The Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings by Benjamin Britten is one of the many works written for the great horn player of the 20th Century, Dennis Brain. It had its first performance on 15 October 1943 at the Wigmore Hall with Brain playing and Peter Pears singing.
Ben Goldscheider provides an insight into this work as a prelude to his concert with the ECO, tenor Ben Johnson and conductor Jessica Cottis (Saturday, 16 March, Cadogan Hall, London).
What, to me, is so remarkable in this piece is how Britten uses the horn as an unspoken commentator on the text sung by the tenor. This is introduced in the Prologue which is a short movement for solo horn, setting a rather haunting atmosphere that sets up the reflective mood of the following movement, the Pastoral. Britten was trying very hard to push the limits of a seemingly invincible Dennis Brain, indicating that the Prologue be played on the natural partials of the horn; a recipe for disaster for many other horn players! He makes particular use of the 7th, 11th and 14th partials which, on the horn’s natural configuration, are ‘out of tune’ to our modern tempered ears. I like to think that Britten was both pushing forward in terms of technical challenges and musical idiom but also looking back, using the natural harmonics of an instrument very much connected to nature, a theme that is central to the Serenade.
Britten’s style of ‘word painting’, that is, to match the music with the literal meaning of the text, is masterful throughout the Serenade. The opening verse of the Pastoral, ‘The Day’s grown old; the fainting sun/ Has but a little way to run’ evokes a very reflective or even sombre feeling which is perfectly encapsulated by the descending triadic melody in D flat major that dominates the movement. Sharing this melody between horn and voice, Britten manages to create a musical language in which, after a period of time, merges the dialogue between horn and voice into one expressive gesture.
Again, in the following movement, the Nocturne, Britten’s use of the horn to accentuate the power of the text is central to the musical message. He uses the phrase ‘Blow, bugle blow’ from Tennyson’s The Princess which is then punctuated by the horn playing rapid fanfare figures, starting further away in a very quiet dynamic before coming to the fore at the height of the horn’s range and dynamic powers. In the third movement, the phrase, ‘O rose, thou art Sick’ by William Blake is expressed by a mournful descending semitone figure over a pulsating string ostinato that pushes the music in a very uneasy way.
In the Hymn, a movement based on text by Ben Jonson, Britten continues in the tradition of the Mozart and Strauss horn concertos by writing a rondo-like figure in 6/8 time. Britten chose words from Cynthia’s Revels which is a play that depicts Queen Elizabeth I as the virgin huntress Cynthia. This allowed Britten the freedom to deploy the horn in its typical hunting style in an extremely lively movement that finishes with the horn player walking off stage to prepare for the Epilogue. Whilst the piece is by no means humorous, I can’t help but find connotations with the humour written into the horn part of the Mozart horn concertos by the composer himself, often making fun of, and insulting, the horn player. It cannot be a coincidence, or at least Britten himself must have had it in his conscience, that following a 6/8 movement (all of Mozart’s horn concertos finish with a lively 6/8 Rondo), Britten writes one of the lowest notes available on the horn (perhaps he liked the idea that one may miss this note and then have to walk off stage embarrassed) before the horn player has to leave in an almost comedic effect. I have never played this piece without hearing at least one snigger from the audience…
As a piece, the Britten Serenade is written extremely well for the horn. It is very idiomatic, despite its challenging aspects of endurance and sheer technical capability. What is rather rare to the piece is that Britten writes the expressive phrases in sonorities that sit very well on the instrument, he writes the explosive figures at a range in which the horn player will be able to fully express the meaning of the music and he writes with a full understanding of the instrument’s capacity to be a perfect partner to the sensitivity of the voice. I personally find it hugely rewarding to play and it is an absolute joy to be able to play such a masterpiece with the human voice, an instrument which is to me the epitome of expression.
I look forward hugely to playing this piece with the English Chamber Orchestra on the 16 March at Cadogan Hall with Ben Johnson (tenor) and Jessica Cottis (conductor).
Click here to listen to the ECO’s recording of Britten’s Serenade with Philip Langridge, Frank Lloyd and Steuart Bedford.