Dramatic Vocalise Database

Frederick Delius (1862–1934)

The Song of the High Hills (1911)

Throughout his career, Delius maintained a strong attachment to the mountain ranges of Norway due to his friendship with Edvard Grieg. His desire to express in music images of their grandeur and beauty is evident in his earliest surviving work, the song “Over the Mountains High” (1885). His attraction to Norwegian scenery and the cultural life of the country was at its greatest intensity during the decade from 1888 to 1898. To these years belong Delius’s three early large-scale mountain-scapes: the melodrama Paa Vidderne (1888), a symphonic poem with the same name (1890–92), and the “fantasy overture” Over the Hills and Far Away (1895–97). His last mountain-themed work was The Song of the High Hills (1911) for mixed chorus and large orchestra.

The Song of the High Hills is one of Delius’s greatest works, a symphony wherein the choir is used as a second, distant ensemble. Of his score, Delius wrote in the program notes for the premiere:

The chorus in this work sings no words; pure vocalization is employed as a means of poetic evocation. In the original score he gives the direction, “The chorus must be sung on the vowel which will produce the richest tone possible.” 2 Occasionally, a solo tenor voice seems to detach itself from the tonal fabric as a whole, but imperceptibly it disappears once more into the disembodied sound from whence it came.

The Song of the High Hills has the most individual form of any textless work by Delius. It is ternary in outline, with an expansive interlude in the first section that foreshadows the intense contemplation of the central portion of the work. There is a strongly marked point of recapitulation and more obvious repetition of material. Two principal elements constitute the structure: opening and closing sections of forceful, striving material, and a central sequence of serene episodes based on a lovely, Grieg-like melody.

Delius, The Song of the High Hills, mm. 164–71 3

According to Andrew Boyle:

The chorus first enters as accompaniment to the main theme presented by the violins. Delius indicates that the chorus should remain seated, as in Appalachia. In addition, there is a note in the score at the moment of the chorus’s entry, “The wide far distance—The great solitude.”

Delius, The Song of the High Hills, mm. 164–73 5

Shortly afterward, the tenor section sings a brief wordless passage

Delius, The Song of the High Hills, mm. 200–203

This motive later appears in the full chorus, followed by an echo of the original melody in the first sopranos.

Delius, The Song of the High Hills, mm. 246–52 6

A wordless solo tenor in the chorus then presents the main theme.

Delius, The Song of the High Hills, mm. 260–71

The full chorus then presents the theme in an a capella harmonization.

Delius, The Song of the High Hills, mm. 275–90 7

At measure 288, solo soprano and tenor sing the ascending phrase from the tenor’s earlier entry as counterpoint to the main theme. The chorus proceeds unaccompanied for seventeen measures before the orchestra joins them, leading to a tremendous crescendo and climax. The voices steadily fade away to pppp. The orchestra builds to one last dynamic outburst, marked “With Exultation. not hurried” [sic] in the score before dying away in the strings, like the chorus before.

The Song of the High Hills is the consummate expression of Delius’s contemplative spirit and attachment to nature. In this work he achieved a blending of art and nature at its least transient and most profound. Although written before World War I, the work would have to wait until 1920 for a performance, when Albert Coates conducted the premiere at Queen’s Hall in London on 26 February.8

The review of the premiere by Alfred Kalisch points out for special recognition the a capella section referenced above.

Harvey Grace, under the name “Feste,” offers a terse, similar view in the same volume:

W. McNaught added a third opinion to the April volume of the Musical Times:

In all three cases, however, the author fails to connect this work to others in the same vein, such as Holst’s The Planets, or Debussy’sSirènes.” Technical praise is lavished on the chorus, but the novelty of a seated textless chorus seems to be almost completely ignored.

(Nauman 2009, 130–37)



The Song of the High Hills, mm. 164–73

The Song of the High Hills, mm. 194–204

The Song of the High Hills, mm. 245–364

The Song of the High Hills (complete)


1 David Hall, liner notes to A Song of the High Hills, by Frederick Delius.

2 Frederick Delius, Brigg Fair and Other Favorite Orchestra Works (New York: Dover, 1997), 146.

3 Ibid., 167.

4 Andrew J. Boyle, “The Song of the High Hills,” Studia Musicologica Norvegica 8 (1982): 147.

5 Frederick Delius, Brigg Fair and Other Favorite Orchestra Works, 167.

6 Ibid., 176–77.

7 Ibid., 179–80.

8 Coates also conducted the first complete performance of Holst’s The Planets in 1920.

9 Alfred Kalisch, “London Concerts,” Musical Times 61 (1920): 247.

10 Harvey Grace [Feste, pseud.], “Interludes,” Musical Times 61 (1920): 241.

11 W. McNaught, “Choral Notes and News,” Musical Times 61 (1920): 253.