Composed: 1858-1859, rev. 1875
Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings (no violins)
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: May 7, 1938, Otto Klemperer conducting
If historically serenades were considered music for entertainment, and they were, how did our ultra-serious Brahms come to write not one but two serenades? It seems out of character for this composer whose very earliest works were essentially large-scale and terribly earnest to consider creating a form of music that seemed to be at odds with his nature. The answer is really simple, and actually in keeping with his mindset. This was a young man quite in awe of the legacy of Beethoven, a budding composer who thought himself unworthy to carry on in the footsteps of the giant even though that was the road he instinctively wanted to travel.
The young Johannes took an easy detour, as accompanist to the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi. It was Reményi who arranged an introduction to violinist Joseph Joachim, who in turn urged Brahms to present himself to the Schumanns, Robert and his pianist wife Clara, in Düsseldorf. Greeted warmly by the two distinguished musicians, Brahms at 20 proceeded to overwhelm them by his playing of his earliest piano works -- the first two piano sonatas (C major and F-sharp minor) and the E-flat-minor Scherzo. The Schumanns found in his playing the same extraordinary qualities that had so impressed Joachim. About his compositions themselves, Robert's enthusiasm knew no bounds. “One has come from whom we may expect all kinds of wonders. His name is Johannes Brahms,” was only one of the older composer's effusive statements in a lengthy article he wrote about the gifted youth.
The modest, unassuming Johannes found it difficult to cope with Schumann's extravagant flattery. He expressed his concern in a letter to Schumann. “The open praise that you bestowed upon me has probably excited expectations of the public to such a degree that I do not know how I can come anywhere near fulfilling them,” he wrote. “Above all, it induces me to use extreme caution (my italics) in selecting pieces for publication. Of course, you understand that I strive with all my might to cause you as little embarrassment as possible.”
Extreme caution became the guiding principle of Brahms’ career. Because it was expected of him, he started a symphony, but it wasn’t realized for a full 20 years. He did produce the massive First Piano Concerto, but as for a purely symphonic work, he opted instead for a modest Serenade, and followed that one with another, the present piece in A major. Thus he contrived not to overplay ambition or fall short of expectations. Of course, by the time of the two Serenades, Schumann was gone, having suffered a tragic death in an asylum. But there was Clara Schumann, for whom he had a deep fondness (many say love), and he wanted to please her above most others.
If the first Serenade was a bit conservative and what we might call unBrahmsian, the second had all the stuff of the real Brahms, revealing the characteristics that make the composer’s music immediately recognizable. The lilt, the warmth, the gracious melodies, and the enlivening cross rhythms that give distinction to a work that essentially fits the definition of a serenade as music strictly for easy listening. Essentially, but far from entirely, for the central third movement of the five-movement work casts a long gray shadow on the charming movements before and aft. Cast in the key of A minor, the piece begins with the low strings (all are low inasmuch as Brahms scored the work without violins) in bare octaves presenting a theme that has a kind of Bach-like seriousness. This two-measure motif is destined to be almost ever present, either in the bass or above. It is not the only melodic idea in the movement, but it becomes a rich source of the kind of thematic transformation that was a life-long technique of the master.
As if to make amends for the third movement’s departure into un-serenade sobriety, Brahms tears loose in a fifth movement that fairly dances, ingratiates with a lovable oboe theme, and enlivens with all manner of orchestral brilliance augmented by the bright voice of the piccolo. A very happy ending indeed.
After many years as Director of Publications and Archives for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, Orrin Howard continues to contribute to the program book.