The Florida Suite - Frederick Delius's Tropical Epiphany

The Florida Suite is Frederick Delius's earliest orchestral work. Explore this tropical, mystical music painting here...

In 1884, Delius was 22 years old. He had not taken schooling very seriously, and after kicking around his family's wool company for a short while he set off to try his hand at orange farming.

Setting out from Liverpool he arrived at his new domain in Florida: a large orange farm near Jacksonville. He was to be the manager here. This new setting, full of tropical beauty, sultry heat, and naturally vibrant colors and smells, jolted Delius into realizing his true calling: music.

In fact, thanks to the recollections of one of his close friends we know almost the exact moment when Delius had his epiphany...

It was when he was sitting on the verandah of his splendid plantation house on a warm summer's night. Through the lush gloom of swamps and orange trees floated the richly harmonized voices of the negro plantation workers, singing a traditional song.

The whole scene had such an effect on Delius that it inspired all of his most opulent music. In an instant he had experienced something which he repeatedly tried to express in music for the rest of his life, and which gave rise to some of the most unique and beautiful music of the 20th century.

Delius only stayed in Florida for 18 months, but his impressions remained forever in his mind. Soon after he enrolled at the conservatory in Leipzig.

Fittingly his first orchestral work was a musical painting inspired by his time on the orange plantation. He borrowed the concept of a suite from Edvard Grieg, also a student at Leipzig, and the piece was first performed in that city in 1888.

Click here to read about the life and works of the famous Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.

Frederick Delius


Oranges in Florida. Painting by Nancy Paris Pruden.

The music is typically Delian - lush, beautiful, chromatic but with strong pentatonic melodies.

At times the texture and color of the instruments is a little thin, but since this is Delius's first ever orchestral work I think we can forgive the occasionally weak instrumentation.

Remarkably the music already contains that characteristic Delius orchestral sound: strong basses, highly inventive and beautiful use of woodwind, and a sort of expansive freshness evoking primeval nature.

The suite has 4 movements:

  1. Daybreak/Dance: A slow buildup depicting the sun rising and light spilling onto the brilliant oranges and greens of the plantation. Birds sing and the sky is blue.

    Halfway through, the movement becomes a spirited, dramatic dance. Delius liked this second part so much that he reused it as a dance in his opera Koanga.

  2. By the River: A flowing movement, illustrating the gentle but perpetual movement of the St. Johns River (on the banks of which was Delius's plantation). The calmness and steady rhythm of this movement guides the listener into a peaceful reflection.

  3. Sunset/Near the Plantation: My personal favorite movement from the Florida Suite. With inky colors Delius paints the setting sun, casting long shadows over the plantation and bringing out all the tropical magic of the lush surroundings.

  4. At Night: The suite ends with the darkness of night. Delius creates a mystical atmosphere, ending with a romantic song. The music has a feeling of comfort and nostalgic contentment.

Here's an excerpt of the 3rd movement with pictures of Florida to help you understand Delius's inspiration...


I heartily recommend the recording by Sir Charles Mackerras conducting the Welsh National Opera Orchestra, on Decca. Mackerras conducts with a very good understanding of Delius, and manages to control the composer's 'difficult' music with flourish.

The recording quality itself is warm and full. There is also a small sense of forward momentum which reduces the meandering sound Delius's music has in the hands of less-skilled conductors.

This Florida Suite recording also comes with a selection of Delius's other popular orchestral pieces.

Recommended Recording

Click to explore the dreamlike music of French composer Claude Debussy, who's style has a similar feeling to Delius.

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