“The art of music above all the other arts is the expression of the soul of a nation”, said Ralph Vaughan Williams. Fittingly, he has become perhaps the most quintessentially British composer in the eyes of the world. His Fifth Symphony certainly spoke to London audiences in 1943, its peaceful character, aspiring to serenity in times of trouble, providing a welcome respite from the hardships of war.
John Wilson, one of the UK’s foremost exponents of the composer’s music, and long-time Philharmonia friend, brings his interpretative magic to this and two other evocative British orchestral works. First, Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, an inviting piece filled with a sense of contentment and wellbeing, which the composer singled out as a favourite among his life’s works.
After the interval, when BBC Radio 3 presenter Georgia Mann is back with us to interview John Wilson, comes Britten’s spellbinding Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. This labour of love and friendship was crafted out of a selection of British poetry around nocturnal themes for Britten’s partner, the tenor Peter Pears, and for renowned horn player Dennis Brain, the first Principal Horn of the Philharmonia. Listen for those first enigmatic, almost unearthly notes from the solo horn in the Prologue, and let them draw you into a world of gossamer moonlight and shadows.
We hope you enjoy the concert, and do share your thoughts on social media channels tagging us @Philharmonia.
Header image: John Wilson © Astrid Ackermann
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Edward Elgar (1857 – 1934): Serenade for Strings in E minor, Op. 20 (1892)
- Allegro piacevole
“These little tunes,” writes Edward Elgar on the manuscript of his 1892 Serenade for Strings. It’s a deprecating description of one of the composer’s loveliest early works, and the piece’s premiere was no less understated – given later that year by the venerable Worcester Ladies’ Orchestral Class.
But despite quiet beginnings and Novello’s refusal to publish a work whose genre it deemed unfashionable (despite popular examples from both Dvořák and Tchaikovsky, whose influence is clear in Elgar’s own writing), the Serenade has become one of the composer’s earliest to find secure foothold in the repertoire. It also remained, to the end of his career, one of Elgar’s own favourites.
Statue of Edward Elgar in Worcester (public domain)
The string writing through the three cyclical movements is sensitive and detailed – the sheer number of different articulation markings is striking – anticipating the later symphonies and Enigma Variations, and making much of a simple musical arc from E minor to E major.
A nervous viola ostinato propels us into the opening Allegro piacevole. Despite the minor key and a melody that swirls in surging, gusty phrases, that tempering “piacevole” (good-natured) reassures us that any angst will be fleeting.
The lyrical central Larghetto is all bittersweet yearning, a slow crescendo swelling up to the movement’s central high-point before falling away again in music that’s a mirror-image of the start.
The short closing Allegretto is almost a coda. Day seems to return after the dream-like, twilit slow-movement, and a swaying dance in 12/8 weaves memories of the first movement into a newly contented E major conclusion.
Benjamin Britten in 1968 (public domain)
Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976): Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op. 31 (1943)
Sickness and creativity seem to have gone hand-in-hand for Benjamin Britten. As a precocious teenager, a spell in the school sanatorium yielded the miniature choral masterpiece A Hymn to the Virgin, while his final illness gave us the heady, feverish invention of Death in Venice. And in 1943, confined to a hospital isolation ward with measles, the darkly hallucinatory Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings was born.
Its origins lie in the previous year, and Britten’s encounter with Dennis Brain – the exceptional young horn-player then performing in the RAF Central Band. A concerto was planned, but the idea soon morphed into an orchestral song-cycle – adding a solo horn to forces Britten had already used so successfully in Les Illuminations.
A provisional title – Nocturnes – was ultimately abandoned, but the work remains an evocative exploration of night, in all its fantasies, dreams, dangers and desires. In these songs we hear not only a precursor to the later cycle, Nocturne, but also A Midsummer Night’s Dream with its ambiguous forest-dreamscape and sinister fairy-king, perhaps even to the unspoken, unspeakable horrors that lurk in the shadows of The Turn of the Screw.
