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The Serenade to Music is a setting by Ralph Vaughan Williams for 16 vocal soloist and orchestra. The composer drew the text from the discussion about music and the music of the spheres in Act V, scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. The serenade was later arranged by the composer into versions for chorus and orchestra and solo violin and orchestra. It is approximately 13 minutes in duration.


Vaughan Williams wrote it as a tribute to the conductor Sir Henry Wood to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his first concert, and wrote the solo parts specifically for the voices of sixteen eminent British singers. In some parts of the work, the soloists sing together as a "choir," sometimes in as many as twelve parts; in others, each soloist is allotted a solo (some soloists get multiple solos). The published score places the initials of each soloist next to his or her lines.

Wood himself conducted the first performance at his jubilee concert at the Royal Albert Hallmarker on October 5, 1938. The orchestra was the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the soloists were:

Sopranos: Isobel Baillie, Lilian Stiles-Allen, Elsie Suddaby, Eva Turner
Contraltos: Muriel Brunskill, Astra Desmond, Mary Jarred, Margaret Balfour
Tenors: Heddle Nash, Frank Titterton, Walter Widdop, Parry Jones
Baritones: Harold Williams, Roy Henderson
Bass: Robert Easton, Norman Allin

Sergei Rachmaninoff also attended that concert, and when he heard the Serenade from his place in the audience, he was so overcome by the beauty of the music that he wept.

On October 15, 1938, Wood made the first recording (with the same soloists and orchestra) at the HMV Abbey Road Studiomarker No. 1.

Vaughan Williams, realising the difficulty of assembling sixteen soloists for future performances, subsequently made arrangements for four soloists plus choir and orchestra and for orchestra alone. Wood premiered the orchestral version in February 1940. The composer also authorized the performance of the solo parts by sections of the chorus. The orchestra consists of two flutes (second doubling piccolo), oboe, cor anglais, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.


In arranging Shakespeare's text, Vaughan Williams followed the word order but cut words, phrases and whole lines, and repeated at the end eleven words from the third and fourth lines, producing the following text. The initials mark the singers' solo passages; ensemble passages are shown in italics:

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 IB of sweet harmony.

HN Look how the floor of heaven

Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:

FT There's not the smallest orb that thou behold'st

But in his motion like an angel sings,

WW Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;

Such harmony is in immortal souls;

PJ But whilst this muddy vesture of decay

Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

SA Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn!

With sweetest touches pierce your mistress' ear,

And draw her home with music.

ES I am never merry when I hear sweet music.

RE The reason is, your spirits are attentive –

HW The man that hath no music in himself,

RH Nor is not mov'd with concord of sweet sounds,

RE Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;

NA The motions of his spirit are dull as night

And his affections dark as Erebus:

Let no such man be trusted. MBr Music! hark!

It is your music of the house.

AD Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day.

MJ Silence bestows that virtue on it

ET How many things by season season'd are

To their right praise and true perfection!

MBa Peace, ho! the moon sleeps with Endymion

And would not be awak'd. Soft stillness and the night

Become the touches IB of sweet harmony.


  1. Letters between Vaughan Williams and Wood covering the time of the creation of both versions of the Serenade.

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