Listening to Britten – Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente, Op.61

Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure (1791) by Jean-Baptiste Regnault. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente, Op.61, for voice and piano (Summer 1958, Britten aged 44)

1 Menschenbeifall (The Applause of Men)
2 Die Heimat (Home)
3 Sokrates und Alcibiadesii (Socrates and Alcibiades)
4 Die Jugend (Youth)
5 Hälfte des Lebens (The Middle of Life)
6 Die Linien des Lebens (Lines of Life)

Dedication ‘Meinem Freund, dem Prinzen Ludwig von Hessen und bei Rhein, zum fünfzigsten Geburtstag’ (‘My friend, Prince Ludwig of Hess and the Rhine, on his fiftieth birthday’)
Text Friedrich Hölderlin
Language German
Duration 12′


Clips from the recording made by Mark Padmore and Roger Vignoles can be heard below. With thanks to Hyperion.

1 Menschenbeifall (The Applause of Men)

2 Die Heimat (Home)

3 Sokrates und Alcibiadesii (Socrates and Alcibiades)

4 Die Jugend (Youth)

5 Hälfte des Lebens (The Middle of Life)

6 Die Linien des Lebens (Lines of Life)

Background and Critical Reception

Britten had been aware of the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin for some time, but had been waiting for the right moment to set it to music – possibly in part due to its unusual construction. So it was, in the summer of 1958, that he found the texts to make up the six fragments, and complete his first setting in the German language, that of a poet almost completely unknown in England.

As Humphrey Carpenter takes up, ‘The collection owes its inception to Prince Ludwig of Hesse, to whom it was dedicated, and who had introduced Britten to the work of this strange eighteenth century German poet who died insane.’ Britten’s collection was in fact a gift for the Prince’s fiftieth birthday.

Like the Songs from the Chinese, there seems to be what Carpenter calls ‘an awareness of middle age’ here, and in the closing song Die Linien des Lebens (Lines of Life) there seems to be ‘a more fundamental self-doubt.’ ‘The music here becomes full of discord’, he continues, ‘which persists until the end. Britten does not seem to share Hölderlin’s spiritual optimism.’

In his notes for the Hyperion recording where he partners the tenor Mark Padmore, pianist Roger Vignoles describes how in Die Heimat, ‘the warm sunset glow of this song perhaps reflects the peaceful home to which Pears and Britten were often welcomed by their German friends.’

This is in direct contrast to Sokrates und Alcibiades, which he finds ‘illumined by the bright, clear sunlight of Classical Greece. In a deftly simple gesture, Britten accompanies Alcibiades’ question with a single line of melody, as if played on an antique flute, which then reveals itself as the vocal melody to which Socrates frames his reply. (Those familiar with Death in Venice will recognize a similar lucidity in the passage where Aschenbach, in love with the boy Tadzio, questions an imaginary Socrates on the subject of passion and beauty).’

Vignoles proceeds to set out an opinion common to several Britten critics. ‘Despite its triumphant ending, it must be admitted that Britten’s setting brings the cycle to a rather austere conclusion. Musically satisfying, perhaps, but with just a hint of more head than heart involved in its composition, and it may be this apparent austerity that lies behind the cycle’s relative neglect by performers.’


This is indeed a short cycle that strips Britten’s music down to the bare bones. Although structured in a similar way to Winter Words, with an abrasive opener and a powerful slow song with which to close, the Fragments are by nature more skeletal, completely lacking in padding through structure or instrumentation. The piano lines are frequently caustic, the tenor lines angular and largely lacking in warmth, and the harmonies may be rooted in tonality but on occasion forget where they came from.

A strong sense of discomfort runs throughout the songs, even in the assertive opener Menschenbeifall, which ends with one of Britten’s magical harmonic sleights but is still asking questions as it does so. Even the closing Die Linien des Lebens, with its emphatic arrival in E flat major, has not truly shaken off its demons. It is as if the composer has decided such problems will remain, but that he will do his utmost to overcome them.

And what problems might they be? Both Carpenter and Vignoles draw parallels with Britten’s attraction to the unattainable young boy, as explored most intensely in Death in Venice, but there seems also to be a deep seated sense of fear of the immediate future, whether through middle-age or the sudden loss of close friends. By this time Britten had, after all, lost Noel Mewton-Wood, Kathleen Ferrier and most recently Dennis Brain, all in the prime of life and at a younger age than he now was.

Consolation is not often found, apart from perhaps the second song, the fleeting but lovely Die Heimat. It is surely, as Vignoles notes, the overall troubled state of this set of poems that has left them lagging behind Britten’s more audience-friendly song collections. Yet spend some time with the Hölderlin-Fragmente and you get an insight into the composer’s sense of mind as middle age reached him. It was, seemingly, not a very good place to be.

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Mark Padmore (tenor), Roger Vignoles (piano) (Hyperion)
Ian Bostridge (tenor), Sir Antonio Pappano (piano) (EMI Classics)
Susan Gritton (soprano), Iain Burnside (piano) (Signum Classics)
James Geer (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Onyx)

As Britten’s style progresses, so I find (rightly or wrongly) Peter Pears’ vocal style less suited to the bare textures. That is indeed the case here, though he and Britten do still give a performance of unremitting intensity.

Mark Padmore has a very convincing sharpness of tone that suits both the economy of the settings and the stark outlook of some of the text. He is not opposed to the occasional addition of warmth to his tone, but takes it away just as immediately when needed. Roger Vignoles is an authoritative partner. Similarly Ian Bostridge sings with a lean sound, and his pianist Sir Antonio Pappano is extremely attentive.

Malcolm Martineau brings great urgency to the piano writing, stabbing at the notes in the first song before James Geer appears. Geer sings well but is occasionally taxed by the oblique intervals Britten writes in to the tenor part. Susan Gritton, meanwhile, is a surprise choice as part of an excellent survey on Signum Classics called Britten Abroad. While it is intriguing to hear these short and scabrous songs in the hands of a soprano, especially when the piano part is as well played as it is by Iain Burnside, the tenor voice for which they were ultimately written feels much more authentic.


This playlist brings together four versions from Pears and Britten, Bostridge and Pappano, Geer and Martineau and Gritton and Burnside.

Also written in 1958: Varèse – Poème électronique’

Next up: Sailor-boy

This entry was posted in English, Listening to Britten, Song cycle / collection, Songs, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Listening to Britten – Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente, Op.61

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Um Mitternacht | Good Morning Britten

  2. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Curlew River, Op.71 | Good Morning Britten

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