One of the finest of all musical settings of Shakespeare, the Serenade to Music was written for and dedicated to Henry Wood on the occasion of his golden jubilee as a conductor, "in grateful recognition of his services to music." Wood, who for decades had been associated with the enormously popular Promenade Concerts in London, had participated in many premieres of Vaughan Williams' compositions and was much admired by the composer. For his tribute, Vaughan Williams had the splendid idea of creating a work that would incorporate the talents of 16 well-known British singers who had had long associations with Wood, for each of whom Vaughan Williams would create a characteristic phrase to sing. These 16 singers took part in the premiere of the Serenade at Wood's Golden Jubilee concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on October 5, 1938, with Wood himself conducting a large orchestra of musicians drawn from the London Symphony, London Philharmonic, BBC Symphony, and Queen's Hall orchestras. It was an emotional performance that, it is said, reduced Sergey Rachmaninov, who was in attendance, to tears. Thankfully these same performers recorded the work a few days later, so listeners today can share in the moving quality of the event.
Vaughan Williams chose for his text Lorenzo's speech on music in Portia's garden from Act Five, Scene One of The Merchant of Venice. The opening gesture of the Serenade is unusually beautiful, and a solo violin helps establish the languorous mood of a Mediterranean garden. The voices enter, and one of the sopranos sings a rapturous ascending phrase at the first mention of "sweet harmony." Men's voices take over to describe the "floor of heaven...thick inlaid with patines of bright gold," and a brief note of anxiety enters. Fanfares then sound the wakening of Diana, followed by a more melancholy passage contemplating "the man that hath no music in himself." Diana's fanfares briefly return and lead back to the peaceful opening melody, which also concludes the work in hushed fashion. The singers collectively intone the final words, "sweet harmony," and the piece ends in utter tranquillity.