Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Music! hark!

YouTube has the premiere recording (1938) of Serenade to Music by Ralph Vaughan Williams, conducted by Sir Henry Wood (the founder of the Proms). Sixteen solo voices and orchestra, just as it should be.

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There's not the smallest orb that thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn!
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress' ear,
And draw her home with music.
I am never merry when I hear sweet music.
The reason is, your spirits are attentive
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov'd with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Music! hark!
It is your music of the house.
Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day.
Silence bestows that virtue on it
How many things by season season'd are
To their right praise and true perfection!
Peace, ho! the moon sleeps with Endymion
And would not be awak'd. Soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

   (Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice)

Such a warm, glowing piece. Someone should name a blog after it!

RVW (hack centre), Sir Henry Wood & the 16 soloists

Were you sitting an A-level in music, this is what they might ask you about the piece:

Listen to the opening orchestral introduction and the setting of the following text:
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music creep in our ears
Soft stillness and the night become the touches of sweet harmony
1. How does Vaughan Williams create the impression of night and moonlight in the orchestral introduction?
2. How does Vaughan Williams set the text? Are there any exceptions and if so, why has he chosen to change his word setting?
3. Vaughan Williams originally wrote this for 16 soloists (4 each of SATB) and the recording follows this pattern. Listen on to the rest of the piece. What effect does the composer create by having 16 solo voices rather than a choir?
4. Listen to the section “Come ho and wake Diana with a hymn”. Diana was a goddess of hunting. How does the composer tell us this using music?
5. This piece was written in 1938. Pierrot Lunaire was written in 1914. Which do you feel is more “modern” sounding and why?

Feel free to try to answer them for yourselves!


  1. My answers, for what they're worth, would be:

    1. Partly through the scoring, with the harp suggesting silvery moonlight reflecting on water - the water being suggested by gently swelling and rippling figures played by the stings, which accompany a solo violin and later a clarinet, conjuring up an atmosphere of peace and quiet appropriate to calm night.

    2. The text is set syllabically, except for the words 'stillness' and 'harmony' which are sung to melismas. These are used to emphasize the importance of those particular words and as tone-painting - the one on 'stillness' conjuring up again (slightly paradoxically) the gently-rippling water, and the one on 'harmony' harmoniously creating harmonies from many interweaving voices. The final words, 'of sweet harmony', are then repeated - the first instance of repetition - by one of the solo sopranos to create an effect of an ecstatic individual response, heightened by the dovetailing of her response with the solo violin's rapt re-entry.

    3. Vaughan Williams wrote solos for each of the sixteen soloists and wrote them phrases that suited their particular personal styles. A choir would take away some of the intimacy of the piece. Plus you also lose the textural contrast between individual voices and the voices singing as a chorus.

    4. Diana's hunting associations are suggested by the use of traditional hunting-horn-call features (such as a rising fourth and dotted rhythms) played by a pairs of trumpets and four horns (quintessential hunting instruments) answered by a falling fifth (an interval also associated with horn calls) from a solo soprano.

    5. Well, resisting the urge to mount an anti-historicist hobby horse, I'd say that (a) the Vaughan Williams is scored for full orchestra while the Schoenberg is scored for a small ensemble, (b) the Vaughan Williams is tonal, the Schoenberg is atonal, (c) the vocal techniques used in the Vaughan Williams is traditional (singing) whereas the Schoenberg uses sprechgesang (speech-song) and (d) the melodic lines in the RVW use far fewer wide leaps than the Schoenberg and are tuneful in the sense preceding centuries would have recognised as being tuneful, while the Schoenberg introduces an unprecedented kind of melodic writing.

    Would I pass, or fail?

  2. You can listen to Schoenberg's 'Pierrot Lunaire' (Moonstruck Pierrot) at this link: