Frederick Delius was born in Bradford in the West Riding of Yorkshire in the north of England. His parents were German: Julius and Elise Pauline Delius had moved from Bielefeld, Germany, to Britain to set themselves up in the wool business. Frederick ('Fritz' to his family, 'Fred' to his friends) Delius was the fourth of their fourteen children.
He was educated at Bradford Grammar School (where the singer John Coates was his contemporary). Delius felt little attraction to the country of his birth and spent most of his life abroad, in the United States and on the continent of Europe, chiefly in France. Nonetheless his music has been described by Felix Aprahamian as 'extremely redolent of the soil of this country [Britain] and characteristic of the finer elements of the national spirit'.
Although Frederick showed early musical promise, his father was very much set against a musical career and wanted him to work in the family business.
Julius Delius eventually sent Frederick (apparently at Frederick's request) to be the manager of a grapefruit plantation at Solano Grove on the St Johns River in Florida, USA. There, west of St Augustine and south of Jacksonville, Delius continued to be engrossed in music and in Jacksonville met Thomas Ward, who became his teacher in counterpoint and composition. Delius was fascinated by the African-American music he heard in the Florida back country, and his compositions in America were influenced by African-American spirituals and folk music. As late as the mid-1960s some African-American residents of St. John's county remembered him.
While in Florida, Delius had his first composition published, and later put his memories into the Florida Suite, written at Leipzig in 1887. The house he lived in from 1884 to 1885 in Solano Grove was given to Jacksonville University and moved on campus in 1961. The University holds the Delius Festival each year in honour of the composer. After he left Florida, Delius taught music in Danville, Virginia and eventually moved to New York.
After his stay in New York, his father finally agreed to allow him a musical education, and consented to send him to Leipzig, Germany, to study at the conservatory. He was befriended there by Edvard Grieg, who encouraged him and became a lifelong friend.
In 1897, Delius met the German painter Jelka Rosen. They soon set up home in the French village of Grez-sur-Loing, near Fontainebleau, and married in 1903. Apart from a short period when the area was threatened by the advancing German army during the First World War, he lived in Grez for the rest of his life.
In 1907, he met Thomas Beecham, who was to be the greatest champion of his music during his lifetime in the English-speaking world. Until then Delius's audience was German, principally due to the conductors Fritz Cassirer and Hans Haym.
Delius's latter years were spent chiefly at the home he and Jelka set up in Grez. These years were marred by increasing ill-health. As a young man he had caught syphilis, the long term effects of which were to rob him of his sight and to cause him to become increasingly paralysed, eventually needing use of a wheelchair. He therefore employed Eric Fenby, who originally wrote Delius a fan letter, as his amanuensis and the great works of Delius's final years were dictated to Fenby, who later wrote a book about the experience of working with Delius. Fenby also co-wrote the screen adaptation from the book for a 1968 film, Song of Summer, directed by Ken Russell, starring Max Adrian as the blind composer and Christopher Gable as Fenby.
Delius was profoundly engaged in the contemplation of nature and disliked religion, though Koanga displays an interest in voodooism. He admired the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, and his choice of Nietzsche texts for A Mass of Life, the determinism evident in Irmelin and the Village Romeo and Juliet, and the living metempsychosis of the boy and the seagull in Sea Drift have prompted some to see in his work a form of pantheism.
Delius died at Grez in 1934 and was buried in a nearby cemetery on the Marlotte road that leads out of Grez. The interment ceremony was unusual: there was no priest present, and there were no prayers or music. In 1935, in completion of his own declared wish to be buried in 'a quiet country churchyard in a south of England village', his remains were exhumed and taken from France to the United Kingdom. Jelka contracted pneumonia during the Channel crossing, and could not attend the funeral. On 24 May an Anglican interment took place at the Church of Saint Peter in Limpsfield, Surrey. Vast crowds converged, and a section of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, together with the cellist Beatrice Harrison (of Oxted, nearby), who had given early performances of his works, performed after the funeral ceremony, and Sir Thomas Beecham gave the address. After Jelka died, four days later, she was interred in the same grave as her husband. Beecham's grave is situated approximately ten metres from theirs.
Delius's musical idiom is unusually consistent; almost everything he wrote can be recognized as distinctively his. The idiom is characterized by a curious mixture of pentatonic figures and chromaticism, although still largely tonal; it reflects a move from the textbook post-romanticism of the years following the death (1883) of Wagner (a composer whom Delius greatly revered), to a style that was unique. It blended Impressionism with continuing hints of Wagner, and with northern European and African-American folk idioms. His use of luscious harmonies, mainly slow-moving, and constantly evolving melody, with the frequent use of leitmotifs, is what prompted Sir Thomas Beecham to describe him as "the last great apostle of romantic beauty in music." The harmony and melody in his style were influenced greatly by African-American music of the time, using blues chords and melodic characteristics that would become crucial parts of popular music years later.
Not everyone likes his work: Bernard Levin famously called it "the musical equivalent of blancmange". It is an acquired taste - and not everyone acquires it.
His best-known pieces include the brief orchestral piece On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring; Brigg Fair ('An English Rhapsody'); In A Summer Garden; North Country Sketches; A Mass of Life to Friedrich Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra; Florida Suite; Sea Drift, a setting of text by Walt Whitman, for baritone, chorus and orchestra; A Late Lark, setting of text by William Ernest Henley; Songs of Farewell, another setting of Whitman texts, for chorus and orchestra; Cynara and Songs of Sunset, both settings of texts by Ernest Dowson; Koanga, which as an opera with a black principal character antedates George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess by four decades and is roughly contemporaneous with Scott Joplin's Treemonisha; an atheist Requiem; four concertos: a violin concerto, a cello concerto, a double concerto for violin and cello, and a piano concerto (also somewhat Gershwinesque; premiered by Julius Buths in 1904); the colourful, picturesque tone poem Paris: Song of a Great City; and the beautifully exuberant symphonic composition Life's Dance. Orchestral excerpts from his operas, for example La Calinda from Koanga which originated in the Florida Suite and The Walk to the Paradise Garden from A Village Romeo and Juliet, are also played and recorded reasonably often. There are a number of chamber works (three mature violin sonatas, a cello sonata and a string quartet).