Britten and Schumann
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings
  • During the war years, Britten focused on vocal music, preparing to write an opera
  • His commission for the Serenade was for a horn concerto
  • The Serenade brought horn and voice together
  • Britten selected favorite poems by Renaissance and Romantic poets
  • The texts share common themes of evening, sleep, and death
  • Horn provides wordless, eloquent commentary on the poems

    How could a French horn concerto have texts by six different poets?  Hornist Dennis Brain must have asked himself that question in 1943 when he proposed that his friend Benjamin Britten write a work for him, and Britten came back to him with this Serenade.  Only recently returned from his brief sojourn in the United States during the early years of the war, Britten was immersed in vocal works, particularly settings of English texts.  All of them served as a sort of warmup for his first major tragic opera, Peter Grimes (1945).

    In writing the Serenade, Britten assembled an eclectic group of his personal favorite poems. They include verse by the Romantic masters Tennyson and Keats as well as earlier poets:  The Restoration’s Charles Cotton, the Elizabethan-Jacobean Ben Jonson, the mystic 18th-century poet William Blake, and an anonymous 15th-century dirge. Though diverse both chronologically and stylistically, the texts he chose share common literary themes.  All the poems are concerned with evening, and many of them with sleep, which is sometimes a metaphor for death.

    Brain need not have questioned Britten's creative direction.  Faithful to the spirit of a concerto, Britten wrote his horn part obbligato [obligatory; i.e. an accompanying part of essential importance that must not be omitted], making the brass instrument a virtual co-star with the tenor soloist.  Solo French horn both opens and closes the work, with a Prologue and Epilogue, played on natural harmonics, that serve as an eloquent frame for the poetry. The horn plays the Epilogue offstage. Much of the tenor's material derives from the music of this introduction and postlude. With infinite subtlety and skill, Britten explores the varied rhythmic and melodic implications of the horn Prologue, adjusting for the shifting moods of the poems he selected.

    The Serenade was written not only for Dennis Brain but also for Peter Pears, the tenor who was to create most of the principal tenor roles in Britten's operas.  It is the first work in which the artistic partnership between Britten and Pears blossomed.  Brain's phenomenal technique as surely influenced the demanding obbligato part, which is particularly prominent in the Blake Elegy and the scherzo-like "Hymn."  Britten's virtuosic runs for tenor and horn in the "Hymn" bespeak an admirable partnership of music-making and technique, as does the splendid text-painting on "Blow, bugle, blow" in the Tennyson "Nocturne."

    Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
    Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, "Rhenish"
    • The “Rhenish” is the only Schumann symphony without a slow introduction
    • Schumann plunges right in with a buoyant, vigorous first movement
    • The scherzo is a bucolic scene on the Rhine, complete with German folk melodies
    • Cologne’s magnificent cathedral inspired this symphony’s fourth movement
    • Listen for Renaissance and Baroque trombone sonorities, as in church music

    We live in an era of Prozac, Zoloft and Cymbalta, where depression is not only accepted as a legitimate medical disorder, but also can be treated successfully in all but extreme cases.  Sadly, Robert Schumann was unable to benefit from modern psychiatry or pharmaceuticals.  He suffered from what we now call acute bipolar disorder, experiencing severe manic/depressive attacks that led him to attempt suicide in February 1854.  He was moved to an asylum in Endenich (near Bonn), where he died in 1856.

    As his mental illness progressed through the 1840s, it took a debilitating toll on his personal life and musical creativity. Still, occasional periods of lucidity eased his torment.  Such times invariably followed a move or change of scenery.  In late summer 1850, Robert and Clara Schumann left Dresden for Düsseldorf, the capital of the Rhineland and frequent site of the important Lower Rhenish Festival. The reason was Robert’s promising new appointment. The conductor and composer Ferdinand Hiller had recommended Schumann to succeed him as conductor of the excellent Düsseldorf orchestra.

    Matters began promisingly. The community and the orchestra both welcomed the Schumann family, and Robert was pleased with the high caliber of the orchestra and chorus he was to lead. New surroundings and the change of venue bolstered his enthusiasm for composing. In practically no time, Robert had written a Cello Concerto. Almost immediately on its heels, he began work on the E-flat major symphony, Op.97. (It was actually his fourth symphony, but because it was published earlier than the D minor Symphony, Op.120, it has become known as the third.)

    Cruise on the Rhine
    To be sure, Robert remained in precarious mental health. He was always vulnerable to the stress of his two-pronged career as both conductor and composer.  Clara Schumann’s journal entries from that autumn describe his "highly nervous, irritable, excited mood."  She blamed his condition on street noise. He wanted to change their domicile to a quieter neighborhood.  They did take a river excursion on the Rhine that September, during which they observed the installation ceremonies for Archbishop Johannes von Geissel, who was being elevated to Cardinal at Cologne's magnificent cathedral, which was then an unfinished sanctuary. The ceremony had an enormous impact on Schumann. Two months later, he had incorporated an extra slow movement into the symphony as a direct response to the Cologne experience.

    A Burst of Inspiration
    The symphony recaptures the immediacy that imbues Schumann's brilliant piano works from the 1830s:  Carnaval, Noveletten, Davidsbündlertänze, Kreisleriana, and many others.  He completed it, including the orchestration, in barely over a month, swept along on a surge of enthusiasm that produced his highest quality music in many years. Writing to his friend the conductor Josef von Wasielewski, he observed:

    I cannot see that there is anything remarkable about composing a symphony in a month.  Handel wrote a complete oratorio in that time.  If one is capable of doing anything at all, one must be capable of doing it quickly -- the quicker the better, in fact.  The flow of one's thoughts and ideas are more natural and more authentic than in lengthy deliberation.

    Perhaps he knew how good the music he had written was.  The "Rhenish" Symphony is an exuberant work, filled with rich melodies and a formal mastery that eluded Schumann too often in his later years.  Certainly, that was not the case here.  So strong is his opening theme in the first movement that he dispensed with slow introduction -- the only time he did so in any of his symphonies -- and also chose to forego a repeat of the exposition.  Schumann's biographer Joan Chissell has described the youthful energy of the opening theme as "the most subtle of all his rhythmic experiments . . . a tug-of-war between triple and duple time ... [that] gives the movement an extraordinary rhythmic virility."

    Schumann's second movement is folk-like and innocent, at a relaxed pace that belies its title of Scherzo.  His original title was "Morning on the Rhine." The movement epitomizes the joyous simplicity of German peasant songs, and has a bit of the magic of Rhenish legend that was later to inspire Richard Wagner's Ring cycle. The ensuing Andante functions as a traditional slow movement, and is consistent with Schumann's restrained, poetic Intermezzi elsewhere in his compositions.

    An extra slow movement
    With the fourth movement, Schumann broke with tradition.  Although five movement symphonies had precedent in works by Beethoven and Mendelssohn, four movements were still the norm.  Schumann's extra is a slow movement originally subtitled "In the style of an accompaniment to a solemn ceremony."  It was clearly precipitated by his trip to Cologne earlier that autumn. The introduction of trombones into the orchestration for the first time in the symphony, and the overall ecclesiastical atmosphere of this imposing movement lend it a spiritual quality that has earned this movement the sobriquet "Cathedral Scene," in spite of the fact that Schumann withdrew subtitles for this and for the Scherzo prior to publication.

    With his exuberant finale, Schumann returns to his finest symphonic form.  References to themes from earlier in the symphony make the movement cyclic, and a fitting conclusion to this vivacious and joyous work.

    Schumann scored the "Rhenish" Symphony for woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings.

    © Laurie Shulman, 2020