Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Opus 31

Serenade for Tenor Solo, Horn, and Strings, Opus 31

Edward Benjamin Britten was born at Lowestoft, Suffolk, England, on Saint Cecilia’s Day, November 22, 1913, and died at Aldeburgh, Suffolk, on December 4, 1976. On June 12 of that year he had been created Baron Britten of Aldeburgh in the Queen’s Birthday Honors, making him the first musician to be elevated to the peerage. The Serenade was written in 1943 for tenor Peter Pears and horn player Dennis Brain, and was first performed by those artists with Walter Goehr and his orchestra in London on October 15 that year. The San Francisco Symphony first performed the Serenade in March 1985 when tenor Jon Garrison and then-SFS principal horn David Krehbiel were the soloists and Edo de Waart conducted; in the most recent SFS performances, in November 1993, tenor Neil Mackie and David Krehbiel were soloists and Iona Brown conducted. The Serenade is dedicated to Edward Sackville-West, brother of the famous Vita, himself a music critic, and of assistance to Britten in selecting the poems for this work. Performance time: about twenty-five minutes.

Blest pair of Sirens, pledges of Heav’ns joy,
phear-born harmonious Sisters, Voice, and Vers,
Wed your divine sounds, and mixt power employ
Dead things with inbreath’d sense able to pierce,
And to our high-rais’d phantasie present,
That undisturbed Song of pure content. . . .
John Milton, At a Solemn Musick

Night and Silence, these are two of the things I cherish most.
Benjamin Britten

It was a work for string orchestra—the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, introduced by the Boyd Neel Orchestra at the 1937 Salzburg Festival—that put Benjamin Britten’s name firmly on the map; first and foremost, however, Britten was a composer for Milton’s “harmonious Sisters, Voice, and Vers.” And, while John Harbison was right in pointing out that composers of vocal music have usually excelled either at opera or at song, Britten, in almost unique defiance of Harbison’s Law, was a master at both.

Actually, not counting his notations at age five of “hundreds of dots all over the page connected by long lines all joined together in beautiful curves,” Britten began his life as a composer with instrumental music, “elaborate tone poems [for piano] usually lasting about twenty seconds.” His first large-scale effort combined theater, song, and music for instruments: This was a play with incidental music called The Royal Falily [sic], based on the recent death of Prince John, the thirteen-year-old son of King George V and Queen Mary. The precocious author-composer was six or seven. “Walztes”—spelling was not his strong suit—he wrote at nine and ten were good enough for him to use ten years later in his Simple Symphony. The summer he was fourteen, he wrote Quatre Chansons françaises, settings of Hugo and Verlaine. They were not performed until 1980, but they proved to be quite a find, not only as songs worth listening to, but also as evidence of the early flowering of Britten’s poetic imagination and of an astonishingly sure technique.

Meanwhile, Britten was learning a thing or two about the musical climate in England between the wars. That same summer of the French Songs, someone asked him at a tennis party what he wanted to be when he grew up. “A composer,” he said. “Yes, but what else?” came the reply. A year later, he started at a new school and on his first day was identified by the music teacher—with obvious disapproval—as “the little boy who likes Stravinsky.” And it was not just the musical climate. The future composer of Our Hunting Fathers, the War Requiem, Who Are These Children?, and Owen Wingrave had left his previous school in disgrace as the author of an essay that his biographer, Michael Kennedy, describes as “an impassioned criticism of hunting and include all organized cruelty, including war.”

But by then something had happened that made all the difference. At ten, he had heard Frank Bridge conduct his suite The Sea, and he “was knocked sideways.” At thirteen, he was equally stunned by Bridge’s rhapsody, Enter Spring. This time, his viola teacher, Audrey Alston, under whose guidance he had done his first writing for strings, took him to see Bridge, and before long the boy was taking lessons, “mammoth” ones, with that remarkable man. Bridge, a comfortable member of the English “pastoral school” as a young man, had become a lonely figure in the twenties: He was a pacifist (there, too, he would leave his mark on Britten) and, unlike nearly all of his compatriots, he found what Stravinsky, Bartók, and the members of the Schoenberg circle were doing to be of enormous interest. From his pupil’s account, not to mention Britten’s achievement, Bridge must have been an inspired and inspiring teacher. More than thirty years later Britten recalled: “In everything he did for me, there were perhaps above all two cardinal principles. One was that you should try to find yourself and be true to what you found. The other—obviously connected with it—was his scrupulous attention to good technique, the business of saying clearly what was in one’s mind.”

