In October 1781, just four months after concluding his employment with the Archbishop of Salzburg and moving to Vienna, Wolfgang Amadè Mozart wrote a serenade for winds, and he left an account of its composition:
“Poor beggars” perform
“I wrote it for St. Theresa’s Day, for Frau von Hickel’s sister, or rather the sister-in-law of Herr von Hickel, court painter, at whose house it was performed [October 15, 1781] for the first time. The six gentlemen who executed it are poor beggars who, however, play quite well together, particularly the first clarinet and the two horns...I wrote it rather carefully. It has won great applause too and on St. Theresa’s Night it was performed in three different places; for as soon as they finished playing it in one place, they were taken off somewhere else and paid to play it...”
The “poor beggars” must have been pleased with the music, for they chose to reward its creator in an unusual way two weeks later. Mozart wrote to his father:
“At 11 o’clock at night I was treated to a serenade performed by two clarinets, two horns and two bassoons—and that too of my own composition…these musicians asked that the street door might be opened and, placing themselves in the center of the courtyard, surprised me, just as I was about to undress, in the most pleasant fashion imaginable with the first chord in E-flat.”
Although Mozart originally scored the Serenade in E-flat major for six players, the following July he revised it, adding two oboes to the original sextet; today it is always heard in the revised version for eight performers.
Mozart’s wind serenades often had a social function: frequently they were intended as background music at social occasions and were sometimes intended for outdoor performance. These conditions led Mozart to write in what has been described as a rustic style, producing energetic, spirited and not particularly complex music. The Serenade in E-flat major, however, is an exception to that rule. Mozart did indeed write this music “rather carefully,” and it remains one of his most polished and expressive serenades.
The Allegro opens with a rhythmic motto that Mozart liked to use at the beginning of works in E-flat major (it also opens the Sinfonia Concertante, and the Piano Concerto No. 22). This movement is in sonata form, with two contrasted subjects, a brief development and a long and amiable recapitulation that actually introduces a new theme, a noble horn melody.
The first minuet opens with an energetic unison, but the real interest comes in the trio, which shifts to C minor, offers haunting chromatic winding and unusual modulations, and grows to a length much greater than the minuet itself. The Adagio is the real glory of this serenade. It too is in sonata form, and Mozart writes beautifully for all eight voices here, with the thematic line shared and passed among them.
Some have felt that after three such distinguished movements, the final two seem a little more in the “rustic” serenade style. The second minuet is focused and brief, while the concluding Allegro, in sonata-rondo form, offers some fugal writing in the midst of all its buoyant energy.
Instrumentation: 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and 2 horns
Program note by Eric Bromberger.