Listening to Britten – Five Flower Songs, Op.47


Photo (c) Ben Hogwood

Five Flower Songs, Op.47 for unaccompanied chorus (SATB) (April 1950, Britten aged 36)

1 To Daffodils (Robert Herrick)
2 The Succession of the Four Sweet Months (Robert Herrick)
3 Marsh Flowers (George Crabbe)
4 The Evening Primrose (John Clare)
5 Ballad of Green Broom (Anon)

Dedication To Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst on the occasion of their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary – 3rd April 1950
Text Various, as above
Language English
Duration 10′

Audio clips – taken from the recording made by Polyphony under Stephen Layton. With thanks to Hyperion Records.

1 To Daffodils

2 The Succession of the Four Sweet Months

3 Marsh Flowers

4 The Evening Primrose

5 Ballad of Green Broom

Background and Critical Reception

Having completed A Wedding Anthem for a pair of newly-weds, Britten now turned his attention to a Silver Wedding couple, writing the Five Flower Songs as a present for Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst of Dartington Hall. The couple were keen gardeners, and had generously contributed to the funding of the English Opera Group for its establishment in 1947.

Britten’s five songs were carefully selected using his by-now considerable knowledge of English poetry, and include at their centre a setting of George Crabbe’s poem Marsh Flowers, Britten’s first use of his text since Peter Grimes. The first performance of the Flower Songs, conducted by Imogen Holst, was rather appropriately given outside at Dartington, with the couple present.

In his Britten Choral Guide for Boosey & Hawkes, Paul Spicer describes the Flower Songs as ‘lovely, classic part-songs…which, while in a direct line of descent from the classic part-songs of Elgar, Stanford and Parry, are entirely original’. He also talks of how ‘the mood-scape shows that Britten was keenly aware of the variety needed to satisfy performers and audience between bookends’.

For the final song, Green Broom, Spicer describes how ‘the gradual accelerando throughout this piece leading to the final flourish makes this a wonderful and exciting finale to a set of part-songs which should be at the heart of any choir’s repertoire’.

Thoughts

Britten’s writing for unaccompanied choir continues to be a delight, and these open-air songs have all the spring-like charm their title promises.

Once again the text is the star, the composer’s ability to choose from a variety of sources vindicated in a quintet of songs that vary considerably in mood.

To daffodils is serenity itself, while the following song, The succession of the four sweet months, is a self-contained mini-suite of songs, moving from April to July by way of some clever harmonic placement.

The cloud on the horizon is Crabbe’s Marsh flowers, talking of how the ‘dull nightshade hangs her deadly fruit’ – a timely reminder that nature is cruel at times – and moving to a more threatening tone when singing of ‘the fiery nettle…fierce with poison’d stings’. The upward curve for the chorus here records the surprise of such a sting.

Britten’s setting of The evening primrose recalls the purity of the Hymn to St Cecilia, a chaste setting that has clear and consonant harmonies. Meanwhile The ballad of green Broom is the most substantial song, growing in presence as it tells the story, before the end throws open the doors with a great gust of air.

Each of the five songs here is a delightful miniature, but when heard together the Flower Songs make a very satisfying quintet, expertly crafted in light and shade, and exquisitely written for the voices.

Recordings used

Elizabethan Singers / Louis Halsey (Eloquence)
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers (Coro)
Polyphony / Stephen Layton (Hyperion)
Monteverdi Choir / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (Deutsche Grammophon)
Finzi Singers / Paul Spicer (Chandos)

The Elizabethan Singers are the ones who sound as if they are performing outside in the meadow, with an open quality to their singing that is naturally achieved.

John Eliot Gardiner opts for clarity, and because of the recording quality from DG the text can be very easily heard. Likewise with Paul Spicer and the Finzi Singers, whose forces are a little smaller in scale but find greater delicacy because of that.

Harry Christophers operates at quite a fast tempo for To daffodils, and doesn’t pause much between phrases, with the result that some of the text is less easy to decipher, and Britten’s music is more agitated than serene.

To me Stephen Layton seems to bring all that is good about these songs together, helped by a sympathetic recorded sound that helps emphasise the outdoorsy feel of the songs. The singing is superb, as it is elsewhere on a disc that contains A.M.D.G. and Sacred and Profane among other Britten works.

Spotify

This playlistincludes three versions of the Flower Songs – the versions from Harry Christophers and Sir John Eliot Gardiner, as mentioned above, and an older recording with the Netherlands Chamber Choir conducted by John Alldis.

Also written in 1950: Arnold – English Dances Set 1, Op.27

Next up: Lachrymae, Op.48a

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One Response to Listening to Britten – Five Flower Songs, Op.47

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Sacred and Profane, Op.91 | Good Morning Britten

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