Sunday, 22 October 2017

Delius: Elegance and economy.

Frederick Delius Prelude No.2 for piano (completed 1923).

This short prelude of 32 bars is a remarkably elegant composition. I played through the music several years ago and was immediately attracted by a quality of lightness in the texture but put the music aside in my search for newer and more radical ideas. Like so many other piano pieces of the early 20th century it sat on my library shelf gathering dust. I rediscovered the music recently and decided to examine the harmony to see how Delius obtained this quality of elegance and light.

The musical shape is simple enough, ABA, the A section characterised by RH semiquavers throughout in 3/4 time, the B section in 4/4 is little more than a series of arpeggios, A1 has a short transition (harmonically) to a partial repeat of A material with written in rit. via harmonic rhythm and a coda of two bars.

My first thought was to examine the RH part of the A section, this revealed parallel 4ths moving chromatically,  a cohesive feature, but this seemed secondary to the work as a whole, so a vertical examination of the music was required.

The opening bar forms a pair of fourths a tone apart, the next bar adds a D natural to provide a pentatonic figure carried over to bar 3. The introduction of C natural in bar 4 and the B flat semiquaver redirects the harmony to a formation of five tones and a semitone (0,1,3,5,7,9) set 6-34 in Forte’s comprehensive list of chord formations, and it is this formation that provides the glue for the greater part of the music. This chord is paired with one other major formation heard for the first time in bar 5, also a hexachord, 0,2,3,5,7,9 (set 6-33)

The four whole tones account for the lightness of the texture and the additional semitone can act as a pivot between the chords, the first time we hear this between bars four and five we have


B flat
B flat
A flat


Chord 1: 0,2,3,6,8, chord 2: 0,1,5,7, and chord 3: 0,2,3,5,7,9, which are sets 5-28, 4-16, and 6-33, the set 4-16 is a subset (i.e. common) to both hexachords 6-33 and 6-34.

Examine the table below to see how these two formations account for the harmony throughout the music. The one chord that lies outside the logic of construction lies in bar 16, in context a rather beautiful sounding C natural, a composer’s privilege for that reason alone. In tonal terms we could think of it as an accented dissonance resolving on the B natural (prepared by the previous C/B in dotted 1/2 notes). One can of course look at the whole work in terms of conventional, if extended, harmony, but my intention is simply to show the cohesive features which I find best illustrated through reference to sets.

Working within the harmony there is a melodic character to the music, though not cantabile the stepwise character of the left hand part is delightful and I am sure appealing to those who love jazz formations, this is not surprising given the closeness to pentatonic formations within the chords, and to those who know the personal history of Frederick Delius this makes perfect sense.

There are many additional features deserving comment in this short work (and in the 3 Preludes as a set), e.g. I have skipped over the note density and the more rapid alteration of the first section in relation to the second, but I hope that there is sufficient detail here to encourage a closer inspection of the composer’s works.

Further commentary on the Delius 3 Preludes for piano. 27.10.2017

Written in 1923 when he was 61 years of age this set of three short Preludes are delightful works, well written for the pianist and show some fascinating details in their construction.

Where do we place our focus when listening to these Preludes? They do not have a “cantabile” melody, they are not illustrative pieces to conjure images on the inner eye. They do have a touch of Bach’s design in the control of harmony (and they are mostly in two part writing, unlike a great deal of British piano music of the time).

Let’s take the melody of the third Prelude (starting in the second bar), there is a repetition of three bars to assist the listener in recognising the melodic character and rhythm, but then the melody moves (seemingly) freely up to bar 17 where it briefly returns before more rhapsodic material. In reality the melody is more structured than one might suspect.

Just to clarify the opening seven bars of melody forms a hexachord from which nearly all the remaining material is drawn. The E sharp forms a chromatic rise as part of the closing cadence, a feature also seen in the second Prelude. The second part of the melody in 3/4 time is played in octaves but reduced to bare bones in the illustration.

While this set also features vertically Delius would find this too monotonous as a single formation, he blends the music with another hexachord 0,1,3,5,7,9, and makes particular use of the whole tone feature as both four and five note collections. The same process is at play in the first Prelude where the main collection is 024579, and from bar 4 to 11 we can hear this chord alternating with the whole tone pentachord 0,2,4,6,8. It is unlikely that all listeners will be conscious of this detail, far more likely the focus will be on the dotted quaver semiquaver and dotted semiquaver and demisemiquaver skips which give the scherzando marking its character. At its most regular use the exchanges of harmony produce harmonic rhythm, and many listeners will be aware of this characteristic, and once recognised will provide greater coherence to listening pleasure. For all three Preludes the density of music is regulated within hexachords and subsets so the degree of dissonance and compactness of harmony is well regulated, a feature of which most listeners to Delius will be aware. For those who may ask why the progression of the music by chromatic descent has been omitted, I will only say that the feature can be heard, as can ascents. There is much to be discovered through repeated listening.

The pieces may be heard at:

If you want a clearer score one can be downloaded at IMSLP composers – Delius.