Serenade (Fr. sérénade; Ger. Serenade, Ständchen; It. serenada, serenata). A musical form, closely related to the DIVERTIMENTO. The term originally signified a musical greeting, usually performed out of doors in the evening, to a beloved or a person of rank. Walther (Musicalisches Lexicon, 1732) described it as “ein Abend-Ständgen, eine Abend-Music . . .” (“because such works are usually performed on quiet and pleasant nights”). The word, derived from the Latin serenus, was used in its Italian form, SERENATA, in the late 16th century as a title for vocal works . . . and [by the end of the 17th for] purely instrumental pieces. (Hubert Unverricht, 1980 New Grove Dictionary)
Herr Professor Doktor Unverricht goes on to tell us “it was the practice to perform [serenades] at about 9 p.m. (the Notturno, a similar kind of work, was usually given about 11 p.m.)” before citing “relics” of the genre in the form of pizzicato (i.e., guitar- or lute-like) accompaniments in Classic string quartets and serenade arias in certain operas, e.g., Don Giovanni, Il barbiere di Siviglia.
Yet none of this prepares us for the actual sound of Mozart’s Gran Partita K361/370a, a wind serenade by turns witty and voluptuous, lighthearted and heartbreaking. One may gain a better sense of what matters by reading Salieri’s lines in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus when he describes hearing this music for the first time. Or you could listen to a few salient excerpts. First, the Adagio that Salieri waxed poetic over:
Then some of the first movement:
For more, check out this live performance of the work by the very people whose new recording (BIS-2463) I’m recommending this week:
0:00 Introduction by clarinetist Olivier Patey (worth watching!)
7:46 (I) Largo – Molto allegro
17:11 (II) Menuetto – Trio
26:23 (III) Adagio
31:43 (IV) Menuetto (Allegretto)
37:17 (V) Romanze (Adagio)
44:12 (VI) Tema con variazioni
53:27 (VII) Finale (Molto allegro)
Isn’t that smashing? These are wind players from the Concertgebouw Orchestra, directed by principal oboist Alexei Ogrintchouk. Their exceptionally fine album is rounded off with a Beethoven rarity, Eight Variations on “Là ci darem la mano,” WoO 28, scored for two oboes and an English horn.
I’m doubly glad that Ogrintchouk and the Concertgebouw winds brought out this album, because it gives me an opportunity to recommend another of his BIS recordings, this one featuring Richard Strauss’s Oboe Concerto and two other works. When this disc came out in 2017, I was put off by the concerto—still am, for some reason. But I bear no such ill will toward the other works, both wind serenades. One is Strauss’s youthful Serenade in E Flat for 13 winds, Op. 7. In less than ten minutes, the composer exuberantly cycles through a potpourri of moods and tempi, with more than a few Mozartian flourishes along the way.
The other work, a Sonatina No. 2 in E-flat Major (“Happy Workshop”), dates from the period right after the composer’s 80th birthday in 1944. Like Op. 7, it freely evokes Mozart, but with somewhat greater emotional depth. From the very beginning, Strauss also makes considerable demands on the virtuosity of the players:
The Sonatina’s two inner movements are brief, divertimento-like sketches, but the 16-minute final movement nods to the gravity of Metamorphosen, Strauss’s other major compositional preoccupation in those years. You’ll hear a wistful undertone throughout, a fond remembrance of all the times this composer wrestled “contrapuntal proliferation, melodic effusiveness and enriched tonal harmony” to a draw, as Arnold Whittall’s superb liner notes put it. It’s easy to understand why this movement, the first to be composed, led its publisher to promote it as a “wind symphony.”
Finally, let’s pay suitable homage to a work influenced even more directly by Mozart, the Serenade for Winds, op. 44 by Antonin Dvořák. It’s said to have been written in a scant fourteen days after the young Czech composer returned from an 1878 trip to Vienna, during which he heard members of the Wiener Philharmoniker play the Gran Partita. Like that work, Dvořák’s is scored for pair of winds with additional horns and a contrabass. After its first performance, Dvořák added that contrabass (a traditional component of wind-serenade scoring), plus a cello line and an optional contrabassoon. The resulting sound enhances not only the music’s mix of elegance and grandeur but also the attractive Czech folk elements that increasingly came to distinguish the Dvořák “sound.” As in this excerpt from the second movement:
The seductive allure of the Gran Partita is most apparent in Dvořák’s third movement, its langorous melodic lines winding themselves over Salieri’s “rusty squeezebox” accompaniment:
A number of good recordings are available; the Serenade for Winds is often paired with the equally charming Serenade for Strings, op. 22, as in albums from the ASMF, Orpheus CO, and Wiener Philharmoniker. I found an especially dynamic performance of the wind serenade coupled with Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 13, op. 106, captured live—and heard in the two clips above—at the 2008 Spannung Festival (Avi Music AVI8553164). It features, among others, clarinetist Sharon Kam, hornist Marie Luise Neunecker, and cellist Tanja Tetzlaff. (Tetzlaff’s brother Christian joins her for op. 106.) I had never heard of the Spannung Festival (Lars Vogt directs it) until I came across this recording on Qobuz, but their Dvořák album’s a keeper.
We’re going to save the category of string serenades for another day, but I can’t resist recommending just one recording right here. Dr. Unverricht’s mention of the notturno brought to mind Boccherini’s String Quintet in C, op. 30 no. 6, subtitled “La musica notturna delle strade di Madrid,” which I hope needs no translation. Nighttime, as they say, is the right time:
From Cuarteto Casals’ marvelously evocative recording for Harmonia Mundi. The YouTube clip above is set to open at track 3, “Los manolos.” As Christian Speck tells us in his program notes, “‘Manolo’ was the name given in Madrid to a dandyish, uneducated type of young man who made himself conspicuous by singing and dancing in the streets. . . . The indispensable accessory for his evening stroll was the guitar.” You can sample the whole album if you like, although it helps to have Boccherini’s programmatic remarks at hand.