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The Lost Child

8:50pm Sunday, June 29th on BBC-2

Picture of Tasmin Little

Since she was a student at the Guildhall School of Music in the early 1980's the violinist Tasmin Little has believed that there is an unknown, and deliberately buried, secret in the life of Frederick Delius - a secret fundamental to the development and proper appreciation of his music. It concerns a brief period in his early twenties spent in a malaria infested swamp region of northern Florida trying to establish an orange plantation for his father.

Tasmin believes that while living almost alone in this remote area Delius had the most intense sexual affair of his life with one of the black girls who worked on the plantation. After he returned to England in 1886 Delius discovered that his black mistress had borne his child. Entirely dependent on his stern father and fearing social ostracism by the polite salon society whose approval he desperately needed if he was to win musical acceptance, Delius abandoned the girl and suppressed all knowledge of the baby.

However a few years later, more secure in his place as a composer and no longer wholly financially dependent on his father, Delius returned to Florida to seek his former mistress and the child. He was tormented by a deep sense of loss. Frightened that he might want to remove the child and take it back to England, the girl fled and Delius never saw her again.

Tasmin put forward her idea not so much because it filled certain missing chapters in Delius's biography but because she detected in the story the roots of much of Delius's musical language and his particular yearning intensity. Despite having scorn poured on her thesis when it was first published she has held tenaciously to the belief that she is right. As Tasmin has gained in reputation as one of our leading younger violinists, she has become recognised as an outstanding interpreter of the work of Delius.

At the same time a steady trickle of evidence has come to light lending support to her theory. But with the pressures of a busy international concert career Tasmin has never been able to go to Solana Grove (the site of the plantation) to search for the final proof that she is right. But in this programme Tasmin Little does at last travel to Solana Grove and visit Jacksonville, the nearby town where Delius first encountered Thomas Ward who was to become his teacher in counterpoint and the rules of composition.

Tasmin Little at Solana Grove Tasmin will go as a passionately committed detective on a personal mission out to show that Delius did indeed have an African American mistress who bore him a child. She will search baptismal records, community housing rolls and seek among descendants of the original plantation workers for stories or rumours that may help to confirm or deny the story. In her quest Tasmin will experience for herself, in the places and atmosphere in which Delius heard them, the music and songs - jazz, spiritual and Dykes hymn - which had such a profound effect on him and on works which Tasmin has done so much in recent years to champion.

This programme throws new light on the work of a composer who many regard as quintessentially English. Tasmin brings to her detective work the special insight of a musician.

Tasmin Little has performed as a soloist with leading conductors and orchestras around the world and played at every season of BBC Promenade Concerts since 1990. In 1995 she took part in both halves of the Last Night of the Proms. She has appeared on ITV's "Highway" and the Yorkshire Television documentary "Little by Little". She has played before the Queen and is at much at ease talking with audiences as she is playing to them. She has been nominated for Gramophone Awards for her recordings of works by Rubbra, Vaughan Williams, Brahms, Sibelius and, of course, Delius.

In preparing her own first performance of Delius's Violin Concerto Tasmin Little drew enormously on her understanding of Delius's experience at Solana - finding all his intensity of feeling and sense of yearning transmuted into his music. In the last ten years since she embarked on her career as a soloist she gained particular recognition as an authoritative interpreter of the work of Delius.

Researching for a paper on Delius's Violin Concerto while she was at the Guildhall School of Music Tasmin stumbled across a passage in Eric Fenby's classic book "Delius As I Knew Him" in which he says Delius "had many affairs, and one, the affair of his life, which came to nothing." Tasmin had always found a deeply moving yearning quality in Delius's music and had noticed how many of his songs were specifically about a lost love. Cynara even contains the repeated refrain "And I was desolate and sick of an old passion" and ends with the words "I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion." So Tasmin's belief in the idea of a lost lover developed from her study of the music.

But once launched on the search she quickly found that her theory was supported by the evidence of two of those closest to Delius in his lifetime. In an article in 1934 Percy Grainger claimed that Delius had returned to Florida in 1897 to try to find a vanished black sweetheart who had borne his child. He had confirmed this account in 1941, writing that Delius had told him the story several times, adding that when Delius returned to America to try to find her she fled and had taken the child with her, fearing that Delius might want to take the boy away from her.

Tasmin herself questioned Eric Fenby, Delius's amanuensis, who confirmed the story. He told Tasmin that Percy Grainger was to be trusted absolutely in the matter and knew details which only Delius himself could have told him. Grainger biographer claimed that the girl's name was Chloe, a "quadroon" and that the child was a son. After Tasmin's thesis was published the grandchildren of two of Delius's closest friends, Norman and Adine O'Neil came forward. They wrote, "The fact of Delius's great love affair was common knowledge in our family. I was certainly aware of it from the age of eight years old. And it was Jelka herself (Delius's wife) who not only told my grandmother the whole story, but who wanted, with Delius, to search for the child in Florida."

The Faculty of Fine Arts at Jacksonville University, Florida, who in recent years have compiled a collection of Delius documentation, are assisting us in undertaking more research in Florida.

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