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A guide to Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music and its best recordings

Composed to celebrate Henry Wood's jubilee concert, Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music was first performed in 1938. Here is our guide to the piece and our recommendations for its best recordings

A guide to Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music and its best recordings

When and why did Vaughan Williams compose Serenade to Music?

After 50 years as a prominent conductor, you’d expect to have some musical friends in high places. For Henry Wood that was very much the case as he embarked on a special gala concert to mark his five decades on the podium. It was for that ‘jubilee’ concert, on 5 October 1938 at the Royal Albert Hall, that Vaughan Williams penned his rather unusual Serenade to Music.

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Why is Serenade to Music unusual?

It’s written for sixteen solo vocalists and orchestra, and Vaughan Williams penned it for a very specific set of stars – a veritable who’s who of 1930s classical music. His line-up included sopranos Isobel Baillie and Eva Turner, tenors Heddle Nash and Frank Titterton and bass Robert Easton, among others. Each had a very specific part to play, however brief, and their initials were marked in the score.

What are the singers singing in Serenade to Music?

The words used in the piece come from Act V of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, a romantic scene where the lovers sit under the stars and become enraptured by the music of the spheres. As such the words, and music, are enough to make you swoon…

Did you know Rachmaninov loved Serenade to Music?

The premiere followed a first-half performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the composer himself at the piano (told you Wood had friends in high places). Apparently Rachmaninov was moved to tears by the Serenade in the second half.

Why was Serenade to Music a devil to programme?

Given the rather specific line-up, it wasn’t the easiest piece to include in concerts or recordings. The work, as originally written, has of course been performed and recorded; the original ‘cast’ recorded it just ten days after the premiere. Vaughan Williams himself conducted it at one of the opening concerts at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1951, and the following decade Leonard Bernstein conducted it at the opening of New York’s Avery Fisher Hall.

Because of the complexities of putting it together as originally written, Vaughan Williams soon set about alternative arrangements, including one for orchestra and chorus, one for violin and orchestra and another for just four soloists and choir.

What are the best recordings of Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music?

Adrian Boult conducted a fabulous recording of the original version in 1969, featuring the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Roger Norrington’s 1996 recording with the same orchestra – and featuring solos from Felicity Lott, Ann Murray, Toby Spence and John Mark Ainsley is a cracker.

But if you want  to hear it as it originally sounded, then seek out the original 1938 recording by Henry Wood and co.

Read our reviews of the latest Vaughan Williams recordings 

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Find out more about Vaughan Willliams and his works

Top image credit: Getty Images