Ekoos members at a recent weekend workshop. Conductor Peter Dent is at front right.

Songs in the key of Spring

Ekoos is ready for their spring concert featuring the cycle of the seasons

or its spring concert, Ekoos Vocal Ensemble will present two major works: Mass for Four Voices by William Byrd and the Gartenlieder by Fanny Hensel (née Mendelssohn).

William Byrd hardly needs introduction to classical music lovers. Fanny Hensel, however, is fairly unknown, and certainly less well-known than her brother, Felix Mendelssohn.

The Gartenlieder — six “garden songs” — exemplify Fanny’s love for her Gartenhaus, where her choir rehearsed. They were published in 1846, just one year before her death. The lyrics are based on poems by German romantic poets, including one written by her husband, Wilhelm (No. 4).

The cycle of the seasons, forests, water, and the natural world provided the beautiful images and philosophical symbols in her songs. She used “text painting” to illuminate the mood of each poet’s words through harmonic progressions and melodic figures.

It is a pleasure for Ekoos to present the Gartenlieder, by a woman whose artistic achievement is superb and deserves much broader musical exposure.

Regarding the Mass by Byrd, conductor Peter Dent points out that the choir’s performance, May 6 in Sooke, will feature some of the members singing in solo voices.

“I have taken the editorial advice of Henry Washington in designating several sections to be sung by solo voices. It is a pleasure to work with a choir with the vocal ability to perform these sections that way,” said Dent.

Ekoos is pleased to welcome three new singers this season: Dianne Copeland, Deborah Lambert, and Svetlana Prissick, all of whom are singing alto! Lambert has sung with many choirs on the Island but when she recently moved to Sooke to join a veterinary practice, she was drawn to Ekoos.

“I like that the repertoire is challenging and that it’s wide ranging, not limited to sacred and early music,” she said.

“Our only lament is that we haven’t attracted more men. The women’s sections are now well balanced, but we would love to have more tenors and basses,” added alto Merle Fulton.

Besides choral pieces, the concert will feature guitar and flute duets by the choir’s own Fred Andrew and Warren Moore. The duo will perform pieces by Sanz and Bach as well as traditional folk songs.

Peter Dent provided the following additional notes about Byrd and Hensel.

William Byrd (1540-1623) is generally recognized as the greatest English composer of the 16th century. A measure of his stature was that in the volatile world of the English Reformation he was able to write music for both the English and the Catholic Church. Queen Elizabeth granted him royal protection in spite of his Catholic sympathies.

Byrd wrote three masses, for three, four and five voices. The Mass for Four Voices, which was probably the first to be composed, is partly modelled on John Taverner’s Mean Mass, a highly regarded early Tudor setting which Byrd would probably have sung as a choirboy. Taverner’s influence is particularly clear in the scale figures rising successively through a fifth, a sixth and a seventh in Byrd’s setting of the Sanctus.

Fanny Hensel (1805-1847) was born Fanny Mendelssohn. She was a superb pianist and also composed almost 500 pieces of music, although very few were published during her lifetime. A number of her songs were originally published under her brother, Felix’s name in his opus 8 and 9 collections.

She was limited by prevailing attitudes of the time toward women, attitudes apparently shared by her father, who was tolerant, rather than supportive of her activities as a composer. Her father wrote to her in 1820, “Music will perhaps become his (i.e. Felix’s) profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.”

On May 14, 1847, a reviewer of her work, the Gartenlieder, stated, “The harmonic treatment is quite refined and makes one aware of an artistically tasteful hand. Above all of the songs hangs a gentle, poetic sentiment.”

Sadly, Fanny Hensel died the same day as these words were written, the victim of a stroke.

Ekoos will do its best to convey her artistry. The choir will also perform music by the early Flemish composer Jacob Obrecht, Canadians Dr. Healey Willan and Stephen Chatman, and  the 19th century Irish Composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford.

Concert Times and Venues

The program will first performed in North Saanich on Saturday May 5 at 7:30 p.m., at the Holy Trinity Church, 1319 Mills Road.

It will be performed in Sooke on Sunday May 6th at 7:30 p.m. at Holy Trinity Church, 1962 Murray Road.

Tickets available at the Reading Room Bookstore and at the door.