Singer’s Perspective: Paul Hindemith’s “Six Chansons”

Feb 20, 2019

On our March, 2019 concert Out of the Garden, Into the Woods: From Paradise to Scary we have the privilege of presenting one of the truly great a cappella choral masterpieces of the 20th Century, the Six Chansons (1939), on Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems in French, by German composer Paul Hindemith (1895-1963).

We’ve asked some of our singers to share their impressions on the pieces they’re working on this season, and bass Asher Davison has chosen to highlight Hindemith’s skillful setting of these French texts.

Mention settings of French poems of Rilke, and many will think of Lauridsen’s admittedly lovely Les Chansons des Roses. But Hindemith’s six diverse settings, published in 1939 (just before he began teaching at Yale), have been seminal to contemporary choral traditions and pose us wonderful harmonic and timbral challenges.

Text painting of each poem is taken to extreme, but exquisitely tasteful, lengths here; such music reminds this clarinetist of how grateful he is to have ventured into choral singing. Surely my appreciation is helped by having studied (ages ago) French for six years, but Hindemith is undeniably effective in his portrayals of both the poetry’s inward-pointing sentiments and the elegant sonorous contours of this German’s miraculous command of the French language.

Asher Davison


Below is a short excerpt — the third of the six songs, as performed by La Petite Bande de Montréal.  There are three opportunities to hear San Francisco Choral Artists perform the entire piece in the Bay Area at our March 2019 concerts.

San Francisco
Saturday, March 9th, 8pm
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church
1111 O’Farrell Street

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Palo Alto
Sunday, March 10th, 4pm
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
600 Colorado Avenue

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Sunday, March 17th, 4pm
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
114 Montecito Avenue

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Puisque tout passe, faisons
la mélodie passagère ;
celle qui nous désaltère,
aura de nous raison.

Chantons ce qui nous quitte
avec amour et art ;
soyons plus vite
que le rapide départ.

— Rainer Maria Rilke


Since everything must pass, let us sing a passing song; the one that’s satisfying will be so because of us. Let us sing about whatever leaves with love and art; let us be faster still than that rapid departure.

— Translation: A. Poulin, Jr.