As Britten entered his twenties, some things went well, others not. In 1934, he heard a broadcast of Wozzeck—it was the British premiere, a concert performance conducted by Adrian Boult—and he knew at once that he wanted to study with Alban Berg. At that point, in perfect exemplification of English insularity and anti-professionalism, Sir Hugh Allen, director of the Royal College of Music, intervened by advising Britten’s parents to refuse permission because Berg was “not a good influence.” Britten surmised that “there was some confusion in my parents’ minds--thinking that ‘not a good influence’ meant morally, not musically.” Britten might have been ready for this rebuff: he had already seen the librarian of the Royal College refuse to buy a score of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire!

On the other hand, Britten was getting performances under such progressive auspices as the chamber music series organized by the violinist Ann Macnaghten with the conductor Iris Lemare and the composer Elisabeth Lutyens, and at Sir Henry J. Wood’s Promenade concerts; and the BBC provided the occasional opportunity (its musical activities were then guided by Edward Clark, a student of Webern). He was increasingly in demand as a composer for documentary films, the important publishing house of Boosey & Hawkes took him on, and he was even getting played abroad.

Still, British criticism, then in a period of obtuse provincialism, was hostile to anything so removed from the pastoral tradition (as represented most notably by Vaughan Williams), so manifestly tainted by foreign influences, and so shamelessly brilliant as this new young man’s work. “Too clever by half,” was the consensus. Britten’s loyalty to left-wing and pacifist causes and his ties to such writers as W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood also made him a suspect figure. So, of course, did that then undiscussable issue, his homosexuality.

Stanley Baldwin’s and then Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler drove him to despair. When Auden and Isherwood moved to the United States in January 1939, Britten made arrangements to follow suit. His companion on the journey—for life, as it turned out—was the tenor Peter Pears, whom he had met three years before, at which time they had given a benefit recital for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.

Britten and Pears traveled widely in America, and they lived for some time in Brooklyn (at the famous bohemian house at 7 Middagh Street, whose residents included variously Carson McCullers, Auden, Gypsy Rose Lee, Chester Kallman, and Paul Bowles), but they always returned to Amityville, Long Island, and the hospitality of William and Elizabeth Mayer, a remarkable couple from Munich, he a psychiatrist and physician, she a pianist and translator. Britten’s ties to Suffolk County (the one on Long Island now, not his own home county in East Anglia) even included assuming the conductorship for the 1941-42 season of the Suffolk Friends of Music Orchestra. The American professional world was beginning to take notice as John Barbirolli in New York, Eugene Goossens in Cincinnati, Serge Koussevitzky in Boston, and Eugene Ormandy in Philadelphia all programmed works by Britten.

Auden and Isherwood, each in his own way, settled in America and with Americans. Britten’s American experience, agreeable and stimulating though it was, made him realize how deeply rooted he was in England. During a stay in Escondido, California in the summer of 1941, he saw in the BBC magazine The Listener an article by E.M. Forster about the East Anglian poet, George Crabbe. “To talk about Crabbe is to talk about England,” Forster began. That sentence struck home. It brought to the surface his feeling that he must return to England, and it was in Crabbe’s The Borough that he found the material for Peter Grimes, the opera that was a milestone in his life and in the history of British music. It was hard to get passage during the war, but on March 16, 1942, Britten wrote in the Mayers’ visitors book, “The end of the week-end (see Aug. 21st 1939)”. A month later he and Pears were home.