Dennis Brain © Philharmonia Orchestra
We start, as so often with Britten, in a state of primal innocence. Played using only the instrument’s natural harmonics, the Prologue for solo horn is deliberately raw and untutored (though easily mistaken sometimes for poor intonation), the ancient sound of an unspoilt world. It’s an innocence prolonged through ‘Pastoral’, where lulling arpeggios tuck us under the musical covers with a bedtime story in which threat (“a monstrous elephant”) is ultimately revealed as illusion, and all is benign.
With ‘Nocturne’ though we enter another world. A glittering shudder of strings scatters sudden light across the texture as we enter Tennyson’s fairy-tale landscape, complete with a “bugle” whose insistent fanfares have a virile energy that is the first suggestion of something darker afoot. It’s a suggestion fulfilled in the ‘Elegy’ that follows – a setting of Blake’s O Rose, Thou Art Sick whose curdling semitones reveal the corruption at the heart of love and innocence, the canker in the garden.
If the solo horn at the start was innocence, the solo tenor now becomes a vision of fallen man in the eerie unaccompanied first phrase of the ‘Dirge’ – a wailing cry that resolves into an incantatory song, whose verses all end with the malevolent intercession “And Christe receive thy saule”.
We’re back onto safer ground with the exhilaratingly acrobatic ‘Hymn’, a musical celebration of Diana the huntress that canters and romps through both horn and voice, before the music sinks down into repose in the wonderfully strange beauty of Keats’s To Sleep – the poet’s “lulling charities” cradled in eddying melismas – when many notes are sung to one syllable – of strings and voice. But it’s the solo horn who has the final word, summoning us back to consciousness, and perhaps day, in the Epilogue.
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958): Symphony No. 5 in D major (1938 – 43)
Ravel, speaking of Ralph Vaughan Williams, famously observed that “He is the only one of my pupils who does not write my music”. Nowhere is Vaughan Williams’s ability to walk his own path, to remain resolutely true to himself, clearer than in the Fifth Symphony.
The Fifth isn’t just a symphony, it’s a symphony in the age of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, almost of Boulez, a symphony to follow the violence and rage of the Fourth that had so startled listeners accustomed to his earlier works. Returning to lusher, more securely tonal musical landscapes in 1938 – even as political skies darkened and war threatened – was an act of defiance from a composer whose career consistently recognises the value of music as more than a social mirror, an “expression of the whole life of the community”, capable of elevating and comforting, not just wringing its hands.
The Symphony’s opening gesture seems to take us into the composer’s thought process. The symphonic curtain rises and we find ourselves standing at a musical crossroads, unclear what key – if any – we’re in. But rather than turn towards modernism, Vaughan Williams instead turns his back on it, heading decisively (albeit briefly) into D major, resplendent and certain in thick strings and brass. But far from a rejection of the Fourth, or a retreat, what we have in the Symphony No. 5 is a new breadth of musical vision – “not a breach,” as John Donne wrote, “but an expansion”.
Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1954 (public domain)
The formally ambiguous first-movement ‘Preludio’ continues to show the composer’s working, as we hear modal elements familiar from the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis riding the waves of shifting tonal centres, with none achieving more than temporary dominance. The final chord remains unresolved, true harmonic affirmation and arrival deferred to the end of the symphony.
The Scherzo (intriguingly titled ‘Exit of the Ghosts of the Past’ in an early draft) shifts the scene of conflict from harmony to rhythm. Five-bar phrases and cross-rhythms create a sense of momentum that builds through the movement, denying the ear any obvious resting place or opportunity to disembark from the skittering path carved out by piquant woodwind and strings.
But this playful angularity is quickly stilled by the ravishing slow-movement ‘Romanza’. While Vaughan Williams’s as-yet-unfinished opera The Pilgrim’s Progress sits in the background of the whole symphony, here it steps briefly into the foreground. A quotation from John Bunyan headed the composer’s manuscript copy of this movement, “He hath given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death” – words sung in the opera to a melody heard here in the plangent cor anglais.
