Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings has always been a favorite piece of mine; a mostly-overlooked 20th Century Masterpiece, with one niggling flawthere’s no solo cello part. About ten years ago the idea popped into my head to try doing it with a cello substituting for the french horn. It’s an odd idea, and I’m sure Britten would be appalledhe was a master at getting the maximum range of tone color out of a minimal complement of instruments, and he would certainly have written the part differently if he had wanted a cello as the solo instrument.
Undaunted by the seemingly-miniscule possibility of justified reprisals from Dead White European Males, I filed the idea away for future experimentation. Nine and a half years later, I came into contact with a mezzo soprano who sings with the sort of conversational style that I value far more highly than the operatic style that’s evolved in the last hundred-fifty years to cut through a full symphony orchestra (the way I think of it, opera singers sound like they’re constantly shouting at you, but chamber singers sound like they’re talking to you; it’s the difference between focusing on the singing or focusing on the song). True, the piece was written with a tenor in mind, but we were already going to bastardize the piece; how much further havoc could we wreak by switching range and sex? Add a pianist who I’ve loved working with for years, and we had all the ingredients for a wrong-headed foray in re-arrangement.
I sat down to transcribe the piece into keys that worked better for our singer, but quickly bogged downBritten’s music is complex enough, full of key and meter changes (and unmetered sections in one movement) that it became clear that I was looking at months of work. Fortunately, it turned out that the majority of movements were within mezzo range if the vocal part was moved up an octave. So I set to work figuring out ways to play the cello as though it was a french horn, using false harmonics to substitute for various mute effects, and devising, to paraphrase the 1560 Geneva Bible “helpful fingerings in all the hard places”. Four months of rehearsals later (hey, it’s damned tricky music), we wound up with the following live performance.
The piece opens and closes with an offstage horn solo, and I tried to get the same feeling by draining the cello of color, almost whispering the melody until the climax. You’ll have to take my word for it that it sounds great when you’re actually playing the cello, because on listening to the recording, I discovered, to my horror, that it sounds terrible to everybody but the cellist. I’ll probably rethink my approach and re-record it later, but for now, please keep in mind that I’m mortified by the opening and closing. The Elegy, on the other hand, is something I’m pretty happy with. And that rarely happens.