Several of the works Britten had composed in America and that had not yet been heard in England—the Sinfonia da Requiem, Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, the String Quartet No. 1, Hymn to Saint Cecilia, and A Ceremony of Carols—were quickly introduced in the composer’s homeland and had a more positive reception than most of his prewar compositions. The big project at hand was Peter Grimes (which Koussevitzky had commissioned just prior to Britten’s departure from the US), but before that, and as the first music he wrote after his return to England, Britten wrote the Serenade.

He was turning out scores for radio commentaries on the war effort, usually for airing at 3 a.m., and the orchestra that played them was the Royal Air Force Orchestra, whose principal horn player was Dennis Brain, then twenty-one. Dennis Brain’s father, Aubrey, was England’s most eminent performer on the French horn and was himself the son of a superb horn player; Aubrey’s brother Alfred was principal horn of the New York Symphony and, later, the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But Dennis, who made his debut at seventeen (he and his father can be heard in the 1938 Busch Chamber Players recording of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1), set new standards for his instrument. In his book The French Horn, Reginald Morley-Pegge calls him “the first horn player of genius since Punto [1748-1803].” Morley-Pegge also tells us that Brain was “a superb organist and when he decided to make his career with the horn, his teacher said that it would be a great loss to English organ playing.” He was killed in an automobile accident at thirty-six.

Britten recalled later that, once he had discovered Dennis Brain, he took great pleasure in writing the most elaborate horn solos into his documentary scores, and their conversations in the BBC canteen soon led to a request from Brain for a concert piece. In an obituary article, Britten wrote that Brain’s help was “invaluable in writing the [Serenade], but he was always most cautious in advising any alterations. Passages which seemed impossible even for his prodigious gifts were practiced over and over again before any modifications were suggested, such was his respect for a composer’s ideas. . . .”

What Britten wrote for Brain in the Serenade—his expectations in the matter of command of color, agility, and poetic imagination—tells better than any words what kind of musician and virtuoso Dennis Brain was. Happily, he was amply recorded, not only in solo and chamber music, but as principal horn in the Royal Philharmonic and the Philharmonia orchestras.

The Serenade is also one of many works that celebrate the genius of Peter Pears. No other singer in our time except Callas had a voice so instantly and unmistakably recognizable. Sir Peter, as he had become in 1977, sang until he was well into his sixties and did, it often seemed, the best singing of his life at that age. His was not a conventionally beautiful voice, but it had a range of color, a flexibility, an intensity and penetration—Michael Kennedy speaks of “monastic ecstasy”—altogether exceptional. It was, furthermore, in the service of a level of intelligence, taste, and poetic fantasy not often encountered. These qualities, combined with his technical address, made him one of those performers whose presence changes the world of music. The roles that Britten wrote for him (and happily we have Albert Herring to remind us of his comic gift), as well as the many songs, make up a vivid composite portrait of one of the great artists of our time.

Britten based most of his song cycles on the work of a single poet, but he also enjoyed assembling mini-anthologies, usually bound by a theme. The Serenade is the most famous of his cycles in that genre. Fifteen years later, the Serenade also acquired a sequel in the Nocturne, a deeper, darker, less immediately obliging, and therefore much less known work that also extends the idea of pairing the tenor voice with an obbligato instrument, in that instance a different one for each of the seven songs.

Pears was a partner in most of Britten’s literary choices, and in the early years Auden was also a tremendous influence. At the same time, it is clear that when it came to poetry, Britten had a mind of his own as well as extensive knowledge and profound love.

Before we get to words—but not before we get to poetry—there is a Prologue, fourteen magical bars for horn alone, fanciful in their rhythmic freedom, wide in dynamic range. Britten directs that the player must use the natural harmonics of his instrument only, not the valves, so that certain notes sound exotically and evocatively out of tune to our ears. (Twenty years earlier, Vaughan Williams had used the same effect in A Pastoral Symphony.)

