In composing a homage to Sir Henry Wood, Vaughan Williams brought in words from greatest Bard of all time – and the result was sublime musical heaven.
So what could be a fitting celebration to St Cecilia than Serenade to Music, which is the other highlight of our concert?
Written in 1938 to mark Sir Henry’s 50-year Proms conducting milestone, it features the words from Act V of The Merchant of Venice, in which Jessica and Lorenzo are listening to music.
Opening with ‘How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank’, Shakespeare pens a gloriously poetic discussion about music that stands alone before you add Vaughan Williams’s exquisite score.
The composer set it specifically for 16 leading singers of the time – their initials appear alongside his or her lines – but eventually arranged versions for chorus, soloists and orchestra and for solo violin and orchestra.
In the original, some parts see the soloists singing as a “choir,” often in as many as 12 parts; in others, they have a solo, some more than others.
Once premiered, it immediately became a Proms staple. Sir Henry himself, wrote thanking Vaughan Williams after that first performance, saying he thought it had “lent real distinction” to it and the work was performed in the following Proms four years straight.
And Sergei Rachmaninov, who was playing his own Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor in that same inaugural concert, was said to have been moved to tears when he heard ‘Serenade’.
The season has since given it almost nearly 30 airings while Vaughan Williams conducted the original version in the 1951 inaugural concerts of the Royal Festival Hall.
“A fitting ending to 14 minutes of sublime poetry coupled with some of the composer’s most transcendent music: a divine pairing that ascends to heavenly heights and returns to earth with the harmonious strains of the angelic harp hovering in the air,” writes one author.