Life enhancing

Everyone has someone or something that makes them feel better - whether it's that person who always makes you smile whenever they appear or the consoling dog when you're feeling unwell, but there are few people that you can definitively say are life-enhancing. Eric Fenby however was one of this elite group.

I'd come across Fenby's name before, but got interested in him when I was doing a blog post recently elsewhere to celebrate the composer Delius' centenary. Fenby was a young musician from Yorkshire when he developed a passion for the music of his fellow Yorkshireman, Frederick Delius. Horrified by newspaper reports of Delius' declining health (he was in the end stages of syphilis), which meant that Delius was completely paralysed, blind, and unable to get his musical thoughts down on paper, Fenby wrote to the composer, filled with a young man's enthusiasm, and offered his services.

Over the next five years Fenby became the channel through which the last of Delius' music was able to pour. From being a severely disabled man trapped in an ailing body Delius was able to become once more the great composer he had been; he was also able to become at least partially the man he had once been too. The effect on his beloved wife, Jelka, was also huge "'I cannot tell you', said Mrs. Delius, one morning when she had brought up my letters to the music-room, 'I cannot tell you what it means to me to see Fred full of his music again.'"

Shortly after Delius' death in 1934 Fenby published a memoir of his remarkable time with the composer, Delius as I knew him. The edition I've just read is slightly more recent, and so retains much of the original, but with a few added notes and amendments. For me by far the most interesting section is "An interlude," the section which deals with Fenby's time spent with Frederick and Jelka Delius at their home in Grez-sur-Loing, France. It's an extraordinary document detailing the many difficulties that Fenby faced in adjusting to living in what was a very odd household. But it's also amazingly cheering, Fenby's work truly made a difference, and he met some wonderful people, not least the madcap Percy Grainger, who tore through the Delius household with the force of a whirlwind, performing athletic feats with the skill of an over-active kangaroo!

Further sections detail the painstaking process by which Fenby was able to translate Delius' thoughts to paper (fascinating stuff for any musician), Delius' final sad decline, and an odd section "The man and the composer", which reveals more about Fenby himself than Delius. Fenby was a convinced Roman Catholic, and found the irreligion of the Delius' household difficult to adapt to. Most of this chapter seems to be an argument in favour of composers having a spiritual (i.e. believing in a Christian God) dimension. The argument doesn't really work for me. Most organists will probably have been told at one time or another that "I can always tell when an organist is a Christian by the way they play" (sometimes it's not quite as in your face as that but it comes down to the same thing). Of course, as Elizabeth I would have pointed out there are no windows into mens' souls, how someone plays is much more to do with how good a musician they are, and, in the case of religious music, how respectful of the tradition than any spiritual beliefs they may or may not have.

So, I did find this section unsettling - partly I think because it's a subject that I've come up against in my own life, and find difficult to deal with; and also because it's the weakest section of the book in terms of writing. There are long unwieldy quotations, and it just feels out of synch with what is otherwise a charming and moving read.

Whether or not you're into classical music this is a truly interesting book. I cannot praise Eric Fenby enough, he comes across in the book as self-effacing and modest, but what he did was amazing. He was indeed life enhancing.


Popular Posts