Wednesday, 17 January 2018

A nagging doubt

A recent edition of Tales from the stave  that dealt with the Delius piece on On hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring reminded me of a possible musical influence I have long wondered about.  It not only addressed this nagging doubt, but also advanced the idea of a much more likely influence – not from folk music to art music composer, but from composer to composer. The story did however start with folk music; Delius was at the end of the chain though.

The influence I mistakenly suspected was from an American folk song to Delius. Many years ago, when my ability to read music was even more hesitant than it is now, I found the score of Goodbye old paint in a collection  of American folk songs. It wasn't a melody I knew, but the book provided chord symbols and I eventually worked out A tune that fitted the harmonies. But my grasp of the actual notes petered out after the first phrase

When I later heard the Delius piece I thought  AHA. While Delius was living in Florida he must have been exposed to Goodbye Old Paint.

But the BBC has now disabused me of this. The Delius piece was not an original idea (although I've never been a stickler for originality – as I've said often enough in this blog,  here for example); he got it from Edvard Grieg who he was with in Leipzig in 1887:

Delius playing cards with Edvard and Nina Grieg; see more details here.
Grieg's source was the Norwegian folk song In Ola valley, which he included in a collection of piano transcriptions in 1896. But as that radio programme made clear, the atmosphere of the piece was very different. The story behind In Ola Valley is rather Scandi Noir
In Ola Valley
In Ola Lake
There Eli lost her boy.
They searched in the valley
They rung in the lake
But Eli never found her boy. 

The ending of the verb in the penultimate line isn't very clear in the radio recording, But why I heard /rʌŋ/ rather than /rʌn/ (both fairly improbable at first hearing) was the context: the falling third – Delius's eponymous cuckoo – is supposed to evoke the tolling of a bell (both as a tool in the search and prefiguring the ultimate [presumed] death of the lost child).

So the American folk song quite probably (if my hunch is right)  migrated to America in the folk-memory of Norwegian settlers. It's not a direct ancestor of the Delius piece, but a shared ancestor. Delius's inspiration was a borrowing from (or possibly hommage to Grieg [it was published shortly after his death]). But in either case it shows Delius to be, as one of the contributors says. "not just a kind of melancholy folklorist ... but ...much more as Elgar said 'a poet in sound'".  [That Elgar quote would no doubt be marked 'needs citation' by Wikipedia, but the Beeb's good enough for me.]


PS and a couple of clues:
  • Questionable Tory claim about NHS giving trouble and strife a shiner. (4, 2, 5, 5)
  • Brief affair about one aspect of office life. (6)
Update: 2018.02.07.12:25 – Added PPS.


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