Musical Insights: Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music

Sir Henry Wood 1906
Henry J. Wood, ca. 1906

The Passing of the Year features one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music. It was composed and premiered in 1938 for Sir Henry Wood’s 50th anniversary as a conductor. The piece was commissioned by Wood, but characteristically, he donated the proceeds from the concert to a medical fund for British musicians. Wood is famous as the driving force and founding conductor of the “Proms,” a summer concert series inaugurated in 1895 to provide an informal and inexpensive venue for classical music. Over the 49 years he conducted the Proms, Wood introduced hundreds of new and rarely performed works and was responsible for popularizing classical music to generations of British audiences.

The text for Serenade to Music was taken from Act V, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and is set for sixteen vocalists, solo violin and orchestra. The sixteen vocalists for the premiere were prominent British singers who had previously worked with Wood. They sing both in ensemble (in up to 9-part harmony) and in solo parts. Vaughan Williams indicated the disposition of the solo lines in the score with the initials of the original singers, so that the same divisions could be maintained in subsequent performances.

Wood made an acoustical recording of the Serenade to Music with the original performers shortly after the premiere, and a remastered version of that recording can be found on YouTube. If you listen to the solos, you will hear that the original singers varied greatly in both timbre and size of voice but still blended perfectly in ensemble. The star of the recording might well be the Scottish soprano Isobel Baillie, an oratorio singer known for the purity (and durability) of her voice. She has the opening and closing solo lines of the piece, on the text “of sweet harmony,” a line which ascends to a pianissimo high A.

Sergei Rachmaninoff appeared in the first half of the concert, playing his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor. He joined the audience for second half of the concert. The beauty of Serenade to Music moved the usually saturnine composer to tears, and he later wrote Wood that he had never been affected so much by a piece of music.

Join us for Eastern Voices on May 1, 4pm at Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion.