The Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings was composed by Benjamin Britten in 1943 at the request of the horn player Dennis Brain. It received its first performance at London’s Wigmore Hall the same year with Brain and Britten’s partner, Peter Pears, featuring as soloists and Walter Goehr as conductor.
The debut proved successful and the work very soon became a staple in the orchestral repertoire along with The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and, later, the War Requiem.
The Serenade consists of the musical envisioning of six poems (including the anonymous fifteenth century Lyke Wake Dirge) bookended by a Prologue and Epilogue for solo horn. The fourth movement, entitled Elegy, features a dramatic rendition of William Blake’s poem ‘The Sick Rose’ from his 1794 collection Songs of Experience:
O Rose thou art sick. The invisible worm, That flies in the night In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed Of crimson joy: And his dark secret love Does thy life destroy.
What makes this movement especially fascinating (at least for me) is how Britten somehow manages to marry the ambiguous nature of the text with his own ambiguous attitude to romanticism (not least in its late nineteenth and early twentieth century English expressions).
William Blake’s poem is remarkably elusive, to understand it merely in terms of sexual ‘defilement’ (the single quotes are essential) is both reductive and misleading. In short, the poem, despite its deceptive simplicity, is multi-layered and intensely dark. Britten rises to the challenge by invoking one of few late romantic composers who held significant sway over his artistic development, namely Gustav Mahler. His appreciation of the latter’s Fourth and Ninth symphonies is well attested. In this movement, however, the real inspiration is almost certainly the fourth movement of the Third, programmatically entitled ‘What Man Tells Me’. Both musically and philosophically, they seem to draw from the same well. This, along with his own musical and literary instincts, allows Britten to do full and proper justice to Blake’s disturbing masterpiece.
This 1962 recording features Britten as conductor with Peter Pears and Barry Tuckwell as soloists.
[NB The track below is offered in the lossless FLAC format which is now supported by most recent browsers and operating systems.]