Felix Mendelssohn celebrates the times and seasons (the theme of our Summer concert) in Sechs Lieder op. 59 Im Freien singen (To be sung outdoors) with settings of four early Romantic poets – Helmine von Chézy, Goethe, Eichendorff and Uhland. One wonders, and this is pure speculation, if his aunt, Dorothea von Schlegel (née Brendel Mendelssohn), to whom Felix was very close, had a hand in the selection of texts: Helmine von Chézy (fascinating biography, by the way) was one of her closest friends and she was part of that core group of the Jena Romanticism movement that included her husband Friedrich Schlegel, his brother August Wilhelm and wife Caroline (translators of Shakespeare into German), the philosopher Schelling and the poet Novalis; all influenced, encouraged and championed by local, intellectual giants, Goethe, Schiller and Fichte.

It’s not certain if the subtitle ‘To be sung outdoors’ is strictly prescriptive or if it just encourages us to get out more to appreciate the charms of Nature. Celebrating the unity between people and their natural surroundings was one of the hallmarks of early Romanticism. Poetry that can appear to us as sentimental and old-fashioned was revolutionary, on the edge, at the time of writing. Its cherished feelings and vibrant urgency are quickly restored when matched against today’s alarming reports of an ecosystem on the verge of collapse.

Each of the op. 59 partsongs is beautifully crafted, exactly how Goethe thought a song ought to be – strophic with a simple melody, music serving poetry – as in the folksongs he’d collected in the Alsace area in the previous century (see Richard Stokes shorturl.at/hnpIU). The words express personal aspiration and enquiry, loss and benefit: we must take care in rehearsal to ensure they don’t end up sounding like church hymns. No. 3 ‘Abschied vom Wald’ (O Thäler weit, o Höhen, o schöner grüner Wald / O distant valleys, o heights, o lovely green forest) became very popular, like a folksong. Not that Mendelssohn knew that: despite taking six years to complete these part-songs, they were only published after his death.

For a non-German-speaking choir, the words are a challenge, partly because of Mendelssohn’s crisp, fleet-of-foot rhythm. At one word or syllable per note, the verses trip along and can easily trip you up. Experienced singers agree that once the technical demands of the score are mastered, and that includes fitting the text to the notation, attention needs to be paid to what the words mean. Having in your mind a picture of the words as you sing them makes a surprising difference to the sound, especially for the listener. Thanks to websites like LiederNet singers can find in one place translations of most German poems that have been set to music and pronunciation guides are also available too, such as German for Singers. However, for Op. 59 the English translations by Sheila Holliday from the choir are preferred.

For No.6, here is a pronunciation guide from vocologist Dr Heather Nelson – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0ct5priZw0.

May our “sounds carry through forests and field”s, or at least to the back of Christ Church in Chichester on July 6th.


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