Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958): Serenade to Music (1938)
In October 1938, the sixty-nine-year-old Henry Wood - founder of the Proms concerts - celebrated his golden jubilee as a conductor. It was Vaughan Williams (three years Wood's junior) who suggested he write a piece for the occasion involving sixteen British singers closely associated with Wood. The resulting Serenade to Music is tailor-made to each individual voice, and even in modern editions the score is printed with the initials of which singer was to perform which solo. With each part so accurately conceived for an individual voice, casting performances of this work today has to be undertaken with a great deal of care.
Vaughan Williams drew his text from the famous passage in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice which refers to the ancient doctrine of 'The Music of the Spheres'. Shakespeare was writing a century before Newton formulated the law of gravity, so the doctrine (which holds that divine music, beyond human audibility, holds the cosmos together, and human music is a pale reflection of it) was probably intended literally, not just poetically. Vaughan Williams removed all direct references to this doctrine from his text, perhaps lest they seem out of place in his age of science, and he also omitted sections that refer to specific dramatic action in the play. The remaining excerpt - two conversations between the characters Lorenzo and Jessica, then between Portia and Nerissa - is divided up in Vaughan Williams's setting such that the narrative is revealed in sixteen short solos, with all voices joining in unity at key moments in the text.
The voluptuous curves and lyric appeal of the Serenade reduced Rakhmaninov to tears at the first performance, and this work is certainly more Rakhmaninovian than Vaughan Williams usually is. From the very beginning the heady atmosphere of Shakespeare's scene is evoked - a Mediterranean garden after dark. A substantial exposition from the orchestra covers the first two sections, the first in D major and the second beginning in B minor and roaming much more freely through distant keys, side-stepping constantly into unexpected new areas of harmony. The sixteen voices are introduced together, magically midway through an orchestral phrase, melding the join between sections.
The solo violin is an ever-present feature in the orchestral opening, making a brief reappearance midway, and again towards the end, drawing the work to a quiet close. As in The Lark Ascending, this solo role is melodically expressive, and never showy in its own right. It is possible that the inclusion of the solo violin is Vaughan Williams's depiction of Henry Wood himself, whom he described as having "none of the affectations of the virtuoso, no swaggering in with his head in the clouds, no temperamental hysteria”. Woven throughout this stately and serene work is the golden thread of Vaughan Williams respect for and warmth towards Henry Wood.