Singers’ Perspectives: Britten and Hensel

Mar 8, 2019

Our nature-themed March, 2019 concert Out of the Garden, Into the Woods: From Paradise to Scary is all about contrasts, as explained here by Artistic Director Magen Solomon. The program explores and juxtaposes composers’ and poets’ diverse relationships with nature.

As we continue to share reflections from our singers about the music on this program, we highlight two pieces: Britten’s Five Flower Songs and Fanny Hensel’s Abendlich schon rauscht der Wald  — each of which explores contrasts in its own right.

Benjamin Britten, Five Flower Songs

Though earlier composers created the form, Britten continues the tradition of part-songs in his own way with “To Daffodils.” Unlike its contrapuntal counterpart, the madrigal, a British part-song is usually homophonic, but Britten borrows elements from both textures. For example, the opening song takes off quickly with a canon-like relationship between the Soprano/Bass and Alto/Tenor and ends after only a “short time to stay” just like the flowers themselves. Singing this particular piece, it feels like you are four measures into the song before you sing the first note.

With a nod to the canonic texture of madrigals, “The succession of four sweet months” gives each voice part a month to exclaim — April to the sopranos, May to the Altos, June to the Tenors and July to the Basses.

Britten next follows symphonic pacing by placing the harsher and edgier movement in the middle spot.

“Marsh Flowers” reminds us that not every flower is pleasant to the senses, and Crabbe’s picturesque text gave the Choral Artists the opportunity to learn new words like “globose” (“spherical”), “fenny” (“boggy”) and “seaweeds” (“algae”). Then, completely switching modes, the transparent texture of “The Evening Primrose” serves as a welcome moment of peace and tranquility before the rollicking “Ballad of Green Broom,” which sounds so easy but is jolly difficult to pull off. Musical elements such as timing, pacing and rhythm are certainly a challenge, but the most challenging element is the patter text. Not only is it unrelenting and quick, its unusual poetic phrasing and gets quicker as the song progresses!

Paul Spicer wrote in the Britten Choral Guide, that it culminates in the “slightly hysterical altos” singing the line “Go fetch me the boy.”

Don’t be deceived, these part-songs, written as a 25th wedding anniversary present for a pair of avid gardeners, are a fun challenge.

Christina Howell


Fanny Hensel, Abendlich schon rauscht der Wald

“Aus den tiefen Gründen” is an interesting phrase. On the surface, it means something like “from the lowest valleys (or depressions, or low-lying areas, or the like).” But there may be some play here for the romantic poet Eichendorff, since the phrase (at least in modern German) can also mean “for the deepest reasons.” And if God is moving here, as the next line tells us, then perhaps that second meaning is, well, the deeper one.

Whether for the listener the Stimmung (mood) of the poem reflects the peacefulness found in nature, or hints at mankind’s search for peace at the end of life, Hensel’s intimate setting accommodates both readings. And during the climactic portion—when the wanderer is shuddering, searching for home—she underscores the poignancy with both harmonic treatment and voicing of text.

Repeating these lines, the choir wanders away from (or delays, anyway) a perfectly satisfying resolution upon the home key of A minor, winding up on a disorienting diminished chord. Here the choir also strays from its homophonic declaration of the text. Before the upper voices finish singing “Schauernd hört der Wandrer zu,” the bottom voices overlap with the second half of the phrase, “Sehnt sich tief tnach Hause.” The anticipated closing calm is quickly restored, however, at “zur Ruh.”

Lucy Sheils


Come to the Concert!

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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