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Hill-song No 1


In 1900, before completing his studies at the Frankfurt Conservatorium, Grainger journeyed with his mother through Europe to England. Their travels took them to Scotland where Percy seized the opportunity for a three-day hike through West Argyllshire. Hill-song No 1 was a direct response not only to 'the soul-shaking hillscapes' of the region but also to particular tonal memories of music which he had encountered on his Continental travels: the 'hard-toned rustic oboe in Italy'; 'some extremely nasal Egyptian double-reeds at the Paris Exhibition'; and 'bagpipes in the Scottish Highlands'.

The first version of Hill-song No 1 was composed between March 1901 and September 1902 in Frankfurt and England, and scored for 2 piccolos, 6 oboes, 6 cor anglais, 6 bassoons and 1 contra-bassoon. 'All the double reeds should produce a wild, nasal, ‘bagpipe’ quality of tone', he specified. Finding the original scoring not feasible, Grainger tried different alternative combinations, and the final rescoring of 1923 (recorded here for the first time) is much fuller, including single woodwinds, trumpet, euphonium, saxophones, harmonium, piano, percussion and a string septet. In their original versions, both Hill-songs (the second, heard later, dates from 1907) illustrate the composer at an early age leaning towards small instrumental combinations or 'room music' as he termed it. The example had been Bach, after Grainger had heard performances of the Brandenburg Concertos and the Passions in Frankfurt. 'These sounds', he wrote, '(2 flutes and harpsichord and mixed chorus accompanying a solo voice) sounded so exquisite to my ears … that I became convinced that large chamber music (from 8-25 performers) was, for me, an ideal background for single voices or a small chorus.' Grainger extended the idea to the Hill-songs in their specification for 21-24 instruments, each being cast in one continuous movement.

These highly innovative works make extensive use of irregular barring and are harmonically adventurous, employing whole-tone scales and 'mild discords'. Also close to Grainger’s heart was the concept of 'democratic polyphony' in which each tone or instrumental part should enjoy an equal prominence. This principle of democracy might be said to extend throughout Grainger’s output in what he called 'elastic scoring', making works performable by different instrumental combinations and numbers of performers.

The Hill-songs are a striking evocation of the spirit and wildness of an unpeopled highland. Woven into the score is the recurring triplet phrase 'Mother o’ mine' from his 1901 Kipling setting, Dedication. It is perhaps not surprising that towards the end of his life, Grainger could write: 'I consider Hill-song No 1 by far the best of all my compositions.'

from notes by Steven Lloyd & Edward Johnson © 2020


Grainger: The warriors & other orchestral works
Studio Master: SIGCD2164Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available

Track-specific metadata for SIGCD2164 track 7

Recording date
28 February 1989
Recording venue
South Melbourne Town Hall, Australia
Recording producer
Tim Handley
Recording engineer
Tim Handley
Hyperion usage
  1. Grainger: The warriors & other orchestral works (SIGCD2164)
    Disc 1 Track 7
    Release date: November 2020
    Download only
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