Of old sat Freedom on the heights

What is it?

I think of my song Of old sat Freedom on the heights as being to my other songs rather as Champagne is to grape juice! It's a setting of the poem by the same name by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and the third of the five songs that comprise Idylls. It is available in two versions, the first for solo soprano and the second for mixed choir (SATB), both with piano accompaniment. The melody is quite straightforward but the piano part - a glorious ripple of off-beat phrases - requires a proficient pianist with a good grasp of rhythym. Nevertheless it is such fun to play and so dazzlingly impressive for an audience that it’s well worth the effort, as was demonstrated by the Manchester-based pianist Jonathan Ellis.


Of old sat Freedom on the heights,
The thunders breaking at her feet:
Above her shook the starry lights:
She heard the torrents meet.

There in her place she did rejoice,
Self-gather'd in her prophet-mind,
But fragments of her mighty voice
Came rolling on the wind.

Then stept she down thro' town and field
To mingle with the human race,
And part by part to men reveal'd
The fulness of her face—

Grave mother of majestic works,
From her isle-altar gazing down,
Who, God-like, grasps the triple forks,
And, King-like, wears the crown:

Her open eyes desire the truth.
The wisdom of a thousand years
Is in them. May perpetual youth
Keep dry their light from tears;

That her fair form may stand and shine,
Make bright our days and light our dreams,
Turning to scorn with lips divine
The falsehood of extremes!


Solo version

played on flute and piano

Choral version

played as an instrumental


Ingleborough Hill

Ingleborough Hill

Soon after completing it, I played this song to a friend. Her response says it all: "Wow!" Everything one gets taught about songs and accompaniments screams that this song shouldn't work: but it does, gloriously. I had sketched the main theme back in 1986 but put it aside and forgot about it until 1999, when it resurfaced as the main theme in my 'Toccata for piano', written for the Japanese pianist Makiko Nakachi.

The vocal part is not particularly difficult of itself, the main challenge being to have the confidence to hold to the beat regardles of what the pianist happens to be doing! The piano part at times cuts across the main beat in a way that makes everything feel slightly out of syncronisation, but in a strange way that adds to rather than subtracts from the beauty of the music.

Of all the songs I've written, 'Of old' is the one that most makes me think to myself, "You know what? This is a pretty decent song!" I hope you enjoy it.

Chen Wang

Chen Wang

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