25 August 2013
At the heart of our exhibition ‘Poetry in Sound: The Music of Benjamin Britten’ is the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, Op. 31. Arguably more than any other work in Britten’s output, the Serenade demonstrates his acutely sensitive response to the written word, to the extent that words and music often cohere with a natural simplicity that seems to encapsulate and transform the poetic intention. The Serenade encompasses poetry by Keats, Tennyson, Blake, Cotton, and Jonson, together with an anonymous fifteenth-century text – each poem selected to fit an overall poetic conception that reflects on the approach of darkness as a metaphor for the journey from life into death. It was composed in 1943, shortly after Britten returned to England from the US, and dedicated to the critic and novelist Edward Sackville-West (1901-65). The work was first performed at the Wigmore Hall on 15 October 1943 by the great horn player Dennis Brain and the tenor Peter Pears.
The Serenade opens with a prologue for solo horn, which at once sets a haunting tone for the work and introduces the instrument as an unspoken commentator on the sung text that follows. For the first sung movement Britten selected four stanzas from the The Evening Quatrains by Charles Cotton (1630-87), which itself forms part of a cycle describing each part of the day: morning, noon, evening and night. Cotton’s words appear in the 1689 edition of his Poems on Several Occasions, published in London by Hensman and Fox, a copy of which is on display in the exhibition. The opening verse ‘The day’s grown old; the fainting sun / has but a little way to run’ sets the tone for Britten’s reflective setting, which is dominated by a descending musical theme echoed by the solo horn.
In the second movement Britten’s music conveys the rapid shifts of emotion in Tennyson’s ‘Blow, bugle, blow’ from the narrative poem The Princess. Here the sung text is punctuated by horn fanfares evoking the sound of a bugle echoing over an Arcadian landscape, an allegory for the inevitability of death followed by after-life. The evidence of Britten’s manuscript demonstrates that he changed his mind about the title of the first and second movements: the original titles were ‘Nocturne’ and ‘Ballad’, but these were crossed through in red crayon and replaced with ‘Pastoral’ and ‘Nocturne’ respectively. There were apparently no second thoughts concerning the title of the third movement, an ‘Elegy’ on William Blake’s famous ‘O Rose, thou art sick!’. In this setting, which is dominated by the simple and unsettling motif of a descending semitone, the sung text is delivered to a sustained string accompaniment. A lengthy introduction for horn and pulsating strings returns to form a suitably mournful postlude.
Britten’s inspiration for the fourth movement was an anonymous fifthteenth-century poem, the Lyke-Wake Dirge, which continues the underlying theme of the Serenade by charting the journey undertaken by the soul from earth to purgatory. Written in an old form of the Yorkshire dialect, the repetitive structure of the poem gave Britten the opportunity to create a setting that contrasts the jaunty rhythms of the vocal lines with an increasingly complex orchestral accompaniment – rather like a set of variations on a given theme.
For the fifth movement Britten chose words from Cynthia’s Revels by Ben Jonson (1572-1637), a play first performed in 1600 which depicts Queen Elizabeth I as the virgin huntress Cynthia (elsewhere known as Diana). Britten selected the hymn, ‘Queen and huntress, chaste and fair’, from Act V (shown on the right in the edition published in London in 1601), allowing him to deploy the solo horn in hunting style, thus providing the work with a lively scherzo movement. The final movement, however, marks a return to the reflective and intensely lyrical tone that pervades much of the work, with a setting of John Keats’s sonnet To Sleep. Britten’s masterpiece ends with the strains of the solo horn, now off stage, its melancholy fanfare gradually disappearing into silence.