Skip to page content

Benjamin Britten and the tenor Peter Pears, his lover, lifelong companion, and musical inspiration, left England for the United States early in 1939, with no definite plans to return. Their reasons for departing were at least twofold: the feeling on Britten’s part that his music was not appreciated at home and both men’s certainty that Britain would soon become involved in a war to which they were opposed. Their friends W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood had already departed for America; the U.S. had enthusiastically received Britten’s music (Aaron Copland proved particularly helpful in this respect); and the U.S. was at the time committed to a pacifist policy regarding the “troubles” in Europe.

Fascinating as the American years are, our subject here is music Britten created upon his return home in 1942, a move prompted by various unpleasant events, among them the failure with both the press and public of his and Auden’s “operetta” (as they called it) Paul Bunyan, and increasing criticism in the British press of Britten’s avoidance of his homeland during a time of national crisis, culminating in a reference by the editor of Musical Times to “saving one’s art and one’s skin at the cost of failure to do one’s duty.” Next came a de facto ban on Britten’s music by the hitherto sympathetic BBC.

When, however, Britten and Pears arrived back in England they found relatively

 

little antagonism, and once officially registered as conscientious objectors both were able to pursue their careers, often jointly

– Britten was a superb pianist – by giving recitals (which the government regarded as “morale-raising”) in churches and public buildings throughout the country.

Whether or not Britten had become a more “English” composer during his self- imposed exile, there could be little doubt that he had become a master of his craft, as witness the Serenade, to be followed a year later by his greatest operatic success, Peter Grimes.

The Serenade, written early in 1943 for Pears and the horn virtuoso Dennis Brain, consists of six songs which are enclosed by a prologue and epilogue in which the solo horn plays on natural harmonics, a daring move by the composer, since the ear can easily be fooled into regarding the per- former’s intonation as being suspect.

In his memorial tribute to Brain (1921- 1957), the composer wrote:

“I first met Dennis in the summer of 1942... We soon became friends, and it took him no time at all to persuade me to write a special work for him. This turned out to be the Serenade... His help was invaluable in writing the work; but he was always most cautious in advising any alterations. Passages which seemed impossible even for his prodigious gifts were practiced over and over again before any modifications were suggested, such was  his respect for a composer’s ideas. He of course performed the work on many occasions, and for a period it seemed that no one else would be able to play it adequately. But, as usually happens when there is a work to play and a master who plays it, others slowly develop the means of playing it too, through his example...”

The first song, to the deliciously quirky and comforting “Pastoral” by the 17th-century poet Charles Cotton (best known as a contributor to his friend Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler), is ideal fodder for Britten’s imaginative word painting, which is always at its best when challenged to complement or heighten elusive visual images, here of various objects whose forms are magnified – in their shadows – by the setting sun, described by the tenor’s gracefully descending “The day’s grown old.”

Tennyson’s “Nocturne” (“The splendor falls on castle walls”) is the brightest of night-songs, full of the buzz and energy of nocturnal activity, “of starry glitter and the last flashes of the sun,” as Peter Pears wrote. While the horn was the protagonist in “Pastoral,” here it joins the voice only in the refrain.

The horn is again center-stage in the shattering “Elegy,” one of those breathtaking examples of word setting wherein a new and even more powerful work of art has been created through musicalization. It is the horn’s menacing minor seconds that above all distinguish Britten’s reaction to William Blake’s brief, shattering depiction of the corruption of beauty and innocence, a theme particularly close to the composer’s heart, as he would affirm in such later masterpieces as the operas The Turn of the Screw (after Henry James) and Billy Budd (after Herman Melville).

The vocal line of the subsequent “Dirge” to an anonymous 15th-century poem has no dynamic or expressive marking other than the initial come un lamento, thus it is usually rendered (following Pears’ example) in a constant mezza voce. It is, as described by Christopher Palmer, “a bleached and spiritless song of the vanity of all human endeavor... The voice in a sense unregardingly, impassively independent of the orchestra, which represents the human element... A fugally impelled funeral procession... approaches close enough to strike mortal terror in our hearts (horn hysteria) and then makes off, leaving the last word to the disembodied wail and whine of the singer.”

Horn and singer are given their ultimate workout, rather like a two-person acrobatic team, in Ben Jonson’s giddy “Hymn,” dedicated to Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, while the horn rests in the soothing “Sonnet” (“O soft embalmer of the still midnight”), wherein Keats’ verbal density is mitigated by Britten’s wonderfully broad, syllable-stretching setting. That the horn is absent here not only makes dramatic sense but serves a practical purpose,  allowing the player to move unobtrusively offstage to play the epilogue.

The first performance of the Serenade was given on October 15, 1943, by Pears, Brain, and a string orchestra conducted by Walter Goehr. 

— Herbert Glass