Eric William Fenby OBE was born in Scarborough, North Yorkshire (UK) on 22 April 1906. As a youth took lessons in the piano, organ and cello. At the age of 12 he was appointed organist at Holy Trinity Church. As a composer he was largely self-taught. By 1925 he had conducted a work for string orchestra at the Spa Grand Hall in Scarborough and had written some minor pieces.
In 1928, hearing that Frederick Delius had become virtually helpless because of blindness and paralysis (due to syphilis), he offered to serve him as an amanuensis. Fenby worked, at the composer’s home in Grez-sur-Loing, near Paris, for extended periods until Delius died almost six years later. The project was taxing not only because of the need to devise a unique mode of musical communication but also because of Delius’s difficult temperament and atheism. Although born into a Methodist household, Fenby had recently become a devout Catholic. The strain on him was intensified by the requirement to act as nurse during the composer’s final days, then visiting Delius’s severely ill widow Jelka and accompanying the composer’s exhumed body back to England for burial. The whole experience left him “completely burnt out”. In 1936, he published a book about his experiences, ‘Delius As I Knew Him’.
After Delius’s death, Fenby entered the employ of the music publisher Boosey & Hawkes. He was contracted to write the score for Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Jamaica Inn’, but his film career was interrupted by World War II. After joining the Royal Artillery, he was transferred to the education corps at Bulford, where he conducted the Southern Command Orchestra, and was later commissioned to run Royal Army Education Corps courses in Lancashire. Having left the Catholic Church, he married Rowena C. T. Marshall (daughter of a Scarborough vicar) in 1944. They had a son, Roger, and a daughter, Ruth.
After the war, Fenby founded the music department of the North Riding Training College. He was artistic director for the 1962 Bradford Delius Festival. He then became professor of harmony at the Royal Academy of Music in London from 1964 until 1977.
Fenby was appointed an Officer of Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1962 for his artistic direction of the 1962 Delius Centenary Festival in Bradford. He was appointed President of the Delius Society that same year.
His name was mentioned in Kate’s song Delius, with Paddy Bush saying the words ‘In B, Fenby!’. During a talkshow with Russell Harty on 25 November 1980, Kate actually met Eric Fenby, who said that the song was “a gracious tribute”.
He died in Scarborough on 18 February 1997 having returned to Catholicism in his final years.