Some thoughts on the genesis of Brahms’s First Serenade

Written by: Joel Lazar

Joel Lazar’s note (written in January 2007) on Brahms’s Serenade No.1…

Brahms originally conceived the D-major Serenade in the summer of 1858
as a nonet for strings and winds, in four movements (the first, second,
third and sixth of the final version) or perhaps as an octet in three
movements. It seems that from the start he was ambivalent both about the
scope and instrumentation of this work, as by the time of its first
public performance, by a small orchestra in Hamburg on 29 March 1859,
conducted by Joachim, the Serenade had grown to six movements and the
original string lines were played with several musicians on each part,
while the wind parts were unaltered. In a letter of 8 December 1859 he
asks Joachim to return the score and to send him music paper with enough
staves to write for an orchestra. “I need the paper to convert the first
Serenade into a symphony, at long last, I realize that this work is a
sort of hybrid creature, neither this nor that.” (Styra Avins, Johannes
Brahms: Life and Letters, 1997).

However, the revised score which
Joachim received at Christmas was designated “Symphony-Serenade”; it was
not until early in 1860 that Brahms unequivocally decided on “Serenade”
in replying to a subsequent letter from him asking for the score and
parts (David Brodbeck, “Brahms” in The Nineteenth-Century Symphony, ed.
D. Kern Holoman, 1997). Joachim conducted the final version with the
Court Orchestra in Hanover on 3 March 1860; as published in December of
that year the Serenade is Op. 11 (rather than Op. 18, as the composer
had originally planned), and is designated as “für großes Orchester” – for full orchestra, including four horns, two trumpets and timpani, as
opposed to the A-major Serenade, Op. 16, with its unusual scoring for
pairs of winds and horns, along with lower strings, designated as “für
kleines Orchester” – for small orchestra.

In many respects the D-major Serenade reflects Brahms’ keen awareness of
musical tradition and heritage. Its large outline, with a multiplicity
of movements, surrounding a central slow movement with broadly scaled
sonata or sonata-rondo movements at either end and several dance-like
sections, reflects the layout of the great orchestral D-major “Haffner”
and “Posthorn” Serenades of Mozart as well as the serenade-like
multi-movement structure of Beethoven’s Septet and Schubert’s Octet.

Brahms’ pervasive concertante writing for woodwinds and brass also
reflects the traditional practice in this genre; Styra Avins (personal
communication, December 2006) assumes that it was further encouraged by
contact with the fine wind and horn players of the Court Orchestra in
Detmold, where Brahms lived and worked from 1857 to 1859. I note with
amusement one detail: the little horn fanfares which end the second of
the three thematic groups in the slow movement are perhaps a subtle
hommage to the wind serenade tradition of the late Classical period; in
those works there is often some sort of horn outburst covering several
octaves just before the end of a sonata-form first movement. Mozart and
Beethoven do this in the first movements of their respective
piano-and-winds quintets, too; in Brahms it is the “right” gesture but
in an odd place.

There are unmistakable historical allusions in several movements: the
second Scherzo seems to fuse references to the Scherzos of Beethoven’s
first two symphonies with a citation from the Trio of the Scherzo of his
“Spring” Sonata, Op. 24, the opening theme of the first movement
famously refers to the finale of Haydn’s Symphony No. 104, while the end
of the slow movement seems to combine a reference to the slow movement
of the same Haydn symphony with a citation of the end of the slow
movement of Schumann’s Second Symphony. Malcolm MacDonald (Brahms, 1990)
hears an allusion to Schumann’s Third (“Rhenish”) Symphony in the
“…swinging tune and homogeneous scoring…” of the Trio of the first
Scherzo. Almost all commentators suggest that the prominent woodwind
writing at the end of the first and third movements reflects the
influence of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony as does the spacious
structure of the slow movement.

Equally evident are moments in which Brahms adumbrates well-known
thematic or textural gestures from his later works; the spectral opening
of the first Scherzo is a pre-echo of the daemonic Scherzo of the Second
Piano Concerto, and the wind-led fugatos which conclude the exposition
and recapitulation of the Adagio presage similar episodes in the slow
movement of the Second Symphony.

The D-major Serenade is of course, much more than a compendium of
citations and anticipations. It seems to be at a stylistic crossroads,
as it presents a splendid synthesis and manipulation of Classical genres
and forms, along with Romantic warmth, sensibility and color, operating
within traditional conventions while at times toying with them. Styra
Avins (personal communication, December 2006) suggests that it also
displays “…an air of well-being that in my view reflects the fact that
Brahms was composing again and had regained confidence in his abilities. At the point at which he published Op. 11, he also published a large
group of pieces which he had been working on as he gradually regained
his equilibrium after the Schumann catastrophe. The Serenade is in many
ways a turning point; less passionate and full of temperament than Op.
15, but pointing the way to a less turbulent control of his material
which stayed with him for the rest of his life.”

  • Joel Lazar, based in Washington DC, has conducted Brahms’s D major Serenade many times. He received undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard, where he began his conducting career in the 1960s. Assistant to Jascha Horenstein from 1970 to 1973, he has contributed booklet notes to Vox, Music & Arts and BBC Legends in relation to Horenstein’s recordings

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