Muted strings pick up a characteristic trochee from the Prologue and, reiterating it, set the background for the first song, “Pastoral.” Charles Cotton was a minor seventeenth-century poet who made an excellent translation of Montaigne’s Essays and contributed a section to Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler. I know of no settings of his verse other than this one (Britten uses four of ten stanzas). The music is of inspired simplicity, consisting mainly of descending triads and fragments of scales, but charmingly responsive to the text (“A very little little Flock”). As the sun descends, so does the horn, coming to rest on a tonic pedal throughout the last stanza.

After rustic calm comes the Romantic flamboyance of “Nocturne.” The trochees in the strings are incisive now, and voice and horn engage in exciting dialogue against screens of glittering trills and tremolandos. All his life, from the Simple Symphony to the 1975 Phaedra, Britten had a remarkably imaginative touch with string orchestra. Listening to this song, we can also understand with special force what Britten had in mind when he said (apropos Peter Grimes): “One of my chief aims is to try to restore to the musical setting of the English language a brilliance, freedom, and vitality that have been curiously rare since the death of Purcell.”

The horn had the stage to itself in the Prologue, receded to the role of agreeable seconder of the tenor’s motions in “Pastoral,” and stepped very much to the fore in “Nocturne.” Now, in “Elegy,” the horn is the protagonist, singing a wide-ranging song against a quiet but restlessly syncopated accompaniment. Blake’s brief and frightening poem is set as a short recitative in the middle of that song, almost like something inserted with a caret as an afterthought. The strings add just one fierce punctuation to this recital. (Blake was a poet whom Britten would revisit extensively in 1965 when he wrote his Songs and Proverbs of William Blake for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.)

With the feeling for balance and contrast that is always characteristic of Britten in his cycles, he has the voice begin the “Dirge” alone. Alone, and very high, with great slides from octave to octave. The strings strike in with new material of their own; at the climax, they are joined by the horn in a ringing molto forte. The song vanishes in pianissimo, with the voice again (almost) alone. (“Lyke” is one form of a Middle English word meaning body, especially a dead body—compare the German Leiche.)

“Hymn” suggests a solemn music, but this is a hymn to Diana, goddess of chastity, hunting, and the moon, and Britten sets it—presto a leggiero—as a hunting-scherzo, “light, silver and insubstantial,” in the words of Peter Pears. It is brilliantly virtuosic for tenor and horn player alike. This is Britten’s only setting of Ben Jonson.

The Australian poet Peter Porter has remarked on Britten’s “[undaunted] confidence in his ability to find notes for the most finished [poetic] structure,” and he was thinking especially of Hölderlin’s hymn, “Hälfte des Lebens” (“The Middle of Life”) and Keats’s sonnet “To Sleep.” (Britten returned to Keats—the first stanza of “Sleep and Poetry”—in the Nocturne.) Now the horn is silent—indeed, the player leaves the stage altogether—and the strings, just thrice rising above pianissimo, create a luminous context for the voice. With a sense of detail that Purcell would have enjoyed—”the amen,” the poppy’s “lulling charities,”  “burrowing like a mole”—Britten (and again I quote Pears) “winds the Serenade to stillness.”

Stillness, but not yet silence. The Epilogue repeats, note for note, the music of the Prologue, but heard now from far away.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: Peter Pears (tenor) and Dennis Brain (French horn) with Sir Eugene Goossens and the New Symphony Orchestra (Regis)  |  Peter Pears (tenor) and Barry Tuckwell (French horn) with Benjamin Britten and the London Symphony Orchestra (Decca)  |  Martyn Hill (tenor) and Frank Lloyd (French horn), with Richard Hickox and the City of London Sinfonia (Virgin Classics)

Reading: Britten’s Unquiet Pasts: Sound and Memory in Postwar Reconstruction, by Heather Wiebe(Cambridge University Press)  |  Benjamin Britten: A Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter (Scribner)  |  Letters from a Life: Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten, edited by Donald Mitchell (California)  |  Benjamin Britten, part of the Master Musicians series, by Michael Kennedy (Schirmer)  |  The Britten Companion, edited by Christopher Palmer (Faber)  | Remembering Britten, edited by Alan Blyth (Hutchinson)

(June 2014)