Britten’s attraction to the night, to the poetry of night, and to the sounds of the ‘natural’ world is celebrated in one of his most acclaimed works – it is possibly so well-regarded because it sets some of England’s best-known poetry, and is beautifully composed for the sympathetic sounds of tenor, French horn and string orchestra. But it’s no cosy, bedtime and cocoa piece: within even the most pastoral and pleasant of English countryside evocations there is disconcerting imagery created by shadows and tricks of the growing darkness; the darkness can conjure up demons; and the vulnerable sleeping figure can be subject to troubling psychic disturbance. The work was originally called ‘Nocturnes’ – changed to Serenade before the first performance, and the nocturnal title saved for another fifteen years for another song cycle.

Britten composed it in a somewhat heightened state: many of his works were written at a feverish pace, but this time he literally had a fever from measles and was in an isolation ward in a London hospital while he began to work on it. It was one of the few major works he wrote in the year after returning from the USA in March 1942. To the forces employed in his earlier cycle Les Illuminations (voice and string orchestra) Britten adds the contrasting sonority of the French horn. He had met the horn player Dennis Brain while working for the BBC on his return to the UK and was energised and inspired by his outstanding musical talent. Britten had offered him a concerto, but ended up giving him the Serenade – one of the most enduring showcases for the French horn in the twentieth century repertoire.

That Britten was inspired by a muse applies no less, a great deal more in fact, to Peter Pears in particular. Their relationship had developed while they were in America a few years previously, and Britten had begun to compose specifically for Peter Pears’ voice, just at the time he was developing as an artist. Serenade is the second song cycle written with the voice of Peter Pears very much to mind. In this week’s film, the renowned tenor Ian Bostridge discusses the particular drama and vocal challenges of this most beautiful and haunting piece.

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