About this Piece
Length: 10 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, oboe, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 14, 1931, Hamilton Harty conducting
A Village Romeo and Juliet is acknowledged by most commentators and admirers of Delius as his first characteristic masterpiece. He composed it in 1900 and 1901, adding the purely orchestral "The Walk to the Paradise Garden" in 1906, just before the opera's premiere in Berlin in February 1907. Delius had just turned 45 at the time, a rather late age to reach artistic maturity, but his musical style needed time to steep, expressing as it does a profound spirituality and an acceptance of life's vagaries informed by the experience of nature.
Delius wrote his own libretto after others' attempts had proved unsatisfactory, another indication of his resolute vision for the work. The source for the text was the Swiss realist Gottfried Keller's novella Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe (1876), a story about the love of two young peasants frustrated by a feud between their families. Delius arranged the libretto into six scenes, each exploring a different spiritual state. The thread that runs through them all is his juxtaposition of the immutability of nature, which constantly renews itself, with the transitory condition of human experience. As the young lovers drift through life, and everything they encounter makes them suffer, they find one moment of happiness in nature - in the Paradise Garden - away from everyone else. At the end of the opera, they resolve to commit suicide together, drifting out onto a river in a hay barge, which they scuttle after a rapturous duet, a "love-death" in the manner of Tristan und Isolde.
"The Walk to the Paradise Garden" actually wasn't part of Delius' original conception of the opera; he added it before the Berlin premiere to accommodate a lengthy scene change between a fairground and a mountain inn. The result is one of Delius' most impressive orchestral works, a tone poem that draws together motives from the previous five scenes. The piece begins with the second horn (doubled by bassoon) introducing a warm, unhurried theme that is then taken up by the English horn and reworked and fragmented among the other winds. For much of the interlude's course, the winds play an almost soloistic role, recalling the atmosphere of "Forest Murmurs" from Wagner's opera Siegfried. The interlude reaches a climax with a full orchestral crescendo followed by a rapturous statement of the opera's "love" theme in radiant B major, as the young couple finds peace, however fleetingly, in nature. The music ends, trailing off into silence, as they return to life and to the events that will eventually bring about their union in death.
- John Mangum is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's Program Designer/Annotator.