The Orchestra Reborn

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (1943)

For Solo Tenor, Solo Horn, and Strings
21 Minutes

About the Composer

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A dominant force of 20th-century English art music, Benjamin Britten worked tirelessly throughout this career to recreate the role of a leading national composer, a position held during much of his own life by Ralph Vaughan Williams.  Britten received his musical encouragement from his mother, a singer and pianist, who was clearly one of the most important figures in his young life.  His early composition years were fostered by Frank Bridge, who encouraged Britten’s parents to let him travel from their home to London for lessons.  Britten grew into a complicated man, who used music as an outlet for many of his personal concerns, both private and public.  In 1930 Britten continued his musical education at the Royal College of Music in London, and in 1935 he took a job writing music for the government; Britten believed that music should serve a practical social function.  A known pacifist, Britten went to the United States in 1939 to escape military service; he returned to England three years later.  Although Britten’s career was shaped by feelings of not belonging, its masterpieces, including (but certainly not limited to) the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Peter Grimes, and his acclaimed War Requiem are some of the most important contributions to British musical culture in the 20th-century.

About the Music

In his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Britten sets six English poems that evoke the world of night, sleep and dreams.  It was composed during World War II for the British hornist Dennis Brain—who commissioned the work—and Britten’s lifelong companion, Peter Pears.  Britten frames his text settings with two horn solos played on natural harmonics.  The opening “Prologue” serves to create an atmosphere of removed, primeval innocence.  The six poems that follow come from the pens of some of the most renowned British writers, including Cotton, Tennyson, Blake, Jonson and Keats, in addition to the Anonymous 15th-century writer of the Lyke-Wake Dirge.  Each text paints very different pictures of nighttime that ride the spectrum from calm and introspective to haunting and sinister.  The second movement, “Pastoral” sets Charles Cotton’s “The Evening Quatrains.” In it Britten creates a peaceful landscape at twilight.  His “Nocturne” for Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Blow, bugle, blow” intensifies the view of night with Britten’s notable cadenza-like fanfare passages for the text “Blow, bugle, blow.”

Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears

Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears

The “Elegy” for Williams Blake’s “The Sick Rose” marks a stark change in the anthology; it is one of Britten’s most explicit representations of human sin, and truly casts a dark shadow on his interpretation of nighttime.  In the abutting movement, “Dirge,” Britten maintains the dark tone for the setting of the anonymous “Lyke-Wake Dirge,” and creates a growing tension between the tenor’s repetitive ground base and the strings burgeoning fugue that arrives at a startling climax.  This tension breaks with the next movement, “Hymn”, in which Ben Jonson’s “Hymn to Diana” glorifies the goddess of the hunt, moon, and nature.  In the final text, John Keats’s “To Sleep,” Britten removes the horn for “Sonnet,” an adagio movement that possesses a rare beauty and showcases Britten’s masterful genius for using the most basic of musical elements.  The final horn solo, “Epilogue,” is played offstage.  While the music exactly mirrors the “Prologue” the original naïve innocence has been left behind, and Britten leaves his audience alone to contemplate the journey that they have just taken with him.  

Dennis Brain

Dennis Brain

The Serenade has earned itself a prominent position in both the Horn and Tenor repertoires.  When Dennis Brain suddenly and tragically passed in 1957, Britten wrote “Some of my happiest musical experiences were conducting this work for Dennis Brain and Peter Pears—a succession of wonderful performances progressing from the youthful exuberance and brilliance of the early days to the maturity and deep understanding of the last few years.”  It is quite clear that this piece held a very special and monumental place in his heart.  Tonight’s performance will feature the spectacular Boston-based tenor, Omar Najmi and our very own beloved hornist, Nick Auer.


Artist: Ian Bostridge, Sir Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic
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