Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, op. 31

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            Benjamin Britten is one of the last century’s most respected composers, and unquestionably the most influential and admired British composer from WW II until his death in 1976.   Fantastically gifted from an early age (almost a thousand compositions before his first mature, published one!), he was blessed with the early attainment of an authentic personal “voice” in his musical style.  That style was at once perceived as modern, fresh, and non-derivative—and yet generally accessible and popular with the broad public for art music.   From the beginning he was practically contemptuous of the main stream of revered British composers—Elgar, Vaughan William, Holst, and others, many of whom he dubbed the “pastoralists.”  Their utilization of traditional English folk music as an important stylistic source was substantially criticized by Britten as evidence of a lack of imagination and a reactionary step in a century whose art was moving rapidly into the future.  Britten was an active and successful composer of instrumental music—the list is long, one only has to think of such works as Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Four Sea Interludes, from “Peter Grimes,” film scores, and several important solo concertos.   Yet, it is clear that he had a special gift for vocal music, and there are hundreds of works in various genres as evidence; but, in point of fact, it is in the field of opera and stage works that he made perhaps his most important contribution, starting with his first big success, Peter Grimes.  That opera was finished in 1945, and he went on to compose well over a dozen more works that collectively place him with Richard Strauss, Puccini, and Janáček as the giants of twentieth-century opera.  His Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings is an especially grateful example, not only of his ability to write for voice, but also of his wonderful creative imagination in unusual combinations of instruments and voices—an important life-long characteristic.  In many ways this song cycle was a positive reaction to Britten’s return to England in 1942, after having spent the time since 1939 primarily in the US.  He and his life’s companion, Peter Pears—newly committed to each other--had left for several reasons, primarily their pacificism and conscientious objection to war, as well as an ambiguous mixture of personal and social issues.  In any case, Britten found the time in “exile” invaluable for his maturation and focus as a composer, and the Serenade was the happy result of his return.

            It was commissioned by Dennis Brain, the incomparable and legendary hornist, and was given its première in 1943 with Pears as tenor soloist, and Brain.  Cast in the form of a song cycle of six songs, with unaccompanied horn solos as prologue and epilogue, it pulls together texts by six authors, all of which explore perceptions and reflections on night, reflecting the composer’s own observation that his setting of them is meant to evoke the English countryside.   Most especially, that sylvan atmosphere is induced by the rusticity of the horn prologue and epilogue, wherein the hornist is charged by the composer with playing the horn as an old-fashioned instrument without the aid of valves.  Consequently, certain notes are unavoidably out of tune, just like the hunting horn played on horseback, and perfectly suited the composer’s intent:  “. . . a melancholic signifier of a lost, bygone era . . . .”

            The poems chosen are all by luminaries of English poetry, ranging from an anonymous 15th century poet, through Ben Johnson of the 17th century, Charles Cotton, William Blake, and John Keats, to Alfred Lord Tennyson.  Great vocal music is by definition impossible without equally profound texts.  Schubert proved that.  Britten’s keen intellect and broad education led him, unlike some unfortunate composers—Franck, for instance—to substantial literature.  In the case of the Serenade, the central theme of the poems is immeasurably enhanced by the felicitous variety of imagery innate in the different authors’ respective visions.   Britten’s own imagination was more than up to the task, as his settings are marvelously various, and perfect companions to the conceit of the words.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan