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.