Frederick Delius : Yorkshire Cricketer

“His eyes half-open, the wonderful dome like finely chiselled marble, the sinuous and gouged neck, the loose white open-necked shirt and loosely knitted tie, perfectly creased white cricket trousers and white canvas shoes, bare legs like triangular sticks of wood – it all seemed so terribly, overwhelmingly sad.” (Felix Aprahamian, describing a meeting with Delius in 1933).


The question of cricket and music, and whether the two should ever be mixed, divides opinion.  Some clearly find that hearing ‘Another one bites the dust’ over the Tannoy whenever a batsman is dismissed or ‘Tom Hark‘ when a boundary is hit enhances their enjoyment of the game.  I differ on this point, but feel that a brass band (of the kind that used to play at the Scarborough Festival) would be perfectly acceptable, as would a string quartet at – say – the late lamented Oakham Festival, or perhaps at Tunbridge Wells.

Thanks to modern technology, of course, we can now choose whatever soundtrack we like to accompany our cricket.  If I had to choose the work of a single composer my first thought would be Frederick Delius.  If, in the depths of Winter (today, for instance) I close my eyes, ‘On hearing the first cuckoo in Spring‘  will take me to the first day of some Platonic early season fixture. On a wild Winter’s night  ‘A Song of Summer‘, ‘The walk to the Paradise Garden’, ‘A Summer night on the river‘ can transport me to that Ideal day at the cricket in High Summer that rarely arrives in reality but, once experienced, lingers at the back of the mind, to be summoned by music or willpower however bleak one’s surroundings.

I’ve always suspected that this was a purely personal association, but a little research reveals that Delius was, indeed, a lover of cricket and a decent cricketer in his own right.  And not only that, but a Yorkshire cricketer.  The Delius family belonged to that type of Yorkshireman almost peculiar to Bradford, as described by another Bradfordian, J.B. Priestley:

‘There was this curious leaven of intelligent aliens, chiefly German-Jews and mostly affluent.  They were so much a part of the place when I was a boy that it never occurred to me to ask why they were there.  I saw their outlandish names on office doors, knew that they lived in pleasant suburbs, and obscurely felt that they had always been with us and would always remain.  That small colony of foreign or mixed Bradfordians produced some men of great distinction, including a famous composer [Delius], two renowned painters, and a well-known poet.’

When Eric Fenby (the composer’s amanuensis in his later years of French exile, when he was blind and compelled to use a wheelchair) was first introduced to Delius, they ‘bonded’ (as we would now say, perhaps) over cricket:

“We talked about Scarborough, which he had known very well as a boy. Did I go to the Cricket Festivals as he had done? Did I know Filey ? What glorious times he had had there when his family used to take a house in the Crescent for the summer holidays ! How he loved playing cricket in the neighbouring villages of Gristhorpe and Hunmanby, and what fine fellows the farm-hands were!”

and later in Fenby’s ‘Delius as I Knew Him‘ we learn how talk of cricket seemed to release the invalid from his confinement and lighten his mood:

“That summer, Delius was particularly interested in the cricket test matches between England and Australia. Every morning, when I came down to lunch, I read to him the scores and the full account of each day’s play. The progress of each match was watched with as much keenness as that of two spectators on the ground, and Mrs. Delius used to say that she had never heard so much talk about cricket as when her ‘two Yorkshire lads’ got together. And the old ‘un used to brag how, in his prime, he had never let a loose ball go by without punishing it unmercifully, and never dropped a catch in the slips, and the young ‘un used to believe him and tell how he had once skittled a team of yokels with his googlies for seven runs.”

So well-known is this image of Delius as tetchy and imprisoned by illness that we forget the younger man.  His sister Clare, though, in her memoir ‘Memories of my brother’ relates:

“At cricket, however, both he and his brother were notable successes. It was his passion for cricket, indeed, which oddly enough helped him forward on his musical career. Coming from the playing fields one day, the boys were playing about with the wickets which they had just drawn, using them as spears. One of these missiles, thrown with great force, stuck in Fred’s head, causing a very serious wound. The illness was a lengthy one, involving a long period of convalescence. During those days of enforced idleness, Fred spent the whole of his time at the piano in one or other of the music rooms. Sir Fred Moore has told me how my brother used to waylay him in the passage, and drag him into the music room and make him sing for him. ” It didn’t matter whether I had the music or not. If I knew the words and tune, that was enough. Fred would make up the most wonderful accompaniments, full of the marvellous harmonies for which years later he was to become so celebrated.”

The precise details of Delius’s playing career are harder to track down, though, in an article in the ‘Delius Society Journal’ from Spring 2004 entitled ‘Delius, the Cricketer‘,  T. Ian Roberts has found the details of a match between Giggleswick School and Mr. W.A. Dawson’s XI (a touring side from Bradford) from May 1882 when one F. Delius scored 11 and 4 and took 1-22 off 40 balls.  In another issue of the Journal Fenby informed its readers that the portrait by Ida Gerhardi that appears at the top of this piece was probably painted when Delius was ‘playing cricket for Paris‘, so clearly he managed to carry on getting the odd game after he left England for France in 1897.

Exile and blindness were the conditions by which Delius was constrained, and perhaps it would be missing the point to load my MP3 player with music by Delius when actually watching – say – Leicestershire take on Nottinghamshire on the 3rd of April in a pre-season friendly.  If  Delius was thinking of his youthful days at Scarborough when writing some of his Summer-summoning pieces from his French retreat (and I think he may have been), he was attempting to reclaim and preserve those perfect moments, the essence of the thing; it would be unwise and unfair to expose the phenomenal reality in front of one’s eyes to such comparisons.

The perfect person to write about Delius the cricketer would have been Neville Cardus.  They did meet once, in 1929, though they do not seem to have talked cricket.  Cardus remarked on Delius’s Yorkshire accent and wrote:

“There was nothing pitiable in him, nothing inviting sympathy in this wreck of a physique. He was wrapped in a monk-like gown, and his face was strong and disdainful, every line on it graven by intrepid living.”

Cardus wrote the obituary for Delius in ‘The Manchester Guardian’. I think this passage gets to the heart of the matter:

“Nearly all of Delius’s music recollects emotion in tranquillity. The sudden climaxes of passion – and we get one of the most beautiful in all music in the “Summer Garden” – are not climaxes caused by excitement of blood or nerve. They are the climaxes of a mind moved by the poetry that comes of beauty remembered. Delius is always reminding us that beauty is what is left for us when the show of life has passed on. Experiences have all sorts of values and significances. Other composers are more human than Delius, because their music contains the dynamics of life and action felt immediately – now!

Delius seems almost always to be aloof from the life active – life which, because it is active, is transitory.

To-day Delius’s music is loved, not merely liked, because in an age when most of the arts have little to do with beauty, but have apparently been overwhelmed by the complexity, the cynicism, and even the hastiness and noise of modern civilisation in this age, Delius has made for us a music which is serene and never unbeautiful.”