Abstract

Benjamin Britten was one of several twentieth-century British composers active before the Second World War who wrote “anthology cycles”—that is, cyclic vocal works on poetry anthologies of the composer's own making. This apparently British invention is deeply indebted to the widespread success of the anthology as a literary form in classrooms, homes, and marketplaces of Victorian and Edwardian England. Britten's early attraction to canonical anthologies such as Arthur Quiller-Couch's Oxford Book of English Verse (1900), for example, is representative of a cultural practice of reading. Britten and other British composers renewed their connection to that practice when they became anthologists for their musical works, identifying themselves as arbiters of poetic and musical taste.

Britten's anthology cycle Serenade for tenor, horn, and strings (1943) uses Quiller-Couch's Oxford Book for as many as four of its six texts, many of which share pastoral themes. And yet the composer's musical settings often seem to challenge a conventional reading of the chosen texts and the generic titles Britten assigned to each movement. By creating a canonical, pastoral anthology and then challenging it through music, Britten, who had just returned to England from the United States, invested Serenade with the potential to present the world of prewar England as embattled.

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