In September 2012 a small, but significant, Delius Festival was arranged by the municipality of Lesja (which includes Lesjaskog). Below are two articles I wrote for the Delius Society Journal - the first one before the Festival, the second one after. 

First Delius Festival in Norway

Norway has been slow to show any of the passion for Delius that he showed for its nature and artists. But the anniversary is being marked by a festival in Lesjaskog in September. Behind the initiative are two extraordinary people.

Two Delius chairs the stool on which he was carried up Liahovda and a chair from his cottage
It's many years since I last took the dirt road from my trekking grounds in the Jotunheim mountains over to Lesja. The track drops away like a swooping bird from an eye-bursting view of the Dovre peaks to the north, down into the valley carrying the E136. Running northwest it eventually reaches the Romsdal alps, then the fjord at Åndalsnes, but first it has to pass through Lesja's grazing pastures. Convoys of overloaded cars are returning south, drivers with scowls. For many Norwegians it's the last day of the hols and, stuck behind German and Dutch motorhomes, they're impatient to be taking bites out of the seven hour trip to Oslo.

A single car going north; it's mine. Twenty minutes up the road from Lesja is the village of Lesjaskog and, arriving a bit early, I park by the church. People are being discharged in solemn groups from the small timber chapel, dressed in national costume or, at worst, Sunday very best. It's one year to the day since Anders Behring Breivik put every Norwegian‘s hold on personal and national identity to the test, up and down the country sermons are being digested about the values of openness and tolerance. Stop the changes! demanded Breivik, he didn‘t like where we‘re going. Walking around the village I get the strong feeling that forces of change pack a lot more subtlety and power than any lost, angry terrorist can resist. Oil has happened, also to Lesjaskog, since last I was here. Oil has partly paid for the new school and the new Elderly People‘s Home, and for the bypass which took the E136 away from the village. Oil has nurtured material and urban values in young people born into rural communities like this one, they‘re migrating south in flocks, and farms are going under the hammer. It‘s Wales all over again, with fewer sheep and language difficulties.

On the hillside rising high behind the church is the Øverli Farm, on whose land Delius built his mountain cottage in 1921-22. Worked by the Øverli family for generations, the farm had to be sold five years ago to a wealthy industrialist from Ålesund, who is developing it as his summer retreat.

I drive up the mountain track behind the church to the cottage which replaced Delius‘s own summer hut, Vwhich he dubbed Høifagerli (High and lovely hillside). I have been invited here by the owners of the cottage, who astonishingly are also the couple behind the first Delius Festival in the land of his soul, Norway. Yes, it‘s true: by an extraordinary stroke of good fortune the people who ‘inherited’ the Delius plot at Lesjaskog are not only culturally aware and resourceful people who have worked in the arts all of their lives, they have also nurtured a growing desire to see Delius‘s name better known. Through their persistent lobbying Lesja Municipality is funding the festival on September 22nd and 23rd, and I have been invited as the keynote speaker. 

I am greeted at the cottage door by Jon Faukstad and Gudrun Haraldsen Faukstad. The name Jon Faukstad is well known to every lover of traditional music in Norway. Only this summer he retired as professor of accordion at the Norwegian Academy of Music. He has been appointed director of the Lesja Delius Festival in September. But it is his wife Gudrun, a distinguished linguist, who is the heir to the Delius cottage at Lesjaskog.

Delius and Jelka used their new cottage on the Liahovdane hillside in the summer of 1922 and 1923, then had to put it up for sale; all their resources were poured into alleviating the composer‘s condition in the spas of Europe.  ‘When it was sold on again in 1939 my family bought it as a summer cottage,’ she tells me. ‘My parents had no idea of the fame and significance of Delius, so, when they wanted a holiday cottage they could also use in winter, the Delius place was pulled down in 1959 and the present cottage built in its place.’ Some of Delius‘s furniture has been inherited by Jon and Gudrun. ‘And pretty much every part of the Delius cottage was reused in the new building.’

Delius had passed through Lesjaskog on his very first mountain holiday in Norway in 1887. In 1921, Delius and Jelka had a longer stay at the hotel there, calling the village ‘the nicest little place we've ever been in.’ The plot for the cottage was found, and Høifagerli commissioned. But Gudrun believes it was not only the natural beauty that was decisive: ‘I think Delius chose Lesjaskog because his legs and eyesight were failing, and the railway line had just been extended this far into the valley’, she tells me.

That the 2000 good citizens of the Lesja region are footing the bill for two days of wall-to-wall Delius is pretty remarkable, as there will be very few of them that have ever heard a note of his music. ‘But almost everyone has heard the story of the composer who was carried up the mountain in a chair to see his last mountain sunset’, Jon assures me. He hopes to tap into this curiosity with the festival. In addition to concerts and film viewings, the mythical trip to the top of Liahovda will be re-enacted. The rest of the programme is still being finalised, but the Norwegian pianist Wolfgang Plagge will be playing a key role.

