Fifty years ago, I first heard a recording of the Serenade For Tenor, Horn, and Strings, op. 31 (1943), by the English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). It began a love affair with the piece, which bore fruit this summer in an arrangement of one of its melodies for the Compline Service at St. Mark’s Cathedral.
My most memorable hearing of the Serenade was in the spring of 1977 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, in London’s South Bank Centre, in a Britten tribute concert. The tenor soloist was Peter Pears (1910-1986), Britten’s lifelong companion, and it was his first concert appearance since Britten’s death the previous December; when he walked on the stage, the audience gave him a ten-minute standing ovation. I will never forget how clear his voice was, even in his late 60s – every word distinguishable to me in my cheap balcony seat. It was always a dream of mine to sing the piece, and I eventually performed it in a house concert in the early 1990s, with horn and piano.
The Serenade is a cycle of six songs with a prelude / postlude played by solo horn using its natural harmonics. As stated in an article on the piece, the songs are “a selection of six poems by British poets on the subject of night, including both its calm and its sinister aspects.” With my love of Compline and its “end of the day” aesthetic, it is no wonder that this cycle became one of my favorites. In particular, the melody of the first song, “Pastoral,” captivated me. Listen to this recording from 1946, performed by Pears and horn player Dennis Brain, who inspired Britten to write the cycle:
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.
One day it occurred to me that the stanza structure of the “Pastoral” was the same as the Compline hymn Te lucis ante terminum, or “Before the ending of the day.” Also, the beginning melody of the song was in the Phrygian Mode (think of a scale from E to octave E on the piano), as are many of the chants that we sing at Compline. So when I was asked to direct the Compline Service on July 24, 2016, I decided to do an arrangement of the Compline Hymn based on the Britten melody. The first verse is in unison, the second in three parts, and the third in four parts:
Before the ending of the day,
Creator of the world, we pray,
that with thy wonted favour thou
wouldst be our guard and keeper now.
From all ill dreams defend our eyes,
from nightly fears and fantasies;
tread under foot our ghostly foe,
that no pollution we may know.
O Father, that we ask be done,
through Jesus Christ thine only Son,
who, with the Holy Ghost and thee,
doth live and reign eternally. Amen.