Serenade to Music, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872—1958)
To celebrate his fifty years as a conductor, Sir Henry Wood asked Vaughan Williams to write a piece of music, and the Serenade was the result. The piece weaves together words and music in a moving celebration of art and its effects.
Vaughan Williams chose words from Act V Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice. At this point in the play Lorenzo and Jessica are awaiting Portia’s return from Venice, and ask the house musicians to play for them. The skilfully selected words and their associated music become ‘a choral meditation on the nature of music and its power’. Vaughan Williams’s genius lay in his choosing to write not for a chorus, but for a group of sixteen soloists of the highest order, four in each voice, each of whom had his or her own solo part, but also blended together, sometimes in 12-part harmony: touches of sweet harmony indeed. Our performance as a choir with no soloists cannot match the joyous individuality of the original, where Vaughan Williams wrote specifically for each soloist, knowing and celebrating the character and particularity of their individual voices. But the music is still moving, whether sung by individuals or the full choir.
Listen to the way the words ‘Soft stillness and the night/Become the touches of sweet harmony’ are beautifully set in the opening, and then how they drift back again at the very end, as the music spirals up into the night. As the piece unwinds, the music itself shifts from peaceful harmony through the darkness of the untrustworthy man ‘that hath no music in himself’, and finally returns to the stillness and restful calm of the ending.
Rachmaninov, who was a performer in the first part of this concert in 1938, sat at the back of a box and listened with the audience to the performance of the Serenade. He wept as he heard it and said afterwards ‘he had never before been so moved by music’.
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