Guest post by Ben Goldscheider
The Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings by Benjamin Britten is one of the many works written for the great horn player of the twentieth century, Dennis Brain. It had its first performance on the 15th October 1943 at the Wigmore Hall with Brain playing and Peter Pears singing.
What, to me, is so remarkable in this piece is how Britten uses the horn as an unspoken commentator on the text sung by the Tenor. This is introduced in the Prologue which is a short movement for solo horn, setting a rather haunting atmosphere that sets up the reflective mood of the following movement, the Pastoral. Britten was seemingly trying very hard to push the limits of a seemingly invincible Dennis Brain, indicating that the Prologue be played on the natural partials of the horn; a recipe for disaster for many other horn players! He makes particular use of the 7th, 11th and 14th partials which, on the horns natural configuration, are “out of tune” to our modern tempered ears. I like to think that Britten was both pushing forward in terms of technical challenges and musical idiom but also looking back, using the natural harmonics of an instrument very much connected to nature, a theme that is central to the Serenade.
Britten’s style of “word painting”, that is, to match the music with the literal meaning of the text, is masterful throughout the Serenade. The opening verse of the Pastoral, “The Day’s grown old; the fainting sun/ Has but a little way to run” evokes a very reflective or even sombre feeling which is perfectly encapsulated by the descending triadic melody in D-flat Major that dominates the movement. Sharing this melody between horn and voice, Britten manages to create a musical language in which, after a period of time, merges the dialogue between horn and voice into one expressive gesture.
Again in the following movement, the Nocturne, Britten’s use of the horn to accentuate the power of the text is central to the musical message. He uses the phrase “Blow, bugle blow” from Tennyson’s The Princess which is then punctuated by the horn playing rapid fanfare figures, starting further away in a very quiet dynamic before coming to the fore at the height of the horn’s range and dynamic powers. In the third movement, the phrase, “O rose, thou art Sick” by William Blake is expressed by a mournful descending semitone figure over a pulsating string ostinato that pushes the music in a very uneasy way.
In the Hymn, a movement based on text by Ben Jonson, Britten continues in the tradition of the Mozart and Strauss Horn Concertos by writing a rondo-like figure in 6/8 time. Britten chose words from Cynthia’s Revels which is a play that depicts Queen Elizabeth I as the virgin huntress Cynthia. This allowed Britten the freedom to deploy the horn in its typical hunting style in an extremely lively movement that finishes with the horn player walking off stage to prepare for the Epilogue. Whilst the piece is by no means humorous, I can’t help but find connotations with the humour written into the horn part of the Mozart Horn Concertos by the composer himself, often making fun of, and insulting, the horn player. It cannot be a coincidence, or at least Britten himself must have had it in his conscience, that following a 6/8 movement (all of Mozart’s Horn Concertos finish with a lively 6/8 Rondo), Britten writes one of the lowest notes available on the horn (perhaps he liked the idea that one may miss this note and then have to walk off stage embarrassed) before the horn player has to leave in an almost comedic effect. I have never played this piece without hearing at least one snigger from the audience…
As a piece, Britten’s Serenade is written extremely well for the horn. It is very idiomatic, despite its challenging aspects of endurance and sheer technical capability. What is rather rare to the piece is that Britten writes the expressive phrases in sonorities that sit very well on the instrument: he writes the explosive figures at a range in which the horn player will be able to fully express the meaning of the music and he writes with a full understanding of the instrument’s capacity to be a perfect partner to the sensitivity of the voice. I personally find it hugely rewarding to play and it is an absolute joy to be able to play such a masterpiece with the human voice, an instrument which is to me, the epitome of expression.
I very much look forward to playing this piece on 16th March at Cadogan Hall with the English Chamber Orchestra with Ben Johnson (Tenor) and Jessica Cottis (conductor). More information
At the age of eighteen, Ben Goldscheider reached the Final of the 2016 BBC Young Musician Competition, where he performed at London’s Barbican Hall with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Since then, he has performed at venues including the Berlin Philharmonie, Lucerne Culture and Congress Centre and London’s Royal Albert Hall, where he made his BBC Proms Debut in 2018. He has also appeared as soloist with the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, Aurora Orchestra and City of London Sinfonia. In 2018, Ben released his debut album with Willowhayne Records to critical acclaim, and was selected both as BBC Music Magazine’s “Rising Star” and Gramophone Magazine’s “One to Watch”.
This season, Ben makes concerto debuts with the English Chamber Orchestra, Manchester Camerata and the Prague Philharmonia. In February he returns to the Berlin Philarmonie to perform the Gliere Horn Concerto with das Sinfonie Orchester Berlin conducted by Radek Baborák. A committed chamber musician, Ben has performed at London’s Wigmore Hall with tenor Julian Prégardien and pianist Christoph Schnackertz, the Pierre Boulez Saal alongside Daniel Barenboim and Michael Barenboim and the Verbier Festival with Sergei Babayan. Future highlights include the Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival and Trio concerts with Callum Smart (violin) and Richard Uttley (piano) across the UK, featuring the premiere of a new work by Geoffrey Gordon in London. Sought-after as an orchestral player, he has performed as guest with the Staatskapelle Berlin, Philharmonia, English Chamber, West-Eastern Divan Orchestras and in 2018, played the solo horn call from Wagner’s Siegfried in a semi-staged production with The Hallé and Sir Mark Elder.