Hyperion Records

Serenade to Music
The Serenade to Music was a unique response to an extraordinary event. As stated on the score, it was ‘composed for and dedicated to Sir Henry J Wood on the occasion of his jubilee, in recognition of his services to music, by R Vaughan Williams’. This was in 1938, and the ‘jubilee’ concert, marking Wood’s fifty years of activity as a professional conductor, took place at the Royal Albert Hall on 5 October. It was the type of gala event which today would gladden the hearts of Messrs Gubbay or Hochhauser. Taking part were contingents of the three London orchestras (BBCSO, LSO, LPO), three choral societies, Rachmaninov (an old friend of Wood, of whom a little more anon), and no fewer than sixteen internationally acclaimed solo singers, male and female. The reason for their presence was precisely what made the Serenade to Music unique—it was written for these singers, made-to-measure to the point whereby they are actually identified in the score by their initials. There is nothing else in music quite like it. All are given solo passages, however brief, and the climactic moments when they join together—‘Such harmony is in immortal souls’ and ‘And draw her home with music’—are overwhelming. Most of the original singers are dim-remembered names today, with the exception of Dame Eva Turner—for whom the great soaring solo ‘How many things by season season’d are to their right praise and true perfection!’ was specially designed. The effect of the piece is much diluted when performed by a chorus, or even by sixteen singers of less than stellar calibre. And that the Serenade to Music is one of Vaughan Williams’s finest smaller pieces makes the effort supremely worthwhile.

The words come from Act V of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, when Lorenzo and Jessica are at Belmont awaiting the return of Portia from Venice. The scene is famous all through for the lyric beauty of the verse:

The moon shines bright. In such a night as this
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees,
And they did make no noise,—in such a night,
Troilus methinks mounted the Troyan walls,
And sigh’d his soul towards the Grecian tents,
Where Cressid lay that night …

Later—and this is where Vaughan Williams comes in—the lovers sit listening to music, gazing at the stars and revelling in the magic of the night. The words are set to music of the most exquisitely sensuous sweetness, totally discrediting that idle old fancy that only mediocre poetry gains from being translated into its sister medium. Vaughan Williams encompasses uncertainties and reflections as well as hedonistic rapture and contentment, and the piece is flawlessly shaped. One of its greatest admirers on the occasion of that memorable first performance was Rachmaninov who, having played his Second Concerto in the first half of the concert, joined Lady Wood and other guests in her box for the second half, where he heard the Serenade. The conductor Felix Weingartner (also in the box) recalled that Rachmaninov sat at the back, his eyes filled with tears; later Rachmaninov told Sir Henry (in a letter Wood later passed on to Vaughan Williams: where is it now, one wonders?) that he had never before been so moved by music. Knowing the kind of man Rachmaninov was, and the music he composed himself and liked to hear and play, there is no reason to suppose he was being insincere.

from notes by Christopher Palmer © 1990

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