Born into a poor family in rural Bohemia, Antonín Dvořák had been apprenticed to a butcher, but was able to change paths when friends and relatives helped send the boy to music school. In 1878, the year he turned 37, Dvořák composed his first set of Slavonic Dances. Based on the colorful peasant dances of Eastern Europe, the Slavonic Dances explode with color and excitement, and they made Dvořák’s reputation almost overnight. They were quickly performed throughout Europe and even in distant America, and audiences around the world were swept away by their unusual rhythms and distinctive melodies. Earlier in that same year, between January 4 and January 18, 1878, Dvořák had composed his Serenade in D minor, and it too incorporates features of Czech music.
The instrumental serenade is usually remembered as an 18th-century entertainment form. Usually light in character, these multi-movement works were often composed for social occasions—weddings, graduations, civic ceremonies—and were sometimes written specifically to be performed outside. They usually began with a spirited march, and along the way they might include minuets, variations, movements for a soloist with the orchestra, and so on. No one knows the occasion for which Dvořák wrote his Serenade in D minor. In this good-spirited music, Dvořák took the general form of the 18th-century wind serenade but made some important changes, reducing the number of movements to just four and scoring it for an unusual combination of instruments.
Moderato quasi marcia. Dvořák salutes tradition by beginning with a sturdy march. After this mock-serious opening, he offers some nice variety with a second subject that rocks easily along its dotted rhythms; both themes return to lead the movement to a quiet close.
Instrumentation: 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 3 horns, cello and bass