Frederick Delius: Sonata for Violin and Piano, No.1

by Midori Komachi

Delius Society Journal, 2014 Issue


The Sonata for Violin and Piano No.1 stands with a unique identity in Delius’s chamber music works, filled with ideas that developed over a long period of time. Although Delius started the initial sketch in 1905, he did not complete it until 1914. It is worth noting that it had already been 22 years since he last completed a Violin Sonata – the posthumous Sonata in B major was written in 1892. This early work displayed Delius’s youthful voice, freshly inspired from influences such as Edvard Grieg’s music. Despite his efforts, publishers in Paris rejected the piece at the time, leading Delius to abandon the work. From then, over the next few years, his output leaned more towards larger orchestral works.


Delius came back to his initial sketches of the Sonata in 1914, then with a mind full of orchestral sounds. Inevitably, harmonic colours and stream of chromaticism are explored as if the violin and piano could sound like an orchestra. Delius was working at his best at this time, having had series of successful performances of his orchestral pieces that started off that year. In a letter to his friend Percy Grainger, Delius wrote: “The spring has been simply divine- The garden is full of Lilacs & Laburnums in full bloom…it is out of the world”.[1] However, by August of that year, this ideal environment at his home in Grez-sur-loing had deteriorated, with the outbreak of war in France: “During the German advance there was an ever growing panic…a terrifying sight & we sat for hours watching this terrified stream of humanity pass by in every sort of vehicle possible”. [2]


For Delius, the environment of peaceful nature was an invaluable source for writing music. This is interestingly reflected in the contrasting parts of this Sonata. Written in a unique form of one movement with two parts, the first part was sketched in 1905, and the second part in 1914. As we approach the second part, we find a great contrast in character to that of the first. Such darkness and earthly marching character, reflects Delius’s state of mind as he feared the outbreak of war. In contrast to the nostalgic fantasy of the first part, the second part begins ‘With vigour and animation’. The vigorous character gradually subdues in deep darkness, spreading over a long section to be played ‘slow and mysteriously’. The darkness foreshadows - in September, the Deliuses had no choice but to move out to Orléans, and eventually, in November to England, where they were hosted at Thomas Beecham’s home in Watford.


Although this unfortunate event hindered the publication of the Sonata, Delius’s temporary residence in England gave opportunities for series of significant encounters, particularly with violinists: Arthur Catterall, May Harrison and Alfred Sammons. This led to a further revision of the Sonata, and many years later, stimulated the composition of the other two Violin Sonatas. The Sonata No.1 was premiered on 24th February 1915 in Manchester, by violinist Arthur Catterall and pianist R.J.Forbes, who edited the instrumental parts.


Delius was a violinist himself, with a technique advanced enough to perform Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto during his early career. Therefore, one would imagine that he would have a particular taste for technique, such as bowings and fingerings. As a matter of fact, it was on the contrary. In comparison with Delius’s original writing of the violin part to Catterall’s edition, the various articulations of bowing techniques are significantly different. Delius trusted his performers, that “a really musical person must feel it my way!”. This is also the case in his subsequent Violin Sonatas, in which violinists contributed their own bowings and fingerings in the final published work. Sonata No.2 (1923) was edited by Alfred Sammons, and Sonata No.3 (1930) by May Harrison.


Delius dedicated this Sonata to May Harrison in 1917, when the work was finally published. This was attained with a great deal of help from Thomas Beecham, who ‘bought’ the Sonata from Delius for £300, and prepared the work for publication with Philip Heseltine. Beecham described this piece incorporating a “mixture of styles”, and indeed, the work is reminiscent of various influences that came together in Delius’s fruitful stylistic development. With this Sonata, Delius’s chamber music writing gained a dynamic expansion in all directions – harmony, texture and structure, all collectively explored to a colourful spectrum.


[1] Letter to Percy Grainger, 29th April 1914. Carley, Lionel. Delius: A Life in Letters 1909-1934, Scholar Press, London, 1988. P.126

[2] Letter to Philip Heseltine, 26th October 1914. Ibid. Carley, Lionel. p.140