Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Serenade No. 10 in B-flat major, “Gran Partita,” K.361/370a

Serenade No. 10 in B-flat major, “Gran Partita,” K.361/370a

I. Largo. Molto Allegro

II. Menuetto

III. Adagio. Andante

IV. Menuetto. Allegretto

V. Romance. Adagio

VI. Tema con variazioni

VII. Finale. Molto Allegro

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Born: January 27, 1756, Salzburg, Austria

Died: December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria

Instrumentation: 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 basset horns, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, double bass

Composed: c. 1784

Duration: 10 minutes

Herr Stadler, senior, in actual service of His Majesty the Emperor, will hold a musical concert for his benefit at the Imperial and Royal National Court Theatre, at which will be given, among other well-chosen pieces, a great wind piece of a rare and special type composed by Herr Mozart.

- Advertisement in the newspaper Wienerblättchen, Vienna, March 23, 1784

To envision the Viennese wind music scene in the 1780s, think of jazz in New Orleans at the turn of the century: late eighteenth-century Vienna had an incredible confluence of virtuoso musicians, emerging instrument technology, artisan craftsmen and compositional geniuses — each exploring new ways to expand a musical vocabulary within established traditions. This was the setting for the creation of Mozart’s Serenade in Bb, K. 361/370a, a work that encompasses emotions ranging from lyrical expressions of joy and longing to raucous dance music and beer garden oompah — all presented by an unusual type of wind ensemble.

Although the choice of these 13 instruments was somewhat unusual, in writing this serenade Mozart was following well-established tradition. During the latter part of the eighteenth century multi-movement works of a predominantly light-hearted, entertaining nature for various combinations of instruments were produced throughout the countries of central Europe. Interchangeably titled “divertimento,” “cassation,” “notturno” or “serenade,” and containing from four to seven movements, these works found their origin in the desire for entertaining “background” music for court functions—not as concert works. With the Serenade in Bb and the Serenade in C Minor (for the more typical Harmonie ensemble), however, Mozart began to transform works of this genre into genuine concert pieces, albeit ones in which the “outdoor” origin of the musical style remains clearly visible.

The sound of wind instruments gave particular pleasure to Emperor Joseph II, and in the spring of 1782, he determined to gratify this enthusiasm by drawing musicians from his Burgtheater orchestra to form a wind band, which he called the Harmonie. While he dined, it was to play arrangements of tunes popular in Viennese theaters — thus delighting the imperial ears as it aided the imperial digestion. To lead this ensemble, he chose one of his most esteemed wind players who, fortunately for posterity, was also a close friend of Mozart: the renowned clarinetist Anton Stadler.

At first, the emperor had envisaged his Harmonie as a sextet, and Mozart hoped that the repertory of the new ensemble might expand to include the commissioning of serious original works. Indulging this idea, he composed a sextet for winds (the Serenade, K. 375) in the expectation that one of Emperor Joseph’s “Gentlemen of the Chamber” would recommend it (and him) to the Emperor’s attention. Soon, however, the ensemble grew into an octet (pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns), and Mozart hastened to revise K. 375 for this new format.

Many aristocrats were quick to follow the Emperor’s example by setting up similar groups, and so-called Harmoniemusik soon became established as one of the most popular forms of musical entertainment throughout the 1780s and 1790s. Every major composer (and hundreds of lesser ones) wrote both original works and made arrangements for this compilation of instruments. The particular combination for which Mozart wrote his Serenade in Bb represents, of course, a considerable expansion of the normal wind octet. Although several other composers had previously written for an enlarged ensemble, none had done so on a scale comparable to Mozart. By the addition of two more horns, as well as two basset horns, the sonority of the middle register was considerably enhanced, providing a richer (and to modern ears, a more “Romantic” sound). Mozart’s other innovation was to compose a special part for the string bass instead of leaving it to ad hoc doublings of the second bassoon part. Although Mozart explicitly calls for a string bass, the Serenade has often been performed using a contrabassoon and is hence commonly, though erroneously, referred to as the “Serenade for 13 wind instruments.”

Despite the firm place which Mozart’s works occupy in the concert repertoire, the genesis of some of his greatest ones — including this serenade — remains shrouded in mystery. Almost no other work of Mozart has been the subject of so many contradictory theories concerning the history of its composition, and textual inconsistencies between various sources present performers with difficulties in unraveling the composer’s true intentions.

It was long thought that the Gran Partita was composed around 1780 for a performance in Munich, but painstaking analysis of several critical factors (such as watermarks, inks and handwriting) reveals that it was probably written
in Vienna somewhat later; the editors of the Neue Mozart Ausgabe suggest
a time between the end of 1783 and the beginning of 1784. There is a slight possibility that Mozart might have composed the piece for the occasion of
his own wedding in August 1782. However, if this were the case, one wonders why Mozart’s letters to his father so uncharacteristically fail to mention such a massive undertaking.

The only reliable contemporary reference to a performance comes from the newspaper advertisement of March 23, 1784 quoted above. Only four of the movements were played on that day, but the critic Johann Friedrich Schink reported on their performance. In his review, he described the exact instrumentation: two oboes, two clarinets, two basset horns, four horns, two bassoons and double bass. The movements he had heard could therefore only have been drawn from the Serenade in Bb. Schink wrote: “At each instrument sat a master — oh, what an effect it made — glorious and grand, excellent and sublime.”

It is interesting to observe that this concert was given during Lent, when the participating musicians (who for the greater part of each year were employed by the Viennese nobility) were all effectively on holiday. This circumstance made it easy for Stadler to hand-pick the very best wind players, knowing that they would not otherwise be engaged. Mozart’s own silence regarding this concert at the Burgtheater can probably be explained by the fact that — Lenten holidays notwithstanding — his recently composed Piano Concerto No 14, K. 449, was simultaneously receiving its first performance elsewhere in Vienna.

Since only four movements had been played on the 1784 concert, it had been thought that the work was composed as two separate pieces. Examination of the autograph, however, shows that the seven movements were notated at the same time. It may be, however, that the work was conceived with performance “options” in mind. After an opening sonata-form movement, the remaining six movements comprise pairs of slow movements, minuets and finales. One member of each pair tends to show Mozart at his most elegant and compositionally sophisticated while the other tends toward rollicking dance music more reminiscent of a “town band” than of the Emperor’s elegant Harmonie. The Serenade in B-flat is, therefore, a work that truly bridges the gulf between garden party and concert music.

- Program note by Michael Votta

Additional Resources:

- Additional UMWO Blog Mozart Posts

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