What we have in the Symphony No. 5 is a new breadth of musical vision – “not a breach,” as John Donne wrote, “but an expansion”.
The Symphony closes with a ‘Passacaglia’ – a sequence of variations over a repeating bass line, heard initially in the cellos. But, drifting away from this tight form, the music joyfully discovers the hymn tune All Creatures of our God and King, before eventually harking back to the first movement, passing its familiar themes around until they are, at last, laid to rest in a serene closing gesture. Woodwind and then upper strings rise upwards, gradually disappearing into silence in a halo of long-awaited D major.
Notes by Alexandra Coghlan © Philharmonia Orchestra/Alexandra Coghlan
What is "English" Music?
“At the turn of the century young English composers were sick to death of the preponderating German influence which had been stifling English music for 150 years. There were two reactions to this: one on the part of practising musicians like Elgar and Frank Bridge, who realised the value of the classical tradition yet whose utterances were characteristically English; the other, and temporarily more influential, reaction was that of the folksong group… Let American composers take warning from this. There is no more malignant disease than nationalism. Why not make the best of both worlds?”
In an essay of 1940 called ‘An English Composer Sees America’, Benjamin Britten cut to the heart of English music and its different factions – particularly the distinction between composers who embraced Continental styles and those who favoured the use of English folk tunes in their works. Nearly a century later and there is a risk that we are losing sight of these distinctions, too often lumping together the likes of Elgar and Vaughan Williams as “quintessentially English” composers, when they represented quite different schools of thought.
“What I think is awfully interesting is that in this country my music is not considered very English. When one gets abroad … one is considered enormously English.” Benjamin Britten
Elgar is frequently portrayed as the epitome of the English composer: reserved, upright, a generous Edwardian moustache crowning his stiff upper lip. This reputation has undoubtedly been cemented by the use of his music in the Last Night of the Proms, when his Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4 becomes an opportunity to sing AC Benson’s patriotic “Land of Hope and Glory” amid a sea of flags.
Edward Elgar, c. 1900 (public domain)
Yet former Director of the Proms Nicholas Kenyon has written eloquently about the nuances of this issue, arguing that if Richard Strauss’s declaration that Elgar was “the first English progressivist” did not quite come true, we may still regard him as “the first great English internationalist”. Elgar travelled widely and drank in what he heard, including all of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde during trips to Europe in 1892–93. Elgar’s Englishness absorbed European trends while exhibiting the supposedly typical English traits of resignation, nobility or, in his lighter moods, a certain jauntiness.
Vaughan Williams began collecting English folk songs in 1903, following in the footsteps of Cecil Sharp and Lucy Broadwood. His incorporation of this material into much of his music created an Englishness rooted in the country’s folk tunes – not unlike the approach of ethnomusicologist-composers such as Bartók in Hungary. This was often combined with an aesthetic of spacious, vividly evocative pastoralism of a kind exhibited by fellow English composers like George Butterworth. In the case of others, such as Roger Quilter and Peter Warlock, an interest in Elizabethan culture accentuated their Englishness through association with a very particular era in the country’s history.
Maggi Hambling's The Scallop, quoting Britten's Peter Grimes, Aldeburgh Beach (public domain)
Britten, a student of Frank Bridge, was initially sceptical of Vaughan Williams: “I was frankly suspicious of V.W. My struggle all the time was to develop a consciously controlled professional technique. It was a struggle away from everything Vaughan Williams seemed to stand for.” Britten’s Englishness is perhaps most apparent in his seascapes – painted with a palette of muted and dark hues that seem to capture the light and swell of the Suffolk coast near his home in Aldeburgh – and in his word setting, for which he was profoundly influenced by the earlier English composer, Henry Purcell. Even so, in 1964 Britten argued compellingly that Englishness is easier to detect from an external perspective:
“What I think is awfully interesting is that in this country my music is not considered very English. When one gets abroad … one is considered enormously English. They can see the flavour of the nationality much more strongly than people here.”
