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Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings

The Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op. 31, is a song cycle written in 1943 by English composer Benjamin Britten for tenor accompanied by a solo horn and a small string orchestra. Composed during World War II at the request of the horn player Dennis Brain, it is a setting of a selection of six poems by British poets on the subject of night, including both its calm and its sinister aspects.

The prologue and epilogue which frame the songs are both performed by the horn alone, and in these movements Britten instructs the player to use only the horn's natural harmonics; this lends these short movements a distinctive character, as some harmonics sound sharp or flat to an audience accustomed to the western chromatic scale. The epilogue is to sound from afar, and to this end the final song does not include a part for the horn to allow the player to move off-stage.

The piece has become a central work in both tenor and horn repertoire. Britten's lifelong companion Peter Pears was the tenor in the first performances, and they recorded it together more than once.


  • Composition 1
  • Movements 2
  • Lyrics 3
    • 1. Prologue 3.1
    • 2. Pastoral 3.2
    • 3. Nocturne 3.3
    • 4. Elegy 3.4
    • 5. Dirge 3.5
    • 6. Hymn 3.6
    • 7. Sonnet 3.7
    • 8. Epilogue 3.8
  • References 4
  • External links 5


On returning to England in 1943 following his stay in America, Britten caught measles so severely that he had to be hospitalised for several weeks. Here, while also working on his libretto for Peter Grimes, he composed most of the Serenade.[1]

The first performance was given at the Wigmore Hall in London on 15 October 1943 with Peter Pears as the tenor soloist and Dennis Brain on the horn.[2] Britten and Pears recorded the piece with Dennis Brain and the Boyd Neel Orchestra in October 1944, and again in a famous recording for Decca records in 1963, when Barry Tuckwell took the horn part and the London Symphony Orchestra accompanied.


  1. "Prologue" (horn solo)
  2. "Pastoral", a setting of The Evening Quatrains by Charles Cotton (1630–1687)
  3. "Nocturne", Blow, bugle, blow by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892)
  4. "Elegy", The Sick Rose by William Blake (1757–1827)
  5. "Dirge", the anonymous Lyke-Wake Dirge (fifteenth century).
  6. "Hymn", Hymn to Diana by Ben Jonson (1572–1637)
  7. "Sonnet", To Sleep by John Keats (1795–1821)
  8. "Epilogue" (horn solo; reprise of Prologue, played offstage)


The words or lyrics to each movement are:

1. Prologue

(solo horn)

2. Pastoral

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;
Mole hills 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.
Charles Cotton (1630–1687)

3. Nocturne

The splendour 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, 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:
Blow, bugle; 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 for ever and for ever.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892)

4. Elegy

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.
William Blake (1757–1827)

5. Dirge

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 Whinny‑muir thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.
If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,
Every nighte and alle,
Sit thee down and put them on;
And Christe receive thy saule.
If hosen 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 Whinny‑muir 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 gavest 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.
Lyke Wake Dirge, Anonymous (15th century)

6. Hymn

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.
Ben Jonson (1572–1637)

7. Sonnet

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 passèd 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 oilèd wards,
And seal the hushèd casket of my Soul.
John Keats (1795–1821)

8. Epilogue

(solo horn – off stage)


  1. ^ Oliver, Michael, (1996), Benjamin Britten in Phaidon Press 20th Century Composers series. page 98. Phaidon Press Limited. ISBN 978-0-7148-4771-9 (2008 reprint).
  2. ^ Oliver, 1996. page 219.

External links

  • Understanding "Lyke Wake Dirge" by Jeff Duntemann
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