Serenade to Music
Serenade to Music is a work by Ralph Vaughan Williams for 16 vocal soloists and orchestra, composed in 1938. The text is an adaptation of the discussion about music and the music of the spheres in Act V, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. Vaughan Williams later arranged the piece into versions for chorus and orchestra and solo violin and orchestra. It is approximately 13 minutes in duration.
Vaughan Williams wrote the piece as a tribute to the conductor Sir Henry Wood to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Wood's first concert. The solo parts were composed specifically for the voices of sixteen eminent British singers chosen by Wood and the composer. In some parts of the work, the soloists sing together as a "choir," sometimes in as many as twelve parts; in others, each soloist is allotted a solo (some soloists get multiple solos). The published score places the initials of each soloist next to his or her lines.
Wood conducted the first performance at his jubilee concert at the Royal Albert Hall on 5 October 1938. The orchestra comprised players from three London orchestras – the London Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The soloists were:
Sergei Rachmaninoff played in the first half of the concert as soloist in his Second Piano Concerto; when he heard the Serenade from his place in the audience, he was so overcome by the beauty of the music that he wept.
On 15 October 1938, Wood made the first recording (with the same soloists and the BBC Symphony Orchestra) at the HMV Abbey Road Studio No. 1. Vaughan Williams and HMV donated copyright fees received from the initial record sales to the Henry Wood Jubilee Fund, which was established to endow London hospital beds for British orchestral musicians.
Vaughan Williams, realising the difficulty of assembling sixteen soloists for future performances, subsequently made arrangements for four soloists plus choir and orchestra, for choir and orchestra, for choir and piano, and for orchestra alone. Wood premiered the orchestral version in February 1940. The orchestral version has since been recorded by the London Philharmonic under Vernon Handley and the Northern Sinfonia of England under Richard Hickox. The orchestra consists of two flutes (second doubling piccolo), oboe, cor anglais, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.
Vaughan Williams conducted a performance of the original version of the Serenade during the inaugural concerts at the new Royal Festival Hall in 1951. The orchestra was the Liverpool Philharmonic and eleven of the original sixteen soloists sang; Ena Mitchell replaced Turner, Gladys Ripley replaced Balfour, and William Herbert, Richard Lewis and Stephen Manton replaced Titterton, Widdop and Jones. The performance was recorded and has been released on CD.
For the opening of the Avery Fisher Hall, New York, on 23 September 1962, Leonard Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic, his programme including the Serenade to Music. The soloists were Adele Addison, Lucine Amara, Eileen Farrell, Lili Chookasian, Jennie Tourel, Shirley Verrett-Carter, Charles Bressler, Richard Tucker, Jon Vickers, George London, Ezio Flagello and Donald Bell. The performance was recorded live and has been issued on CD by Sony Classical.
In arranging Shakespeare's text, Vaughan Williams followed the word order, but cut words, phrases, and whole lines, and repeated at the end eleven words from the third and fourth lines, producing the following text. The initials mark the singers' solo passages; ensemble passages are shown in italics:
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches IB of sweet harmony.
HN Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
FT There's not the smallest orb that thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
WW Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
PJ But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
SA Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn!
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress' ear,
And draw her home with music.
ES I am never merry when I hear sweet music.
RE The reason is, your spirits are attentive –
HW The man that hath no music in himself,
RH Nor is not mov'd with concord of sweet sounds,
RE Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
NA The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. MBr Music! hark!
It is your music of the house.
AD Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day.
MJ Silence bestows that virtue on it
ET How many things by season season'd are
To their right praise and true perfection!
MBa Peace, ho! the moon sleeps with Endymion
And would not be awak'd. Soft stillness and the night
Become the touches IB of sweet harmony.
The recordings of the original version, for sixteen singers and orchestra, are conducted by Sir Henry Wood (1938), the composer (1951), Sir Adrian Boult (1969), Matthew Best (1990) and Sir Roger Norrington (1997). In the table below, each row shows the original singer, followed by those performing the same part in the later recordings.
In popular culture
- "Sir Henry Wood", The Times, 6 October 1938, p. 10
- Palmer, Christopher (1990). Notes to Hyperion CD CDA 30025
- The other composers represented in the programme were Arthur Sullivan (O Gladsome Light), Ludwig van Beethoven (Overture to Egmont), J.S. Bach (Sanctus from Mass in B minor), Arnold Bax (London Pageant), Richard Wagner (The Ride of the Valkyries), George Frideric Handel (Hailstone Chorus from Israel in Egypt), and Edward Elgar (Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1). See The Musical Times, Vol. 79, No. 1148, Oct. 1938, p. 778
- Wood, Henry J., "Sir Henry Wood on his Jubilee Fund", The Musical Times, Vol. 80, No. 1157, July 1939, p. 534 (subscription required)
- "Symphonic Music at Queen's Hall", The Times, 12 February 1940, p. 40
- Albion Records (2009), catalogue number ALBCD009
- Liner note to EMI DVD 6097459 (2010)