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    Proportion and the esoteric: Frederick Delius and his music

    Critchett, Clive Ian (2017) Proportion and the esoteric: Frederick Delius and his music. Doctoral thesis (PhD), The Royal Northern College of Music in collaboration with Manchester Metropolitan University.


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    An analysis of Frederick Delius' earliest compositions showed that he had been intensely involved, especially between 1887 – 1892, in exploring various proportioning strategies in his music. Key to this was his development of three- or four-part configurations or 'patterns'. These were typically constructed so that the two outer sections of a pattern, although separate, were in strict proportion, most frequently in Golden Section (GS) proportion. Patterns that used GS were distinguished from the more familiar 'Type I' GS, as belonging to a 'Type II' GS praxis. Analyses of Delius' later works confirmed that both Types I and II GS proportioning continued to play a critical role in structuring his mature works, often leading in larger compositions to elaborate descending hierarchies of GS (less frequently involving 2: 1 or 1: 1) proportioning. These hierarchies tend to show a top-down, stepwise stratification, large-scale patterns usually being placed at their 'top' – often dominating and spanning entire works or movements. Type I GS and other proportioning strategies are then placed at lower levels. Investigations into possible French sources of Delius’ techniques showed that Debussy had been experimenting initially (from 1887) with a single large-scale GS structuring technique (termed here ‘GS partitioning’) infrequent in Delius. Comparison of 26 components of Delius’ proportioning practice with Debussy’s confirmed however that wherever a technique was shared, it was Delius who had preceded Debussy’s usage, often by a period of several years. Among French artists, Paul Sérusier in 1889 signalled a more complex GS proportioning than hitherto, whilst two of his associates, Charles Filiger and Jan Verkade, also used GS from the early 1890s, the latter showing only a brief interest. Turning to Germany, Emil Naumann, a pupil of Felix Mendelssohn, had been the first to write on GS techniques in music, intimating the use of one technique later taken up by Delius. Several components of Delius proportioning were eventually traced back to Mendelssohn, suggesting both that GS proportioning praxes in 19th century music were being developed in Germany long before the writings of Adolf Zeising or Gustav Fechner, and that Delius had gained his own techniques whilst studying in Leipzig rather than later during his Paris years. Studies in Delius’ social milieu during the 1880s and 1890s suggested that both Delius and his closest friends were pursuing aspects of esoteric knowledge influential on his early works. Thus the operas Irmelin and the Magic Fountain were each laid out as comprehensive alchemical allegories, and confirm that Delius had been strongly attracted to alchemical lore and symbolism sometime before he first met Strindberg. Although no evidence was found of any interest in GS in 19th century esoteric or occult movements, GS and esoterism tended to exist alongside each other, especially in Paris, where they occasionally interacted, as in Delius’ first opera Irmelin where GS was used as a symbol of the alchemist’s gold. An examination of Delius’ vocal texts indicated that they display a strong proclivity towards ascensionism – the impulse to soar upwards. This phenomenon is discussed alongside others in connection with the idea of exceptional or mystical experience having played an intimate role in Delius’ personal life and character.

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