Herrick, Crabbe, Clare, Anon (E)
Choral level of difficulty: Level 3-4 (5 greatest)
These lovely, classic part-songs were written as a 25th wedding anniversary present for Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst of Dartington Hall. Apparently Britten chose the subject matter because they were keen botanists. Whatever the reason for the choice, it was a supremely happy one and brought from Britten a set of pieces which, while in a direct line of descent from the classic part-songs of Elgar, Stanford and Parry, are entirely original.
These songs are designed as a set. The mood-scape shows that Britten was keenly aware of the variety needed to satisfy performers and audience between bookends. The unsentimental originality of To Daffodils with its tempo marking of ‘Allegro impetuoso’ focusing on the speedy demise of the flower which is of course a metaphor for the passing of life; the clever division into four voices for the four months in The Succession of the Four Sweet Months and that beautifully simple device at the end where each month is named and forms a lovely cadence; the bitter-sweet Marsh Flowers to its poem by George Crabbe and the way Britten makes a slightly menacing atmosphere relieved only by the description of gentler plants; the ever-so-slightly sentimental Evening Primrose, the ‘slow movement’ of the set; and finally Green Broom, a tour-de-force of humour which is crowned, at its heart, by Britten’s slightly hysterical altos singing ‘Go fetch me the boy’! 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.
Points for choral directors to look out for include the tempo of To Daffodils. The key is in the direction Allegro impetuoso. Somewhere in the region of crotchet = 116 should be the aim. Within that tempo use the words to colour the interpretation. Look out, as always, for Britten’s carefully marked articulation and watch out for the big dynamic contrasts and colours. Tuning is the issue in both No.2 and No.3. In the opening of Marsh Flowers be careful of the size of intervals and in the second bar use the two ‘anchors’ of F and C# to try to ensure that pitch doesn’t slip. The return to a note which has already been sung should always be fractionally higher (masked by the change of vowel) thus ensuring that the pitch is always kept in place. In Green Broom it is issues of ensemble more than anything which provide the major challenge. This, and the stepping of increases in speed which should be measured so that the end does not become dangerously out of hand!
Repertoire note by Paul Spicer