Serenade in Eb, op. 7, TrV 106

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            As long as there have been garden soirées, outdoor wedding receptions, and patio cocktail parties, there have been ample opportunities for casual entertainment by small instrumental ensembles.  A “serenade,” of course, has its origin as solo song of dedication, sung outdoors, and often accompanied by the singer on a guitar, lute, or other similar instrument.  And, indeed, that musical imagery lived on for centuries in various light instrumental pieces that carried the title.  By the middle of the eighteenth century, most especially in Austria, Germany, Italy, and Bohemia, instrumental ensemble entertainment at social, outdoor affairs by groups of less than a dozen players became all the rage, and we are fortunate, today, to have many of these works by the leading composers of the day.  They were called by various names, including “Feldpartita,” “divertimento,” “cassation,” and, of course, serenades.  Both Haydn and Mozart contributed dozens of them.

            While serenades are written variously for strings alone, winds alone, or a combination thereof, the wind serenade occupies a distinctive position in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Winds were especially useful for outdoor music—the origin of military bands lies in the same tradition.  The specific instrumentation of wind serenades (and the early military bands) was not rigid, but usually consisted in the smaller groups of pairs of oboes (or clarinets), horns, and bassoons, and in the larger groups, pairs of all the woodwinds, and perhaps the addition of more horns, as well.  Trombones and trumpets were not included, since those instruments came from other, more limited traditions, and had a small, or non-existent rôle in the orchestral music of the times.  Outstanding are the three wind serenades by Mozart, one of which is a masterpiece, the Grand Partita in Bb—probably the greatest “band” piece ever. In addition to Mozart’s stellar wind works, Dvořák contributed a particularly charming one.  Other composers, such as Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner, Mendelssohn, and von Weber composed small works for winds alone, and even Gounod produced a particularly ingratiating one.  Finally, Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments set the high mark of the twentieth century.

            Given the Austrian predominance in the genre, it is not surprising, at all, that one of the first successful works of the young Richard Strauss was his Serenade, op. 7.  While serenades were often cast in a series of relatively short movements (often as many as ten, or so), in straight-forward forms, the teenaged Strauss chose to compose his in a single movement, and in a rather abbreviated version of the familiar sonata form.  The composer soon followed this work with one in the form of a suite in several movements, and two later full-blown, four-movement symphonies for winds, a few years before his death in the late nineteen-forties.  But, this first one is the most performed and beloved.

            It was completed in 1882, when the composer was eighteen years old, and met with great success.  Its warm, romantic colors and tight formal construction are ample indication of the genius that was to come--especially in the Lieder, tone poems, and operas that established Strauss in the highest echelon of late-Romantic (and yet, progressive, modern) composers.

            It begins with a rich, leisurely passage in the woodwinds alone, soon joined by the horns and bassoons, but it doesn't take long before the second theme, a pulsating, more animated affair appears.  That is explored a bit more thoroughly before the solo horn announces the final theme of the exposition, and this section closes gently.  The solo oboe begins the development with the second theme, the opening theme saved for a while, as the pulsating second one is put through its paces.  A big climax, marked by fat horns and bassoons and descending woodwinds and horns tells us that the recap is here, and after a judicious, but abbreviated reexamination of the main ideas, the serenade ends ever so quietly--the solo flute serenely and gradually ascending to the end.


--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2016 William E. Runyan