Feature by Joanna Wyld © Philharmonia Orchestra/Joanna Wyld
John Wilson © Astrid Ackermann
John Wilson is in demand at the highest level across the globe. In the UK he performs regularly with most of the major orchestras, and at festivals such as Aldeburgh, Glyndebourne and the BBC Proms with orchestras such as the London Symphony, London Philharmonic, BBC Scottish and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestras. For many years he has also appeared regularly across the UK and abroad with the John Wilson Orchestra.
In Europe, Wilson has conducted many of the finest orchestras including the Royal Concertgebouw, Budapest Festival, Swedish Radio Symphony, Oslo Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio Symphony, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and DSO Berlin, and further afield he has conducted the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
Wilson made his opera debut in 2016 conducting Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at Glyndebourne Festival Opera on their autumn tour, and has since conducted Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess at English National Opera and returned to Glyndebourne Summer Festival to conduct Massenet’s Cendrillon.
Wilson has a large and varied discography. In 2018, his recording of Korngold’s Symphony marked his first release with the revived Sinfonia of London, receiving exceptional critical acclaim and winning a BBC Music Magazine Award. Together with the Sinfonia of London and Chandos he has since recorded discs of French Orchestral Works, English Music for Strings, and the Respighi Roman Trilogy which reached No. 1 in the UK Classical Charts in August 2020.
Born in Gateshead, John Wilson studied composition and conducting at the Royal College of Music, where in 2011 he was made a Fellow. In March 2019, he was awarded the prestigious ISM Distinguished Musician Award for his services to music and in 2021 was appointed Henry Wood Chair of Conducting at the Royal Academy of Music.
Benjamin Hulett © Helena Cooke
Benjamin Hulett trained as a choral scholar at New College, Oxford and studied with David Pollard at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He was a member of the Hamburgische Staatsoper from 2005 to 2009. He has made his debuts at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin, Theater an der Wien in the world premiere of Kalitzke’s Die Besessenen, the Salzburger Festspiele, Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, and Opera di Roma. He sang Luzio in Das Liebesverbot for Opera du Rhin Strasbourg and his first Tom Rakewell in The Rake’s Progress in Caen, Limoges, Reims, Rouen and Luxembourg. In the UK, Benjamin has performed with Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Opera North, Grange Park Opera, Opera Holland Park, Garsington Opera, Welsh National Opera, and performed in Sir Jonathan Miller’s staging of the St Matthew Passion at the National Theatre.
Benjamin has appeared regularly at the BBC Proms with Sir Roger Norrington, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Sir Andrew Davis and is increasingly in demand as an interpreter of song. Concert highlights have included Yeoman of the Guard (John Wilson) and Mendelssohn Symphony No. 2 (Edward Gardner) with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Arbace in Idomeneo with Fabio Biondi, Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings with John Wilson, Roger Norrington and Christopher Hogwood, Die Frau Ohne Schatten at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw under Vladimir Jurowski, the title role in JC Bach’s Lucio Silla with Ivor Bolton at the Salzburg Mozartwoche, Bernstein’s A Quiet Place with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra under Kent Nagano, L’heure Espagnole with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Charles Dutoit), and Tamino in concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle.
Benjamin’s recordings range from early baroque to new commissions and have received nominations and awards from BBC Music Magazine, Gramophone magazine, the Grammy Awards, L’Orfée d’Or and Diapason.
Last season featured A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Flute/Simone Young) at the Wiener Staatsoper, a role to which Benjamin returned this season. Additional recent highlights saw a return to Covent Garden for Die Zauberflöte, Handel’s Saul (Théâtre du Châtelet), Fidelio at Theater an der Wien. Other notable engagements included his debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in L’heure Espagnole (Dutoit), Andres in Wozzeck for the Theater and der Wien, at Carnegie Hall performing Jupiter in Semele as part of an English Concert tour around the USA and Europe (Harry Bicket), with the Teatro Real Madrid as Arbace in Idomeneo and as David in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in concert with the Santa Cecilia Orchestra and Antonio Pappano.
