Program notes: Stories and Poems

Friday, July 29, 2022 , 6:30 PM

Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Op. 31

Ravel: Ma mère l’Oye [Mother Goose] (Music for the Ballet)

Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Op. 31

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

Composed: 1943
Length: c. 26 minutes

Instrumentation: strings, solo tenor, solo horn

Early in World War II, as Britain tried in many ways to urge America to join the war, the BBC undertook its own initiative, producing a series of broadcasts aimed at the American market. In 1942, it launched “An American in England,” a wartime documentary broadcast weekly in partnership with CBS radio and produced by Edward R. Murrow. The BBC commissioned British composer Benjamin Britten to provide background music for the series, which was performed by the Royal Air Force orchestra. While listening to the RAF orchestra, Britten became acquainted with its Principal Horn, Dennis Brain. Here’s Britten recalling the inspiration for the Serenade:

I first met Dennis in the early summer of 1942. I was writing incidental music for a series of radio commentaries on war-time England which were being broadcast weekly to America at the ungodly hour of 3 a.m. The orchestra was that of the Royal Air Force, in which he was the first horn…. Needless to say, having heard his playing…, I took every opportunity to write elaborate horn solos into each score! We soon became friends, and it took him no time at all to persuade me to write a special work for him, the Serenade…. His help was invaluable in writing the work.

As a subject, and in keeping with the patriotic nature of the BBC broadcasts, Britten chose a selection of poems by noted English poets, including Alfred, Lord Tennyson, William Blake, and John Keats. To sing the excerpts from them, he turned to his longtime partner, Peter Pears. The work premiered in 1943 with Brain and Pears as soloists.

What to listen for

Britten’s music is incredibly evocative, and overall, the work depicts the atmosphere, the moods, and the emotions of both the evening and the night, progressing from the gradual setting of the sun to the precipice of sleep. Britten’s friend Edward Sackville-West, a music critic and author, wrote:

The subject is Night and its prestigia [conjuring tricks]: the lengthening shadow, the distant bugle at sunset, the Baroque panoply of the starry sky, the heavy angels of sleep; but also the cloak of evil—the worm in the heart of the rose, the sense of sin in the heart of man. The whole sequence forms an Elegy or Nocturnal (as Donne would have called it), resuming the thoughts and images suitable to evening.

Sackville-West also played a small role in the composition—he’s the one who introduced Britten to Charles Cotton’s poem Pastoral, the first of the six poems featured in the work. The prologue and epilogue are written for the solo horn to be played completely on the natural harmonics of the instrument—with no valves. While an early reviewer mistook the distinctive and haunting character of the natural harmonics for tuning problems, Britten quickly responded that this was “exactly the effect I intended.”

Throughout the piece, listen for the many ways in which the horn reflects and amplifies the words sung by the soloist. For example, in Tennyson’s Nocturne, the tenor sings “Blow, bugle blow” while the horn plays a series of fanfare-like phrases. In Blake’s Elegy, the opening phrase “O rose, thou are sick” is introduced with an eerie, foreboding horn solo. Horn and voice become partners in expressing the sentiments of the poems, sometimes in dialogue, and other times merging together to create the melodies.


Pastoral: The Evening Quatrains
Charles Cotton (1630-1687)

The day’s grown old; the fainting sun
Has but a little way to run,
And yet his steeds, with all his skill,
Scarce lug the chariot down the hill.

The shadows now so long do grow,
That brambles like tall cedars show;
Molehills seem mountains, and the ant
Appears a monstrous elephant.

A very little, little flock
Shades thrice the ground that it would stock;
Whilst the small stripling following them
Appears a mighty Polypheme.

And now on benches all are sat,
In the cool air to sit and chat,
Till Phoebus, dipping in the West,
Shall lead the world the way to rest.

Nocturne: The Splendor Falls
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

The splendor falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story;
The long light shakes across the lakes,
And the wild cataract leaps in glory.

Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Bugle blow; answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.

O hark, O hear, how thin and clear,
And thinner, clearer, farther going!
O sweet and far from cliff and scar,
The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!

Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying,
Bugle, blow; answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.

O love, they die in yon rich sky,
They faint on hill or field or river;
Our echoes roll from soul to soul,
And grow forever and forever.

Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.

