In Mozart’s time, a serenade was typically a light-spirited piece of chamber music composed for a court festivity or other public occasion; in short, party music. Thus it comes as a surprise that the Serenade No. 12 is in the somber key of C minor. Its scoring, however, is typical of the serenade genre: a wind octet—pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns. (Just one of each wouldn’t suffice; social events featuring serenades often took place outdoors, where the sound had to carry.)
Truth to tell, Mozart’s C-minor Serenade is a serenade in name only, since its four movements unfold like a symphony, though cast for only four pairs of instruments. It is hardly festive or typical of a serenade, for Mozart omitted the customary marches and extra dance movements. The composer referred to it as “night music,” a term applied to much social music of the times—but its somber mood and powerful expression would surely have subverted the expectations of nobles dining and drinking in elegant gardens.
A class by itself
With its lofty tone and serious thoughts, this work is in a class by itself. It dates from July 1782, when Mozart was busy with the premiere of The Abduction from the Seraglio. Suddenly he received a letter from his father, asking him to compose a symphony for a friend’s ennoblement. The composer responded with a single Allegro movement, stating: “I could do no more because I had hurriedly to write a serenade, but only for wind instruments.” The serenade in question seems to have been this work in C minor. The purpose for which Mozart wrote it remains a mystery, though it may have been requested by one of the Princes Liechtenstein.
Of special interest is the minuet, set as a canon of chasing melodies. Oboes present the melody one measure ahead of the answering bassoons and two octaves above; clarinets and horns supply the harmony. The trio, which turns to the major key, is a canon whose answer is played upside down. All in all, there is something Beethovenian about this music. What did noble guests think of it? Were they relieved by the all’s-well-that-ends-well close? Vienna’s first great freelance musician was never meant to be a servant, and this C-minor Serenade asserts his autonomy.
What’s in a name?
An editor’s note on Mozart’s name:
Although Mozart’s full name is usually rendered today as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a moniker cemented in popular culture thanks in part to the 1984 film Amadeus, the composer actually referred to himself—and signed his name—most often as Wolfgang Amadè Mozart. In fact, “Amadeus” did not appear in the original records of his name, entered at baptism as Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. As he aged, the multilingual Mozart became partial to Amadè, the French equivalent of Theophilus, and he seems to have used the Latin form, Amadeus, only rarely and apparently in jest, as when he signed some letters in mock Latin as “Wolfgangus Amadeus Mozartus.” Within a generation of Mozart’s death, however, the name “Amadeus” had prevailed due to its use in a stream of influential biographies. Recent years have seen a resurgence of “Amadè” among some scholars and musicologists—on the grounds that it was Mozart’s preferred name—and the Minnesota Orchestra has followed their lead.
Instrumentation: 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and 2 horns
Program note by Mary Ann Feldman.