On Craig Dhu: Frederick Delius's musical representation of mankind's spiritual connection with nature

Tim Farrand
Creag Dhubh

The "pallidly blue" sky shining "thro' the leaves," the wind "rustling the tufts of. . .bracken above," and the "softly enveloping, Silence, a veil" are some of the incredible images that appear in Frederick Delius's hauntingly beautiful work for acapella chorus, On Craig Dhu.

This beautiful meditation on nature's impact on the individual is subtitled "An Impression in Nature." This "impression" is that of a person lying on their back on the top of a mountain, experiencing themselves becoming part of the natural scene around them.

The first sensation one experiences lying there are glimpses of that "pallidly blue sky" which "tenderly" peaks "thro' the leaves of the bracken." There is "nothing but sky" as one looks up from the peak of a mountain:

Delius's setting goes beyond mere representation of nature in music. Delius captures the actual feeling that one would have if they were the person reclining on that mountaintop. As a "nature-poet," Delius was more concerned with the impact of nature upon the individual than with representing the environmental element of birds and flowers. Hubert Foss writes that Delius, "in his nature-poems, was not representational; his evocations were spiritual rather than physical." [1]

Lying there upon the mountain, the subject suddenly moves from the visual entrancement of the sky onto the sensory and auditory awareness of the wind, "brought from below," rustling "the tufts of my bracken above me," breaking the silence of the moment with "the sound of the water":

How eerily entrancing Delius's rendition of one lost within the impression of the wind rustling the leaves! Delius's ability to hold the listener in the suspension of the moment, transferring the hypnotic feeling of losing oneself within something as simple as the movement of air through a forest is beyond explanation.

Craig-dhu From Above Kinguissie

Delius's spirituality lies within nature and On Craig Dhu is one of his greatest testaments to the religious experience of transcending the self as one enters into the larger conversation with the sacred essence of the natural world. This spiritualization of nature is echoed by Maria Popova:

Those of us who visit wild places the way others visit churches and concert halls visit because we return transfigured, recomposed, exalted and humbled at the same time, enlarged and dissolved in something larger at the same time. We visit because there we undergo some essential self-composition in the poetry of existence, though its essence rarely lends itself to words. [2]

The "essential self-composition" that Popova describes as one enters into "the poetry of existence" is exactly what Delius captures in music since "its essence rarely lends itself to words." It is the experience of transformation that one hears in On Craig Dhu, transformation as a communal act of receiving nature's spirit.

Mankind's spiritual communion with nature appears throughout Delius's musical output. Foss explains that "Delius had a unique faculty for creating in music the atmosphere of stillness. . .that tremulous silence of the open air, in places where the tiny rhythmic disturbances are unnoticed yet inescapable. Only a mind of genius could re-express such nothingness in a positive art like music." [3]

These "nature-poems" express the silences pregnant with meaning that one encounters in nature and does it in an artform seemingly antithetical to silence. Delius has an uncanny ability to transcend the limits of the musical realm entering, by way of the ear, into the poetic or visual. Unlike any other composer, he can "re-express" that subtle, yet palpable, "nothingness" in a way that transmits the individual directly into the scene and endows one with the spiritual embodiment of physical feeling.

Nowhere has Delius conveyed so expertly silence in music than in the ending of this work. After hearing the mixture of oxen, bleating sheep, and dogs barking below at the "farm in the vale," our subject again releases themself from society and becomes lost in the striking "blue thro' the bracken, softly enveloping" them with "Silence, a veil." Delius sets this last line with music of tender spiritual beauty that transcends even poetry:

The poem written by Arthur Symons:

The sky through the leaves of the bracken,
Tenderly, pallidly blue,
Nothing but sky as I lie on the mountain-top.
Hark! for the wind as it blew,

Rustling the tufts of my bracken above me,
Brought from below
Into the silence the sound of the water.
Hark! for the oxen low,

Sheep are bleating, a dog
Barks, at a farm in the vale:
Blue, through the bracken, softly enveloping,
Silence, a veil.

Here is the full performance of the work:

June 7, 2022

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1. Hubert Foss, "The Instrumental Music of Frederick Delius," Tempo 26, Delius Number (Winter 1952): 32.

2. Maria Popova, "Thoreau on Nature and Human Nature, the Tonic of Wildness, and the Value of the Unexplored," The Marginalian, March 25, 2021, https://www.themarginalian.org/2021/05/25/thoreau-walden-nature/.

3. Foss, "Instrumental Music," 32.