelmed by his employer’s secularism and cantankerousness (Paddy Bush is heard gruffly saying “ta-ta-ta” and “in B, Fenby!”, quotes from Ken Russell’s film Song of Summer). The chorus, a sequence of Latin or Latin-ish phrases, sounds like a despairing yet awed prayer of elegy by Fenby: “Delius/Delius amat” (Bush continues to fail at foreign languages by attaching the third-person present “amat” to “Delius,” while also touching on Delius’ atheism), and the genuinely gut-busting rhyme of “syphilis/deus/genius,” the latter of which she pronounces in Latin. “Delius” is neither hagiographical nor harshly critical of its song — it simply evokes his ethos and how the people in his orbit perceived him.

Or at the very least, it perceives Delius according to filmmaker Ken Russell’s treatment of him. “Delius” is heavily indebted to Russell’s 1968 BBC adaptation of Eric Fenby’s memoir Delius as I Knew Him, called Song of Summer. The film is told through the perspective of Fenby (a young Christopher Gable, who Doctor Who fans might recognize), who initially approaches Delius as an admirer and quickly becomes a distant and subordinate collaborator to him. The Delius of the movie (Max Adrian, and yes Song of Summer doubles as a trivia game for Doctor Who fans) is not a legend nor a booming celebrity, but a foul-tempered geriatric has-been, confined by his illness and domineering personality. This could easily turn into a cynical story about how young creatives should never meet their heroes, but Song of Summer is smarter than that. While it doesn’t understate the fact that Delius was plainly an asshole, neither does it understate the human costs of his cruelty. There are some gorgeous scenes where Delius becomes fully animated by the power of music and creation, and Fenby, while alienated from his hero, is equally drawn in. Russell depicts two men whose struggles are both reconciled and exacerbated by the creative process. Russell’s script is imbued with psychological realness, which is granted to every character — Jelka Delius finally gets justice in an astonishing scene where she breaks down over her husband’s infidelity and cruelty. Typically for Ken Russell’s work, Song of Summer moves gracefully, with equal measures of ambivalence and clarity. Of the films Kate Bush has touched to date, this may be the best.


And “Delius (Song of Summer)” faithfully adheres to Russell’s film. Imparting none of the movie’s plot while making it clearly exactly who Delius was is quite a feat. To an extent it’s a matter of Bush choosing the right words to evoke Delius’ life, but she weds her recent musical style to a keen understanding of Delius’ work. Delius’ music boasts his passion for Wagnerian grandioseness: it is huge, sentimental, and (pardon the word) “Epic,” often fixating on landscapes and seasons and elevating them into the stratosphere. While composing Song of Summer, Delius famously and instructed Fenby to imagine the composition in bombastic terms (later filmed faithfully by Ken Russell):

“I want you to imagine we are sitting on the cliffs of heather and looking out over the sea. The sustained chords in the high strings suggest the clear sky and stillness and calm of the scene… You must remember that figure that comes in the violins when the music becomes more animated. I’m introducing it there to suggest the gentle rise and fall of the waves. The flutes suggest a seagull gliding by.”

The words of a creator who knew exactly how he wanted his work to sound, to be sure. Bush’s “Delius” treads closely to it. Its Roland rhythm, piano, and sitar suggest an ethereal place where Delius and Fenby echo. Bush’s love for Delius’ a-cappella songs “To be sung of a summer night on the water” also informs the track, and not just through Bush’s title drop in the second verse. In a characteristically literal-minded move, her music video for the song becomes the default visual for the song. It depicts Bush surrounded by trees and water and clad in a swan dress (and, like, I’m not going to say that Bush is directly responsible for Björk’s swan dress because anybody who says that should be shot, but I’d be surprised if Björk was unaware of this video). There’s even a stand-in representation of Delius, a man in a wheelchair, his face obscured by a huge cutout of a sun (really). It’s a strange choice that balances the video out enough to make its more literal tendencies work. If certain images come to mind for this song, they’re going to be Swan Girl and Sun Man.

One wonders what Delius would have made of “Delius (Song of Summer).” Would he cantankerously scoff at it, or might he have viewed it as a fittingly sensuous and strange tribute to him? Bush and Delius are heavily connected by their sense of instinctive and a-typical harmony, so perhaps that connection would have awoken something in the latter. Certainly Eric Fenby thought so. When he met Bush and saw the “Delius” video, he proffered to Bush that as “a great individualist,” Delius “would have applauded you for at least doing your thing your own way.” Could Bush have received higher praise from the man who knew Delius best? I doubt it.

Recorded at Abbey Road Studio 2 during the sessions of January-June 1980. Released on Never for Ever on 7 September 1980. Music video shown during Dr. Hook and The Russell Harty Show on 7 April 1980 and 25 November 1980, respectively. Never performed live. Personnel: Kate Bush — vocals, piano, production. Roland — percussion (tongue-in-cheek credit on the album’s liner notes). Paddy Bush — Delius, sitar, bass voice. Alan Murphy — electric guitar. Ian Bairnson — bass voice. Preston Heyman — additional percussion. Jon Kelly — production, engineer. Pictures: Max Adrian & Christopher Gable in A Song of Summer (1968, dir. Ken Russell); Kate Bush in a swan dress.

2 thoughts on “Delius (Song of Summer)

  1. Another fabulous analysis as usual, Christine. I’ve always loved this song. It is so atmospheric and shows Bush really starting to move into her “painting with sound” phase. I knew a little about Delius and Fenby but thanks for filling in the missing gaps. One typographical note – Delius was born in 1862, not 1986.

    Liked by 1 person

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