June 26, 2018
If it’s summer, it’s time for summer romance. And although the idea of serenading ladies beneath their balconies with love songs is a bit passé, the word has been a constant reference point for popular music — “Moonlight Serenade” being the one with the most staying power.
But what I’m thinking of today is the small subgenre of works for reduced or chamber orchestra, many of which are big classical hits. Mozart’s “Posthorn” Serenade, “Haffner” Serenade – not surprisingly, one of music’s greatest all-time melodists wrote 10 serenades (but then, didn’t he write more than 10 of everything?)
For Mozart, although the form of the serenade followed the details of the commission or occasion it was for, the serenade typically had seven movements, with outer movements like those of a symphony, but with two minuets and a core of lyrical and graceful movements that are the emotional centers of the whole thing. The “Posthorn” Serenade is the perfect Mozartian example. Composed for the graduation exercises of Salzburg University in 1779, it is in D major with trumpets and drums, and appropriately celebratory on the outside. On the inside, however, there is a Concertante showcasing the flutes and oboes, followed by a lovely Rondeau and then, unexpectedly, a heartfelt Andantino in D minor. It’s these movements that make a serenade a serenade, and Mozart performed them, excerpted from the main piece, in a concert he gave in Vienna, in March 1783.
Following Mozart’s example, 19th-century composers like Brahms and Tchaikovsky wrote their own serenades, and the genre even made it into the 20th century, though composers by then treated it in many different ways. So here’s a list of seven of the best, most delightful serenades in the classical rep, including, probably, many of your favorites. If I miss one, add it in comments below.
Mozart, Wind Serenade No. 10 in B-Flat Major, “Gran Partita”
It’s hard to pick only one of Mozart’s, but the Adagio third movement of this piece is definitely in the running for most romantic music Mozart ever wrote (there can’t be a winner, though.) Salieri, hearing it in Amadeus becomes convinced that Mozart is directly channeling God. But this piece also has the Romanze, which is heart-melting (at least until the middle section) and distinctly closer to the sexiness of a real serenade.
Tchaikovsky, Serenade for Strings in C Major
Tchaikovsky was a huge Mozartian, and this piece reflects that passion. It’s one of his most popular pieces, probably due to the constant stream of extraordinary melody that courses through it. The Élégie third movement has delicate pizzicato accompaniment (channeling guitars).
Dvorak, Serenade for Strings in E Major
If there was one composer in the 19th century born to write a serenade it would be Dvorak. Even in his symphonies, Dvorak’s relaxed lyricism is his most loved trait; no surprise that when he wrote a serenade (in the same year as he started his breakthrough Symphony No. 5), it was a winner. The opening movement sets a tone that is followed throughout, and the gorgeous Largo is only the peak of a melodic fervor that doesn’t let up till the final cadence.
Brahms, Serenade in A Major (No. 2)
Brahms famously spent years working up to his first symphony, carrying the weight of Beethoven all the way. Mozart was a much easier lift, and this Op. 16 youthful work is wonderful from every angle. It shows the wealth of detail and counterpoint of a much more mature composer (Brahms was 26), but it also has clear textures, and shows Brahms at his songful sweetest (not an adjective often applied to this composer).
Max Bruch, Serenade in A Minor for Violin and Orchestra
Didn’t expect this one to make the list? Give it a listen, if you can find a recording. In four movements, it’s like another violin concerto, except that the melodic development is free and fanciful. The third movement “Notturno” is again the centerpiece, a melody that really should get out more.
Edward Elgar, Serenade for Strings in E Minor
Another early work, the first one he wrote that satisfied him, it’s one of the most performed Elgar works and the lovely Larghetto is a major reason why.
Josef Suk, Serenade for Strings in E-Flat Major
Suk’s teacher, Antonin Dvorak, put him up to this composition, thinking the young man needed a little more sunniness in his life. This is a fantastic lyric work, from beginning to end, one which has a couple of good recordings and could get some more radio air-time.