Ralph Vaughan Williams

Serenade to Music ("How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!") for 16 soloists (or soloists & chorus) & orchestra

    Description by Chris Morrison

    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.

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2018 Chandos CHSA 5201
    2012 Westminster Choir College WCC 1205
    2010 Albion ALB 009
    2010 EMI Classics
    2009 Dutton Vocalion 9790
    2008 Decca 4800476
    2008 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099920799
    2008 Hyperion 44321/4
    2008 EMI Classics
    2008 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099921615
    2008 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099920663
    2005 EMI Classics
    2001 CBC Records 5121
    2000 Sony Music Distribution 61874
    2000 Hyperion CDA20420
    2000 EMI Classics / EMI Music Distribution 73924
    1999 Disky 705962
    1999 EMI Music Distribution 573 538-2
    1999 Chandos 2409
    1997 Dutton Laboratories 8004
    1995 EMI Music Distribution 64034
    1994 Sony Music Distribution 47638
    1994 EMI Music Distribution 65458
    1993 Pearl 9342
    1991 EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics 0777764022
    1990 Hyperion CDA66420
    Vox 9023
    Vox 8203
    Pearl 0094
    BBC Music 580
    Algo ALC1025
    BBC Music Magazine 320
    EMI Music Distribution 1
    Claremont Recordings 785066
    Dutton Laboratories 9707