We go out on to the grass in front of the cottage. Down in the valley the white spire of the church breaks the tree cover. But across the valley the mountains of Reinheimen (The Home of the Reindeer) and Romsdal rise up and fill the horizon. Snow has already fallen on the highest peaks. Some words of Andrew Davies come to mind from John Bridcut‘s recent film, where the conductor is talking of the Song of the High Hills:

‘You feel yourself looking up, in ecstasy really, at the beauty and grandeur of the high hills. I felt it completely overwhelming.’


Delius Returns to Lesjaskog

Percy Grainger was an artist in so many ways. Pianist. Composer. Inventor of musical instruments. And he was also a master of the Art of Persuasion. How else explain the fact that he convinced three people to help him carry a sick Delius in a kitchen chair up a Norwegian mountain and down again?


These were my thoughts as I yet again stopped for breath on the punishingly steep parts of the climb up to Liahovda. On the morning of September 23rd last year, Delius enthusiasts in England were settling into their chairs, reconvening for the second day of lectures at the British Library. I was one of 50 warmly clothed and rucksack-carrying hikers who were puffing and panting their way up from the site of Delius‘s cottage in Lesjaskog to the plateau on which he was for the last time stirred by the loneliness and melancholy of the great mountains. Did the weather gods tease us, as they did Delius that famous day? Did the clouds part as if by divine intervention? Well, I’ll come back to that later. I will also return to the facts of the Delius Weekend organized by the Lesja Municipality, all it had to offer of concerts, lectures – even English tea and scones! But first let me ask you to take in the most extraordinary fact of that day. That so many people in the wilds of mountain Norway had come for the trip!

Of the 50 or so souls who climbed Liahovda that Sunday, there were very few who had heard a note of Delius‘s music. But most had heard the almost incredible local legend of a composer being carried by friends to his last sojourn on a mountain summit. Now, thanks to the work of the committee who had organised and promoted the Delius Weekend, they had come to find out more, and – if not to relive the trip (no one was carried up in a chair!) – to reimagine the spectacular feat of endurance it was, and its bold statement of love between the composer and those around him.

I wrote in the last journal about the impressive efforts of the festival committee in lobbying the local council for support, and then preparing the weekend of events. Foremost was newly retired professor of music Jon Faukstad. Through his contacts in the media and music world he had alerted the whole region to the fact that Delius was being celebrated in Lesjaskog that weekend. But would anyone heed his horn?

Before the opening event at the Lesjaskog School – a lecture on Delius and Norway by myself – the tall, lean figure of professor Faukstad stalked the entrance nervously. And his work was not in vain. Soon there were hordes of expectant people crowding the exhibition of Delius memorabilia in the school lobby, among which were four evocative pieces of furniture: two dining chairs from the Delius cottage, the stylish rocking chair (in which Delius was photographed), and, of course, the simple rustic chair on which the ailing composer was transported to the summit of Liahovda.

Some 80 people attended this first day. My lecture was followed by choral singing from the local choir, and by a fascinating talk by Faukstad‘s wife, Gudrun Haraldsen Faukstad, whose family had bought the Delius cottage in 1939. Her childhood memories of the place were of a chilly house where the fire was inadequate for the cold climate of the upper Gudbrandsdal. Grieg-expert Asbjørn Eriksen gave an illuminating talk about harmonic similarities in the music of Grieg and Delius, before professor Faukstad rounded off the day with specialist insights into the folk music that was played to Delius by his neighbour Mattias Øverli, farmer and renowned fiddle-player. 

About the same number attended the main musical offering on the Sunday. This was a well-balanced diet of song and chamber music presented in the Lesja Concert Hall by soprano Cecilie Ødegården, cellist Frida Fredrikke Wærwaagen, and pianist Wolfgang Plagge. Settings by Grieg and Delius of the same poems were juxtaposed by Ødegården to fascinating effect.

Towards the end of my talk on Saturday I had described in detail the significance Lesjaskog has in the Delius narrative. The audience heard that the Delius‘s had described the place as the loveliest they had visited in Norway. (Approving nods and chortles.) And then I narrated the story of Grainger and the ascent of Liahovda, concluding by describing it as ‘one of the most extraordinary events in European cultural history’. There was a spontaneous laugh or two. That Lesjaskog was lovely – no problem. But this last claim sounded preposterous. I pressed the point and challenged the listeners to think of an event that could match Delius's Vidde Valediction for sheer romance, improbability, emotional fortitude, and spiritual conviction. (Stunned silence.)

Whether or not this helped to swell the numbers on the trip to the summit on Sunday, I don't know. But the weather trolls were clearly doing their utmost to aid the cause. Stunning, crisp, late autumn weather, not a cloud in sight, as Jon Faukstad gathered us round him by the perimeter wall of Lesjaskog churchyard. First stop was the cottage, relocated a few metres from where Delius‘s 1922 building had stood. And then onwards and upwards.  

Of the view from the summit, I could write many paragraphs. Let me instead encourage Society members to make the trip themselves, and to restrict myself to this: we were rewarded with a jaw-dropping vista of snow-topped peaks as far as the eye could see. After the gentle fields and placid lakes of Lesjaskog, this panorama came almost as a shock, a jolting reminder of why Delius had built a home beneath it. To quote Jelka: ‘Because there is a heavenly view on the High Snow-mountains and a great solitude with no human trace up there.’