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Wigmore Hall Streams Oliver Knussen’s Hums and Songs of Winnie-the-Pooh

Feb. 01, 2021

As part of Wigmore Hall’s ongoing series of streamed concerts, soprano Jennifer France joined the Britten Sinfonia and composer-conductor Jack Sheen for a performance of Oliver Knussen’s Hums and Songs of Winnie-the-Pooh. The concert also featured Jürg Frey’s Circular Music No.2 and the premieres of a new work by Jack Sheen and his three arrangements of music by Hildegard von Bingen.

Oliver Knussen said of Hums and Songs of Winnie-the-Pooh:

"An early version of this piece was written and performed in 1970; Hums and Songs, which contains much new material, was composed in the spring of 1983 for the Aldeburgh Festival. It isn’t exactly a setting of the episode with tree, bees and balloon near the beginning of A.A. Milne’s "Winnie-the-Pooh" – indeed, words are rarely discernible; neither is it a small-scale tone poem, though there are many onomatopoeic devices. It is, rather, a sequence of faded snapshots and reflections, by an unwilling grown-up, on things remembered from the book, and on what those things meant to him as a child. So the piece is whimsical: it hops back and forth between Pooh-like expressions and the inner world of a child just after the light is switched off, following no particular pattern – I allowed the music to take itself where it wanted to go. The two worlds meet in the last song during which, perhaps, the child falls asleep."

The concert can be viewed here until February 17, 2021.

Of the performance, Alexandra Coghlan of The Independent writes:

"Running through the concert – structural pillars to hold this sonic trip together – are three works by von Bingen, arranged for the performance by Sheen himself. Soprano Jennifer France sings the composer’s gloriously arching melodies, while around her flute, clarinet, cello, cor anglais and – most striking – a vibraphone, softly stroked with brushes, create a luminous halo of resonance. Occasionally clarinet or cello steps forward – ghost doubles or echoes, mirroring the voice… The effect is mesmerising, bringing von Bingen into the 21st century and into touching distance of Frey’s Circular Music No.2 – a sequence of the softest sounds and textures suspended in time and space – and Sheen’s own Hollow propranolol séance. Named after a heart-slowing drug, this centrepiece is a reflection on lockdown isolation. The ticks and whirrs and rustles of our solitary lives are translated into an intricate shadow-play of sound: tingling cymbal buzz, muttering cello, fidgety stillness. It’s mesmerising stuff, but needs the bracing extremes and the fun of Knussen’s Hums and Songs of Winnie-the-Pooh – whose score calls for a cardboard box, a balloon and a pin in addition to its other instruments – to shake it up. Three short, half-remembered re-tellings of A.A. Milne’s stories are narrated in instrumental buzzes (those pesky bees) and high soprano cries, with a contrabass clarinet adding some cartoon menace. France is a gifted singing-actress, and it’s all in the eyes here, as she leads us through fragmented episodes of elation and excitement, coaxing us to keep up before lulling us into sleep in the final “Cloud Piece”. A musical goodnight story for adults."

To learn more about Oliver Knussen, please visit

Oliver Knussen
Hums and Songs of Winnie the Pooh (1970/1983)
for soprano and chamber ensemble of five players