Having previously set the French verse of Rimbaud in Les Illuminations and Italian in the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Britten turned to the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) for his only song-cycle in German. Composed during the summer of 1958, the Sechs Hölderlin Fragmente were described by Britten in a contemporary interview as ‘probably my best vocal works so far’.
All of the six verses that Britten selected are fairly short, making this cycle one of his most concise, yet they cover a broad range of mood. He must also have been attracted to the subject matter of the poems which reflect many of his own preoccupations: recollections of youth and innocence (Die Jugend), the power of beauty to inspire love (Sokrates und Alcibiades) and an awareness of the inevitability of old-age and death (Hälfte des Lebens).
Possibly the two most immediately engaging songs are Die Heimat with its warm, gently flowing lyricism reminiscent of earlier Britten, and Sokrates und Alcibiades in which a bare, unharmonised melody on the piano is then sung to an accompaniment of major triads symbolising, as in many a similar Britten passage, a state of unsullied perfection and beauty.