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Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Opus 31 about:blank

Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Opus 31

Serenade for Tenor Solo, Horn, and Strings, Opus 31

Edward Benjamin Britten was born at Lowestoft, Suffolk, England, on Saint Cecilia’s Day,
November 22, 1913, and died at Aldeburgh, Suffolk, on December 4, 1976. On June 12 of that year
he had been created Baron Britten of Aldeburgh in the Queen’s Birthday Honors, making him the
first musician to be elevated to the peerage. The Serenade was written in 1943 for tenor Peter Pears
and horn player Dennis Brain, and was first performed by those artists with Walter Goehr and his
orchestra in London on October 15 that year. The San Francisco Symphony first performed the
Serenade in March 1985 when tenor Jon Garrison and then-SFS principal horn David Krehbiel were
the soloists and Edo de Waart conducted; in the most recent SFS performances, in November 1993,
tenor Neil Mackie and David Krehbiel were soloists and Iona Brown conducted. The Serenade is
dedicated to Edward Sackville-West, brother of the famous Vita, himself a music critic, and of
assistance to Britten in selecting the poems for this work. Performance time: about twenty-five
minutes.

Blest pair of Sirens, pledges of Heav’ns joy,


phear-born harmonious Sisters, Voice, and Vers,
Wed your divine sounds, and mixt power employ
Dead things with inbreath’d sense able to pierce,
And to our high-rais’d phantasie present,
That undisturbed Song of pure content. . . .
—John Milton, At a Solemn Musick

Night and Silence, these are two of the things I cherish most.
—Benjamin Britten

It was a work for string orchestra—the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, introduced
by the Boyd Neel Orchestra at the 1937 Salzburg Festival—that put Benjamin Britten’s
name firmly on the map; first and foremost, however, Britten was a composer for Milton’s
“harmonious Sisters, Voice, and Vers.” And, while John Harbison was right in pointing out
that composers of vocal music have usually excelled either at opera or at song, Britten, in
almost unique defiance of Harbison’s Law, was a master at both.

Actually, not counting his notations at age five of “hundreds of dots all over the page
connected by long lines all joined together in beautiful curves,” Britten began his life as a
composer with instrumental music, “elaborate tone poems [for piano] usually lasting about
twenty seconds.” His first large-scale effort combined theater, song, and music for
instruments: This was a play with incidental music called The Royal Falily [sic], based on the
recent death of Prince John, the thirteen-year-old son of King George V and Queen Mary.
The precocious author-composer was six or seven. “Walztes”—spelling was not his strong
suit—he wrote at nine and ten were good enough for him to use ten years later in his Simple

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