Originally composed in 1938 as an homage to Sir Henry Wood (1869-1944), who conducted the Proms for almost 50 years, Vaughan-Williams’ Serenade to Music also pays tribute to the greatness of Shakespeare by adapting to music a poetic discussion about music from Act V Scene 1 of his Merchant of Venice. In this scene, declarations of love juxtapose with comparisons of music to the movement of celestial bodies and contemplation of the beauty of music by night and by day.

Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1954
Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1954

Vaughan-Williams created the work explicitly for 16 hand picked British solo singers of the time: four each of soprano, contralto and tenor, and two each of baritone and bass. The setting alternates between singers singing alone and together as a chorus. In a similar stroke to Elgar’s Enigma Variations, the score of Serenade places the initials of each of the original soloists alongside his or her lines.

Eventually Vaughan-Williams arranged the piece in versions for chorus, soloists and orchestra, and for solo violin and orchestra. He conducted a rendering of the original version in 1951 at the inaugural concerts of the Royal Festival Hall. Leonard Bernstein included the Serenade in his program for the opening of Avery Fisher Hall in New York’s Lincoln Center in 1962. Sir Henry’s actual première recording with the original soloists and the London Symphony has been reissued on the Dutton label.

The music’s beauty moved Sergei Rachmaninov to tears – he played his own Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor in the same concert in which the Serenade received its première. Some passages of Randall Thompson’s Alleluia for a cappella voices, composed for the opening of the Berkshire Music Center at the Tanglewood Festival in 1940, bear a striking resemblance in tone and spirit to Vaughan-Williams’ Serenade.

The exquisite violin solo with which the piece begins serves as an obbligato to the soprano’s delicate, deceptively simple line, “Of sweet harmony” – as divine a rendering of Shakespeare’s words in song as can be imagined. Its comparative brevity notwithstanding, this violin solo in many ways outdistances the composer’s concerto-like violin solo piece, The Lark Ascending, in its sheer beauty and loveliness.

The soprano solos, both at the beginning and at the end, are a true test of the purity of the voice. The first vocal line ascends as if to heaven, reflective of the perfect moonlight that “sleeps upon this bank” and the “the sounds of music.” The piece finishes in the sweetest harmony conceivable, with a touching repetition of the violin and soprano solos, the violin’s singing tone matching that of the soprano.

With such a perfect opening, the addition of other voices would seem almost superfluous. On the contrary, the sudden darkness in the harmony and deeply felt passion of the other soloists’ music parallel the drama and conflict of Shakespeare’s speeches. Shimmering upward spirals in the violins accompany the tenor’s description of “the floor of heaven…inlaid with patines of bright gold”, culminating in passages reaching even higher to depict “the young-eyed cherubins.” In response the ensemble declaims, in a surge of emotion, “Such harmony is in immortal souls.”

A trumpet call evokes the spirit of the immortal Diana, only to dissipate when a passionate discussion ensues in which the reasons for not appreciating the divine nature of music are likened to a deficiency in one’s soul. “The man that hath no music in himself…is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils…Let no such man be trusted.”

The trumpet repeats its call, this time to draw the attention back to light vs. darkness when it comes to music: “Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day.” Sweetness is the recurring theme of the piece, embodied both in language and literally the sweetest sonorities a string section is capable of producing.

Vaughan-Williams chooses to finish the piece with phrases judiciously lifted from elsewhere in the text, out of order but beautifully placed, cushioned by a soft pillow of solo violin and soprano lines: “Soft stillness and the night…Become the touches of sweet harmony.”

A fitting ending to 14 minutes of sublime poetry coupled with some of the composer’s most transcendent music: a divine pairing that ascends to heavenly heights and returns to earth with the harmonious strains of the angelic harp hovering in the air.