One of the most poignant scenes in Ken Russell’s 1968 film Delius: Song of Summer evocatively depicts the ailing composer being carried in a wicker chair to the summit of the mountain behind his Norwegian cabin. From here, Delius can gaze one final time across the broad Gudbrandsdal and watch the sun set behind the distant Norwegian fells. Contemplating the centrality of Norway in Delius’s output, however, raises more pressing questions of musical meaning, representation, and our relationship with the natural environment. It also inspires a more complex awareness of landscape and our sense of place, both historical and imagined, as a mode of reception and an interpretative tool for approaching Delius’s music.
This essay focuses on one of Delius’s richest but most critically neglected works, The Song of the High Hills for orchestra and wordless chorus, composed in 1911 but not premiered until 1920. Drawing on archival materials held at the British Library and the Grainger Museum, Melbourne, I examine the music’s compositional genesis and critical reception. Conventionally heard (following Thomas Beecham and Eric Fenby) as an imaginary account of a walking tour in the Norwegian mountains, The Song of the High Hills in fact offers a multilayered response to ideas of landscape and nature. Moving beyond pictorial notions of landscape representation, I draw from recent critical literature in cultural geography to account for the music’s sense of place. Hearing The Song of the High Hills from this perspective promotes a keener understanding of our phenomenological engagement with sound and the natural environment, and underscores the parallels between Delius’s work and contemporary developments in continental philosophy, notably the writing of Henri Bergson.
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