Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, Op.31 (March – April 1943, Britten aged 29)
1 Pastoral (Charles Cotton)
2 Nocturne (Alfred, Lord Tennyson)
3 Elegy (William Blake)
4 Dirge (Anon, 15th century)
5 Hymn (Ben Jonson)
6 Sonnet (John Keats)
Discarded Number (edited by Colin Matthews)
Now sleeps the crimson petal
Dedication Edward Sackville-West
Using the very first recording of the Serenade, made by Peter Pears (tenor), Dennis Brain (horn) and the Boyd Neel String Orchestra conducted by Britten himself. With thanks to Decca.
Background and Critical Reception
Britten began his Serenade under the working title of Nocturnes. It was intended for the voice of Peter Pears, but another creative presence was on the scene and became seamlessly involved in the work’s composition.
As Paul Kildea details, Britten had met the young horn player Dennis Brain early in the summer of 1942, when he was playing in the RAF Orchestra. He described how Brain played ‘as flexibly and accurately as most clarinetists, and is a sweet and intelligent person as well’. At one of the rehearsals for Britten’s unpublished dramas An American in England, Brain asked the composer to write him a concerto – but Britten opted to include Pears’s voice in the plan as well.
The Serenade is dedicated to Edward Sackville-West, who acted as a sort of consultant, playing an important part in Britten’s text selection. As Neil Powell notes, ‘Sackville-West’s role in shaping the serenade was a crucial one’, for it appears to have been he that alerted Britten to the existence of Charles Cotton’s Pastoral.
Alex Ross, talking about the work in The Rest is Noise, arrives at the conclusion that ‘in this anthology-like setting of six English poems Britten confronted his central subject as composer, the corruption of innocence; the cycle turned out to be almost a dry run for Peter Grimes‘. He notes how ‘the solo horn…suggests, almost in the style of Copland’s open-prairie music, a primordial realm untainted by human complexity. At the heart of the cycle is a brilliant, frightening setting of WIlliam Blake’s The Sick Rose…which he says is ‘hardly an optimistic resolution; it is the worm’s victory. Britten had discovered one of the core techniques of his dramatic language, the use of simple means to suggest fathomless depths’.
Arnold Whittall delights in the setting of the final poem, Keats’ Sonnet, as ‘quite simply, Britten’s finest achievement up to that date. A great poem is so translated into music that no note seems redundant’.
The Serenade is a late night listening treat, perfect in its proportions and capturing with uncanny vividness the thoughts that go through our head as sleep approaches. There is a deep seated contentment at the end of the day (Pastoral), night time anxieties (the Elegy and Dirge especially), celebration (Ben Jonson’s florid Hymn, set in the Purcellian glory akin to Hark the ech’ing air and wonder (the Nocturne). Bringing all these together into a final summation is the Sonnet, the last thoughts before the light goes out – when the horn in the distance can be heard as the eyelids close.
I don’t hear Alex Ross’s ‘corruption of innocence’ as these poems progress, especially as the horn returns us to the comforting warmth of its opening material. For me each of the outer songs already has a certain amount of shadow, though the strife of the Elegy and the powerful anger of the Dirge are indeed the darkest moments. The Hymn, however, could be said to evoke a dazzling sunset, the last of the sun’s rays piercing the gathering gloom.
Britten’s writing for horn is quite extraordinary, using the instrument’s capabilities to paint many pictures alongside and over the strings. Michael Oliver rightly notes the ‘slow, throbbing depiction, for horn and strings without voice, of a painfully endured high fever’ that characterises the Elegy, but as the Dirge becomes unhinged, and a fugue in the strings takes hold, the horn bristles with anger and an almost total loss of control.
The word painting is also exquisite, whether it be the low string chords describing the lengthening shadows towards the end of the Pastoral, the grandeur of the castle with the Scotch snap chords in the Nocturne or the running vocal that talks of the queen as ‘excellently bright’ in the Hymn.
Britten frames the songs in the now familiar construction of Prologue and Epilogue, but his proportions – as in A Ceremony of Carols – are ideal. Each of the six songs can be enjoyed alone or as a whole, and they are by turns wondrous and powerfully emotional. They stand as one of the 20th century’s great song cycles, a wonderful compilation of British poetry and a triumphant return for the composer to setting the English language in song.
Peter Pears (tenor), Dennis Brain (horn), Boyd Neel String Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
Peter Pears (tenor), Dennis Brain (horn), New Symphony Orchestra / Eugene Goossens (Eloquence)
Peter Pears (tenor), Barry Tuckwell (horn), London Symphony Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
Neil Mackie (tenor), Barry Tuckwell (horn), Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Steuart Bedford (EMI)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Frank Lloyd (horn), English Chamber Orchestra / Steuart Bedford (Naxos)
Ian Bostridge (tenor), Radek Baborák (horn), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (EMI)
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Michael Thompson (horn), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Bryden Thomson (Chandos)
Mark Padmore (tenor), Stephen Bell (horn), Britten Sinfonia / Jacqueline Shave (violin) (Harmonia Mundi)
James Gilchrist (tenor), Jasper de Waal (horn), Amsterdam Sinfonietta / Candida Thompson (Channel Classics)
The Serenade holds a particularly special place in Britten’s own discography, being the first recording he made as a conductor. Originally issued on Pearl but now available as part of Decca’s Britten – The Complete Works, it is indispensable and captures Pears singing with great bravado in the Hymn, as well as touching sensitivity elsewhere. Dennis Brain’s horn playing, meanwhile, is nothing but a huge asset to the recording.
Pears and Britten recorded the work again, this time with Barry Tuckwell and the London Symphony Orchestra at the Kingsway Hall in 1963. This is a recording that hardly shows its age.
It is noticeable that modern interpretations of the Serenade tend to be quicker, especially in the Pastoral, where Britten himself speeds up in his second recording.
Of the newer versions Philip Langridge and Frank Lloyd are very good indeed, with Steuart Bedford conducting the ripe sounding strings of the English Chamber Orchestra, a performance that explores the dynamic extremes of the piece. Pears’s pupil Neil Mackie, with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Steuart Bedford, has also recorded Now sleeps the crimson petal, which is beautifully realised by Colin Matthews and perhaps not included due to its proximity in mood to the Pastoral.
Two other modern recordings deserve particular praise – Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Michael Thompson, who shine in a more reverberant Chandos recording, and Mark Padmore, given incisive support by Stephen Bell and the Britten Sinfonia. Ian Bostridge has recorded the work twice – both very fine versions but with the feeling that the Berlin Philharmonic version in particular is rather spotlit in its recording. All are part of an extremely rich 70-year recorded history.
Assembled on this playlist are no fewer than eight versions of the Serenade, which include all three mentioned above by Peter Pears. The modern versions are from Philip Langridge, Ian Bostridge, and James Gilchrist, in a new version from Channel Classics, with Jasper de Waal and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta conducted by Candida Thompson.
Also written in 1943: Bartók – Concerto for Orchestra
Next up: Prelude and Fugue, Op.29