Elegy: The Sick Rose
William Blake (1757-1827)

O Rose, thou art sick;
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy;
And his dark, secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Dirge: Lyke Wake Dirge
Anonymous (15th century)

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle‑lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

When thou from hence away art past,
Every nighte and alle,
To Whinnymuir thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gav’st hos’n and shoon,
Every nighte and alle,
Sit thee down and put them on;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If hos’n and shoon thou ne’er gav’st nane,
Every nighte and alle,
The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Whinnymuir when thou may’st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Brig o’ Dread thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Brig o’ Dread when thou may’st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Purgatory fire thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gav’st meat or drink,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire sall never make thee shrink;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If meat or drink thou ne’er gav’st nane,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule.

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle‑lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

Hymn: Queen and Huntress
Ben Jonson (1572-1637)

Queen and huntress, chaste and fair,
Now the sun is laid to sleep,
Seated in thy silver chair,
State in wonted manner keep:
Hesperus entreats thy light,
Goddess excellently bright.

Earth, let not thy envious shade
Dare itself to interpose;
Cynthia’s shining orb was made
Heav’n to clear when day did close:
Bless us then with wishèd sight,
Goddess excellently bright.

Lay thy bow of pearl apart,
And thy crystal shining quiver;
Give unto the flying hart
Space to breathe, how short so-ever:
Thou that mak’st a day of night,
Goddess excellently bright.

Sonnet: To Sleep
John Keats (1795-1821)

O soft embalmer of the still midnight,
Shutting with careful fingers and benign,
Our gloom‑pleas’d eyes, embower’d from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine.

O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close
In midst of this thine hymn my willing eyes,
Or wait the “Amen” ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities.

Then save me, or the passed day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes,
Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords

Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul.

Ma mère l’Oye [Mother Goose]
(Music for the Ballet)

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Composed: 1908-1911
Length: c. 28 minutes

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), 2 horns, timpani, 3 percussion (bass drum, crash cymbals, snare drum, triangle, tam-tam, xylophone, jeu de timbres a clavier [keyboard glockenspiel], suspended cymbal), harp, celeste, and strings

The beloved French composer Maurice Ravel was not so beloved by his peers in his youth; in fact, he met with strong resistance from the musical establishment early in his career. In his mid-twenties, Ravel was dismissed from the Paris Conservatoire due to his reluctance to adhere to the conservative style that was demanded of him. Ravel attempted to advance his career by entering the Prix de Rome competition five times between 1900 and 1905, but he was summarily rejected each time. His 1905 entry failed to advance even past the first round, provoking a public outcry that forced the director of the Conservatoire to resign in shame. Ironically, while contending with criticism from the establishment for his innovations, Ravel was simultaneously disparaged for imitating the revolutionary style of Debussy, a claim he vehemently denied. Partly in response to these attitudes, in 1909, Ravel founded the Société Musicale Indépendante as an alternative to the growing conservatism of the firmly established Société Nationale de Musique. The first concert given by this new group took place in April 1910 and included the premiere of Ravel’s charming Ma mère l’Oye for piano four-hands, as well as premieres by Fauré and Debussy.

Although he never had children of his own, Ravel had a childlike side to him that endeared him to his friends’ children. There is an innocence and flowing freeness to this music that magically captures the wonder and freshness of a youthful perspective. The inspiration for the music came from children’s fairy tales of the 17th and 18th centuries. Ravel wrote his Ma mère l’Oye for the two children of Ida and Cipa Godebski, an artistically inclined Polish family living in Paris to whom Ravel remained close for much of his life. Although the children were offered the opportunity to perform the premiere on piano, the music proved too challenging for them, and Ravel substituted two slightly older children for the first performance. Ravel orchestrated the piece the following year into the popular five-movement suite.

The impresario Jacques Rouché then persuaded Ravel to expand the score once more in 1911, now comprising a full ballet, the music which we hear this evening. Ravel, who was already working on his Diaghilev ballet Daphnis et Chloé at the time, came up with his own loose scenario for the reconceived work. He added a new opening introduction and movement to the score, reordered the sections, and composed additional connective material. The ballet premiered in Paris in 1912.

What to listen for

Ravel’s sparkling orchestral colors eloquently transport us to the magical world of enchanted gardens and good fairies. The musical vignettes are based on old fairy tales including such familiar classics as “Sleeping Beauty” (the Pavane movement), “Beauty and the Beast” (represented by the elegant clarinet and ghastly contrabassoon in “La Belle et la Bête”), and “Tom Thumb” (Ravel’s music illustrates little Tom dropping breadcrumbs along his path to help him find his way home with his six siblings; alas, birds flutter down and eat them all, leaving the children lost in the forest). In the final movement, the enchanted fairy garden is brought to full bloom with Ravel’s lush and colorful orchestration.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi