Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings

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Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings
Song cycle by Benjamin Britten
Middle-aged white man, clean shaven, full head of dark hair, seated with musical score on his lap
Britten, c. 1968
TextCharles Cotton, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, William Blake, anonymous, Ben Jonson, John Keats
DedicationEdward Sackville-West
Durationabout 20–25 minutes
DateOctober 5, 1943
LocationWigmore Hall, London
ConductorWalter Goehr
PerformersPeter Pears (tenor)
Dennis Brain (horn)

The Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op. 31, is a song cycle written in 1943 by Benjamin Britten for tenor, solo horn and a string orchestra. Composed during the Second World War at the request of the horn player Dennis Brain, it is a setting of a selection of six poems by English poets on the subject of night, including both its calm and its sinister aspects. The poets Britten chose to set for the Serenade range from an anonymous 15th-century writer to poets from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Britten's domestic partner – the tenor Peter Pears – and Brain were the soloists at the first performance. They later recorded the work, which has received subsequent recordings by tenors, horn players, orchestras and conductors from Britain, continental Europe, America and Australia.

Background and first performance[edit]

Britten and his partner, Peter Pears, returned to Britain in April 1942 after three years in the United States.[1] A few weeks later Britten was commissioned by the BBC to write incidental music for a documentary series on life in England to be broadcast to the US. The score was played by the RAF Orchestra, in which Dennis Brain was first horn. Britten was struck by Brain's skill and needed little persuasion to write a concert piece for him.[2]

Brain may have been expecting a concerto,[3] but instead Britten chose to compose a song-cycle with the horn and the singer as equal partners. Early in 1943 he caught measles so severely that he was in hospital for several weeks, and then convalesced at his country house in Suffolk.[4] There, while also working on his opera Peter Grimes, he composed most of the Serenade. In April 1943 he wrote to a friend, "I've practically completed a new work (6 Nocturnes) for Peter and a lovely young horn player Dennis Brain, & Strings ... It is not important stuff, but quite pleasant, I think".[5]

The Serenade contains Britten's first settings of English poems since On This Island in 1937.[6] In selecting them Britten had advice from Edward Sackville-West, to whom he dedicated the work. Sackville-West wrote of the Serenade:

The subject is Night and its prestigia [conjuring tricks]: the lengthening shadow, the distant bugle at sunset, the Baroque panoply of the starry sky, the heavy angels of sleep; but also the cloak of evil—the worm in the heart of the rose, the sense of sin in the heart of man. The whole sequence forms an Elegy or Nocturnal (as Donne would have called it), resuming the thoughts and images suitable to evening.[7]

Britten acknowledged the help Brain had given him with the horn part:

His help was invaluable in writing the work; but he was always most cautious in advising any alterations. Passages which seemed impossible even for his prodigious gifts were practised over and over again before any modifications were suggested, such was his respect for a composer's ideas.[2]

The first performance was given at the Wigmore Hall in London on 15 October 1943 with Pears and Brain as soloists, and Walter Goehr conducting his eponymous string orchestra.[8] It was well received: The Times called it "one of the most remarkable, and on any estimation most successful, of modern English compositions. … Britten's imagination seems to be most readily kindled by words, which strike an equivalent musical image out of him with the utmost spontaneity".[9] The Musical Times thought it a "very likeable and uncommon piece", but was inclined to Britten's own view of the importance of the work, and thought the solo horn prologue and epilogue "unnecessary".[10] Britten was pleased by the reception of the piece: he wrote to an American friend, "We had a lovely show, with wonderful enthusiasm and lovely notices".[3]


The settings are framed by a horn prologue and epilogue; Britten had employed a framing device in his 1942 A Ceremony of Carols, and did so again in the prologue and epilogue to Billy Budd.[6] In the Serenade both prologue and epilogue are performed by the horn alone, and in these movements Britten instructs the player to use only the horn's natural harmonics; this lends these short movements a distinctive character, as some harmonics sound sharp or flat to an audience accustomed to the western chromatic scale. The epilogue is to sound from afar, and to this end the final song does not include a part for the horn to allow the player to move off-stage.[11]


The Serenade has eight movements:

  1. "Prologue" (horn solo)
  2. "Pastoral", a setting of "The Evening Quatrains" by Charles Cotton (1630–1687)
  3. "Nocturne", a setting of "Blow, bugle, blow" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892)
  4. "Elegy", a setting of "The Sick Rose" by William Blake (1757–1827)
  5. "Dirge", a setting of the anonymous "Lyke-Wake Dirge" (15th century)
  6. "Hymn", a setting of "Hymn to Diana" by Ben Jonson (1572–1637)
  7. "Sonnet", a setting of "To Sleep" by John Keats (1795–1821)
  8. "Epilogue" (horn solo; reprise of Prologue, played offstage)


The words or lyrics to each movement are:

1. Prologue[edit]

(solo horn)

2. Pastoral[edit]

     The day’s grown old; the fainting sun
     Has but a little way to run,
     And yet his steeds, with all his skill,
     Scarce lug the chariot down the hill.

     The shadows now so long do grow,
     That brambles like tall cedars show;
     Molehills seem mountains, and the ant
     Appears a monstrous elephant.

     A very little, little flock
     Shades thrice the ground that it would stock;
     Whilst the small stripling following them
     Appears a mighty Polypheme.

     And now on benches all are sat,
     In the cool air to sit and chat,
     Till Phoebus, dipping in the West,
     Shall lead the world the way to rest.

Charles Cotton (1630–1687)

3. Nocturne[edit]

     The splendour falls on castle walls
     And snowy summits old in story:
     The long light shakes across the lakes,
     And the wild cataract leaps in glory:

     Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
     Bugle blow; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

     O hark, O hear, how thin and clear,
     And thinner, clearer, farther going!
     O sweet and far from cliff and scar
     The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!

     Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:
     Bugle, blow; answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.

     O love, they die in yon rich sky,
     They faint on hill or field or river:
     Our echoes roll from soul to soul,
     And grow for ever and for ever.

     Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying;
     And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892)

4. Elegy[edit]

     O Rose, thou art sick;
     The invisible worm
     That flies in the night,
     In the howling storm,

     Has found out thy bed
     Of crimson joy;
     And his dark, secret love
     Does thy life destroy.

William Blake (1757–1827)

5. Dirge[edit]

     This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
     Every nighte and alle,
     Fire and fleet and candle‑lighte,
     And Christe receive thy saule.

     When thou from hence away art past,
     Every nighte and alle,
     To Whinnymuir thou com'st at last;
     And Christe receive thy saule.

     If ever thou gav'st hos'n and shoon,
     Every nighte and alle,
     Sit thee down and put them on;
     And Christe receive thy saule.

     If hos'n and shoon thou ne'er gav'st nane
     Every nighte and alle,
     The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane;
     And Christe receive thy saule.

     From Whinnymuir when thou may'st pass,
     Every nighte and alle,
     To Brig o' Dread thou com'st at last;
     And Christe receive thy saule.

     From Brig o' Dread when thou may'st pass,
     Every nighte and alle,
     To Purgatory fire thou com'st at last;
     And Christe receive thy saule.

     If ever thou gav'st meat or drink,
     Every nighte and alle,
     The fire sall never make thee shrink;
     And Christe receive thy saule.

     If meat or drink thou ne'er gav'st nane,
     Every nighte and alle,
     The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;
     And Christe receive thy saule.

     This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
     Every nighte and alle,
     Fire and fleet and candle‑lighte,
     And Christe receive thy saule.

Lyke Wake Dirge, Anonymous (15th century)

6. Hymn[edit]

     Queen and huntress, chaste and fair,
     Now the sun is laid to sleep,
     Seated in thy silver chair,
     State in wonted manner keep:
     Hesperus entreats thy light,
     Goddess excellently bright.

     Earth, let not thy envious shade
     Dare itself to interpose;
     Cynthia's shining orb was made
     Heav'n to clear when day did close:
     Bless us then with wishèd sight,
     Goddess excellently bright.

