Benjamin Britten

Serenade, for tenor, horn & strings, Op. 31

    Description by Roger Dettmer

    On his way back from America in 1942, Britten began two choral works, Hymn to Saint Cecilia and A Ceremony of Carols, that were premiered the same year. But morale-boosting concerts with tenor Peter Pears (both were conscientious objectors and already lifelong partners) preoccupied them for the next 11 months. Not until he was hospitalized with measles early in 1943 did Britten began to compose again, working on what he described as "6 Nocturnes for Peter and a lovely young horn player, Dennis Brain, & Strings." He dedicated the finished Serenade to Edward Sackville-West, who later wrote: "The subject is Night...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 [William Blake's] rose, the secret sense of sin in the heart of man. The whole sequence forms an Elegy or Nocturnal, as Donne would have called it." It was premiered with Walter Goehr and his orchestra in London's Wigmore Hall on October 15, 1943.

    The horn plays unaccompanied on natural (rather than tempered) harmonics at the beginning and the end, onstage in the Prologue. In the Pastoral, the first song, in D flat, Charles Cotton's seventeenth century words "could be a description of a Constable landscape...[while] the horn continues to play in imitative diatonic phrases." So wrote Humphrey Carpenter in his 1992 biography of Britten. In the succeeding Nocturne (words by Alfred Lord Tennyson, ABA form, E flat and C major), the horn echoes and later embellishes its partner's jaunty, triplet-filled melody. Next, in the Blake Elegy, subject matter darkens the music landscape. Its extended horn preface and postlude are dominated by descending half-step intervals, eerily so at the end -- symbolizing "the sense of sin" that had its origin, for Britten, in boarding and public schools that he both dreaded and despised. The anonymous, fifteenth century Lyke Wake Dirge follows in grim G minor, and is keened by the tenor at the upper extreme of his voice, keeping the half-step intervals from the Elegy. Here, however, they ascend. Carpenter calls this "a relentless funeral march in the strings...the tenor's swoops up the octave suggest mortal terror of judgment." Its canonic character turns ghoulish at the horn's brash intrusion more than halfway through. The B flat setting of Ben Jonson's Hymn to Diana, goddess of the moon as well as the chase, is marked "presto e leggiero." Triplet-filled hunting calls and scales passages on the horn are imitated by the tenor in a cadenza near the end. The sixth and final song lets the horn rest while the tenor sings Keats' sonnet about the healing power of sleep, albeit uneasily, almost pleading on repeated high D's at the end ("seal the hushèd casket of my soul") over a sustained D by two solo violins and viola. From offstage, the horn repeats the Prologue note for note in an Epilogue.


    1. Prologue
    2. 1. Pastoral (Cotton)
    3. 2. Nocturne (Tennyson)
    4. 3. Elegy (Blake)
    5. 4. Dirge (Anon. 15th Century)
    6. 5. Hymn (Jonson)
    7. 6. Sonnet (Keats)
    8. Epilogue

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2016 Linn Records CKD 478
    2015 Linn Records BKD 226
    2013 Brilliant Classics 94728
    2013 Decca 4785364
    2013 Decca
    2013 ABC Classics 4807301
    2013 ICA Classics ICAC 5096
    2013 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099972354
    2013 Warner Classics
    2012 Harmonia Mundi HMU 807552
    2011 Regis / Regis Records RRC 1365
    2011 Deutsche Grammophon 002894779628
    2011 Deutsche Grammophon
    2011 Document 231134
    2010 Decca
    2010 Decca
    2010 Decca 4782345
    2009 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099924274
    2009 EMI Classics
    2009 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099969557
    2009 EMI Classics
    2008 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099921752
    2008 EMI Music Distribution 349923-2
    2008 Opus KURA 7034
    2007 Decca
    2007 Decca 4756051
    2007 LPO 98
    2007 Summit Records 490
    2006 Decca 4768470
    2006 BBC Legends / BBC Music 41922
    2005 Warner Classics
    2005 Linn Records 226
    2005 EMI Classics
    2005 EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics 7243558049
    2004 Chandos 10192
    2004 Naxos 8557199
    2003 EMI Music Distribution 575978-2
    2003 Deutsche Grammophon 000002502
    2002 Virgin 61978
    2002 EMI Music Distribution 575563
    2001 EMI Music Distribution 74346
    2001 Decca 468 801-2DM
    1999 Nimbus 1751
    1999 Chandos 7112
    1999 EMI Classics / EMI Music Distribution 56871
    1999 EMI Music Distribution 56183
    1998 CBC Records 5187
    1998 Naxos 553834
    1998 Point Classics 2672422
    1996 EMI Music Distribution 65899
    1995 Pearl 9177
    1995 Collins Records 70372
    1995 Berlin Classics 0090352
    1995 Campion Records 1313
    1995 EMI Music Distribution CD-CFPSD4754
    1994 BIS 540
    1993 London 4363952
    1993 EMI Classics 7695222
    1992 Nimbus 5234
    1988 Deutsche Grammophon 423239
    Vox 9023
    Vox 8203
    MCA 10099
    London 417153
    Chandos 8657
    Virgin 61122
    RPO 7015