Serenade in E-flat, K. 375
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Born: January 27, 1756, Salzburg, Austria
Died: December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria
Instrumentation: Wind Octet
Duration: 20 minutes
On November 3, 1781, Mozart wrote to his father from Vienna:
At eleven o'clock last night I was serenaded by two clarinets, two horns and two bassoons playing my own music. . . . These musicians had the front gate opened for them, and when they had formed in the courtyard, they gave me, just as I was about to undress for bed, the most delightful surprise in the world with the opening E-flat chord.
The nighttime disturbance that delighted Mozart at his apartment window more than two centuries ago—and would, no doubt, incur the wrath of many a condominium board today—is one of the landmarks of the literature. It was Mozart's earliest masterpiece for wind ensemble and the first great work of its kind by any composer. The six musicians gathered beneath Mozart's window—“poor wretches who play together quite nicely all the same”—were the same men who had given the first performance of the serenade on October 15 at the Vienna home of court painter Joseph von Hickel.
Mozart told his father that he wrote it “rather carefully” in the hopes that it would impress Joseph von Strack, a regular guest of the von Hickels who happened to be the valet and personal cellist for the emperor and might pass along a favorable report on Mozart's music. Later learning that the emperor had established a wind octet as his house “band,” Mozart added two oboe parts to the score the next summer, while he was putting the final touches on his new opera The Abduction from the Seraglio. That, too, proved futile, at least from the point of view of securing a court performance, because the emperor was more interested in hearing potpourri suites from popular ballets and operas than important new works. In any event, it is in the version for wind octet, rather than its original scoring for sextet, that Mozart's E-flat serenade has come down to us. (Mozart couldn't get to first base with the emperor: even his transcription of music from The Abduction from the Seraglio didn't get played at court because someone else managed to arrange it for wind octet first.)
The Allegro maestoso opens with solemn repeated chords (the resounding E-flat “fanfare” that echoed in Mozart's courtyard that night) which serve as an architectural pillar throughout the movement, returning at important structural moments in the standard sonata form blueprint—to mark the development and recapitulation sections, as well as the coda.
Two minuets frame the great central adagio. The first is somewhat stately; the second overflows with hearty, folk-song melodies. With the intimate, deeply expressive Adagio, we leave behind the world of festive, public serenades for the personal confidences of the opera stage. This movement shares more than proximity with the opera Idomeneo (only nine numbers earlier in the Köchel catalog), which is rich in expressive woodwind writing and characterized with moments in which the winds sing out, as if they are ready to join the human voices on stage. As Richard Wagner later wrote, Mozart “inspired his instruments with the ardent breath of the human voice to which his genius was overwhelmingly inclined.” In Idomeneo, Mozart had uncovered the dramatic potential of the operatic ensemble in the celebrated quartet “Andro ramingo e solo,” also in E-flat. Now, in this serenade, that same instinct produces an adagio quartet of operatic dimensions, with the oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn stepping forward to the footlights, singly and in various combinations, while the action freezes.
The Finale, breezy and lighthearted (despite an impressive fugue-like section) but never superficial, is a sure-fire crowd pleaser. The night of its “premiere” at the von Hickels, the musicians performed the serenade two more times—“as soon as they finished playing it in one place,” Mozart wrote, “they were taken off somewhere else and paid to play it.”