     Lay thy bow of pearl apart,
     And thy crystal shining quiver;
     Give unto the flying hart
     Space to breathe, how short so-ever:
     Thou that mak'st a day of night,
     Goddess excellently bright.

Ben Jonson (1572–1637)

7. Sonnet[edit]

     O soft embalmer of the still midnight,
     Shutting with careful fingers and benign
     Our gloom‑pleas'd eyes, embower'd from the light,
     Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:

     O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close
     In midst of this thine hymn my willing eyes,
     Or wait the “Amen” ere thy poppy throws
     Around my bed its lulling charities.

     Then save me, or the passèd day will shine
     Upon my pillow, breeding many woes,
     Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords

     Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
     Turn the key deftly in the oilèd wards,
     And seal the hushèd Casket of my Soul.

John Keats (1795–1821)

8. Epilogue[edit]

(solo horn – off stage)


In 2020 Gramophone published a survey of recordings of the Serenade. These are the recordings mentioned:[3]

Year Tenor Horn Strings Conductor
1944 Peter Pears Dennis Brain Boyd Neel Orchestra Benjamin Britten
1953 Peter Pears Dennis Brain New Symphony Orchestra of London Eugene Goossens
1963 Peter Pears Barry Tuckwell London Symphony Orchestra Benjamin Britten
1967 Peter Schreier Gunther Opitz MDR Symphony Orchestra Herbert Kegel
1969 Gerald English Hermann Baumann WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne Sir John Barbirolli
1970 Robert Tear Alan Civil Northern Sinfonia Neville Marriner
1977 Robert Tear Dale Clevenger Chicago Symphony Orchestra Carlo Maria Giulini
1988 Martyn Hill Frank Lloyd City of London Sinfonia Richard Hickox
1988 Neil Mackie Barry Tuckwell Scottish Chamber Orchestra Steuart Bedford
1988 Anthony Rolfe Johnson Michael Thompson Scottish National Orchestra Bryden Thomson
1989 Jerry Hadley Anthony Halstead English Symphony Orchestra William Boughton
1991 Christoph Prégardien Ib Lanzky-Otto Tapiola Sinfonietta Osmo Vänskä
1994 Philip Langridge Frank Lloyd English Chamber Orchestra Steuart Bedford
1995 Ian Bostridge Marie-Luise Neunecker Bamberg Symphony Orchestra Ingo Metzmacher
1996 Adrian Thompson Michael Thompson Bournemouth Sinfonietta David Lloyd-Jones
2003 Toby Spence Martin Owen Scottish Ensemble Clio Gould
2005 Ian Bostridge Radek Baborák Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Sir Simon Rattle
2011 James Gilchrist Jasper de Waal Amsterdam Sinfonietta Candida Thompson
2011 Mark Padmore Stephen Bell Britten Sinfonia Jacqueline Shave
2013 Allan Clayton Richard Watkins Aldeburgh Strings Markus Daunert

References and sources[edit]


  1. ^ Kennedy, p. 33
  2. ^ a b Britten, Benjamin. "Dennis Brain (1921–1957)", Tempo , Winter 1957–58, pp. 5–6 JSTOR 943677 (subscription required)
  3. ^ a b c Lewis, Geraint. "The Gramophone Collection: Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings", Gramophone, October 2020, pp. 94–97
  4. ^ Carpenter, pp. 179–80 and 184
  5. ^ Carpenter, p. 184
  6. ^ a b Hinds and Baker, p. 8
  7. ^ Sackville-West, Edward. "Music: Some Aspects of the Contemporary Problem", Horizon, June–August 1944, p. 114
  8. ^ Kennedy, p. 37
  9. ^ "Britten's Serenade", The Times, 5 May 1944, p. 6
  10. ^ "London Concerts", The Musical Times, November 1943, p. 349
  11. ^ Hinds and Baker, p. 13



  • Carpenter, Humphrey (1993). Benjamin Britten: A Biography. London: Faber and Faber. ISBN 978-0-57-114325-2.
  • Kennedy, Michael (1993). Britten. London: Dent. ISBN 978-0-46-086077-2.


External links[edit]