Notes for: July 21, 2015
This is a reconstruction for nine instruments - flute, two clarinets, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello and string bass - by Alan Boustead, an American expert in the reconstruction of old music. The serenade is usually heard played by a full symphony orchestra. The chances, however, are that Boustead’s reconstruction is closer than the orchestral version to what Brahms initially had in mind.
In the 1850s, when Brahms was still a young composer and concert pianist struggling for recognition, he spent the last four months of each year in the small city of Detmold in west Germany. There he served as court pianist for the ruling prince, conductor of the local choral society and piano teacher for the princess. His salary supported him for the rest of the year, and left time enough for composing and strolling in the nearby forest.
While in Detmold, Brahms composed two serenades for the musicians of the local orchestra as part of his self-taught effort to learn more about orchestral instruments. He produced the first serenade, which we hear this evening, in 1857 as a lighter informal piece for nine musicians while he was also working on his heavier and more ambitious First Piano Concerto. The second serenade for full orchestra came two years later.
For the piano concerto, Brahms solicited the advice of two close friends - the violinist Joseph Joachim and Clara Schumann, the widow of composer Robert Schumann. They also gave advice on the serenade, and Clara was critical of the limited sound produced by only nine instruments. Brahms destroyed the manuscript, and converted the work to a piece for chamber orchestra, which was performed in Hamburg under Joachim’s direction in March 1858.
Brahms, always his own severest critic, still was unhappy, and revised it for full orchestra - the form we usually hear today. This version was also premiered by Joachim - in Hanover in January 1860. At the advice of his publisher, Brahms then produced still another version - for piano four-hands to capture the growing market for music to be played in people’s homes.
There the matter rested until 2007 when Alan Boustead got into the act. Boustead made a living preparing old musical manuscripts for modern performance, and he turned his attention to restoring the initial nine-instrument version of the Brahms Serenade. Since Brahms had destroyed the initial manuscript, Boustead’s effort was largely guesswork about which instruments played which music, and he labeled the result “a hypothetical construction.”
Boustead explained the problems involved in this process and his solution for them in these terms:
To reduce all the details of the existing orchestral score to a nonet would result in anunacceptable, uncharacteristic work in which all nine musicians would play almost entirely without rests. Rather, the principle of reconstruction has been to discover textures that would have given rise to Brahms orchestrating in the way he did. Many details of the orchestral version have been discarded as being unquestionably added during recasting; however, at many other points the reconstruction is almost certainly exact.
The opening of the first movement, and also its coda can hardly be disputed; the minuet movement is virtually unaltered. Brahms’s known preference for the ‘natural’ valveless horn makes it possible to discover the original part with near certainty. The almost insignificant second violin part in the orchestral version can often be discounted; where it is of importance it seems not unlikely that its music was originally for the viola: the subsequent “’moving-up” of parts, giving more independence to the double-bass, creates a sound very characteristic of the composer, not dissimilar to that of the second Serenade (where the viola is the leading string instrument).
In converting the serenade to an orchestral work, Brahms considered changing its title to “Symphony.” He decided against it, however, since he had modeled the work after the Baroque serenades and divertimentos of Mozart - works of six movements intended for informal listening as background music for dining and idle conversation. In fact, Mozart used the term “serenade” for music to be performed in the evening at garden parties.
Instead of four movements of some substance, the serenade/divertimento form calls for six shorter movements - the four standardized in Haydn’s symphonies, plus two scherzos. Like Haydn and Mozart before him, Brahms is generous with the profusion of themes and their creative development.
Like the first movement of the Beethoven trio, the first movement here, allegro molto, is in sonata form with the presentation, development and recapitulation of theme, but there are three themes instead of two. The first is presented at the outset by the mellow horn; the bassoon and violin state the expressive second theme, an upward rising arc; and the third theme closes out the section in full throttle. Most surprising is the concluding coda: The bass seems to emphatically close the movement, but the flute ignores this and keeps going, and the cello follows to a quiet ending.
The second and fifth movements are the scherzos - both in the usual 3/4 tempo but different in mood. The first scherzo, allegro non troppo, starts “soft and sweet,” and rarely goes above a whisper. The trio, in contrast, is in a gentle rocking rhythm.
The third movement, adagio non troppo, is the emotional heart of the serenade, astounding in its abundance of warmly harmonized melody. A brief development is of such radiance that it seems out of place in a serenade.
The brief fourth movement, the minuet, provides a welcome relief. The main theme is a duet for two clarinets, joined by the flute, over an “oom-pah” accompaniment in the bassoon. The middle section, in a darker minor key, continues the flute duet with a countermelody for the violin and the “oom-pah” in the viola.
The second scherzo, allegro, follows, more robust and folkish than the first scherzo. The trio features a solo for the horn over a scampering accompaniment in the lower strings.
The repeating refrain of the concluding rondo, allegro, is in a bouncing trotting rhythm, and is then interrupted by three contrasting episodes. The serenade ends with a jubilant coda blending all of these elements.