Christopher Parkes © Bo Söderström
Christopher Parkes is Solo Horn of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. He has previously been a member of the Royal Philharmonic and London Philharmonic Orchestras. He is also Principal Horn of the John Wilson Orchestra and the Sinfonia of London.
He has performed as Principal Horn with orchestras such as the Philharmonia, Berlin Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra, Bavarian Radio Symphony, Royal Opera House, Munich Philharmonic and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.
He has appeared as a soloist with orchestras including the Philharmonia, London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Scottish Symphony, Swedish Radio Symphony and Aurora Orchestras, with conductors including John Wilson, Daniel Harding and Gianandrea Noseda.
Chamber music projects and recordings have been made with artists such as Anne Sofie von Otter, Gwilym Simcock and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and with ensembles such as Superbrass, Stockholm Syndrome and Fine Arts Brass.
He studied at Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester and at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London. He has been a Professor at the Guildhall since 2011.
- Rebecca Chan
- Eugene Lee
- Eunsley Park – Chair endowed by Saul Nathan
- Soong Choo
- Adrián Varela
- Eleanor Wilkinson
- Victoria Irish
- Karin Tilch
- Lulu Fuller – Chair endowed anonymously
- Cassandra Hamilton
- Annabelle Meare
- Fiona Cornall – No. 3 Second Violin Chair is endowed anonymously
- Gideon Robinson
- Paula Clifton-Everest
- Sophie Cameron
- Julian Milone – Chair endowed by Julia Zilberman
- Jan Regulski
- Helena Buckie
- Yukiko Ogura – The Principal Viola Chair is endowed by The Tertis Foundation
- William Bender – No. 3 Viola Chair is endowed by Gillian and Lionel Frumkin
- Sylvain Séailles – No. 4 Viola Chair is endowed by Ruth and Henry Amar
- Linda Kidwell – Chair endowed by AgCo Tech Pte Ltd
- Stephanie Edmundson
- Joseph Fisher
- Timothy Walden – The Principal Cello Chair is endowed in memory of Amaryllis Fleming (1925–1999) by the Amaryllis Fleming Foundation and Fleming Family and Partners Ltd
- Richard Birchall
- Anne Baker
- Deirdre Cooper
- Alexander Rolton – Chair endowed by Saul Nathan
- Yaroslava Trofymchuk – Chair endowed by Manuela Ribadeneira
- Tim Gibbs – The Principal Double Bass Chair is endowed by Sir Sydney and Lady Lipworth in memory of Bertrand Lipworth
- Michael Fuller – Chair endowed anonymously
- Simon Oliver – Chair endowed by Saul Nathan
- Gareth Sheppard
- Charlotte Ashton – The Principal Flute Chair is endowed by Norbert and Sabine Reis
- June Scott
- Timothy Rundle – The Principal Oboe Chair is endowed by Elizabeth Aitken
- Patrick Flanaghan– The Principal Cor Anglais Chair is endowed by Mervyn and Barbara King
- Mark van de Wiel
- Laurent Ben Slimane – The Principal Bass Clarinet Chair is endowed by Philip and Judy Green
- Robin O’Neill – The Principal Bassoon Chair is endowed by Penny and Nigel Turnbull
- Shelly Organ – No. 2 Bassoon Chair is endowed by John Abramson
- Nigel Black – The Principal Horn Chair is endowed by John and Carol Wates in memory of Dennis Brain
- Kira Doherty – The President’s Chair is endowed by Esa-Pekka Salonen in honour of Sir Sydney Lipworth QC and Lady Lipworth CBE
- Jason Evans – The Principal Trumpet Chair is endowed by Daan and Maggie Knottenbelt
- Robin Totterdell
- Byron Fulcher – The Principal Trombone Chair is endowed by the National Friends Council
- Richard Ward