Many of Delius’s orchestral works are scored for very large ensembles and this made performances difficult to organise. Friends managed to persuade him to write for small orchestral groups, thus making his work more accessible to both performers and concert promoters. The Two Pieces for Small Orchestra, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring and Summer Night on the River, are among Delius’s best known works.
Composed in 1912, On Hearing The First Cuckoo in Spring is considered a perfect evocation of a spring morning in England. However, Delius composed it in France, and incorporated a theme taken from a Norwegian folk song to provide the sublime melody that runs through the piece. The work opens with a slow three-bar sequence. Its first theme is an exchange of cuckoo calls, first for oboe, then for divided strings. The second theme is the Norwegian folk song, which is scored for the first violins. The clarinet returns with the cuckoo calls before the piece ends in a pastoral fashion.