Composed: 1911, rev. 1919
Length: 35 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bells, cymbals, snare drum, triangle), and strings
Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar is less known than either of the other composers on this program, but he shares their engaging blend of nationalism and personal charm. With Grieg, moreover, he shares a debt to the south as a source of inspiration. During a 1906 trip to Italy Stenhammar wrote that he was contemplating a “Florentine dithyramb to spring… the kind of beautiful poetry about the South of which only a Northerner is capable.” He composed the Serenade five years later, revising it again in 1919. Stenhammar’s reference to the ancient dithyramb is representative of his interest in literature and aesthetics; his various and changing aesthetic enthusiasms (nationalism, romanticism, impressionism, and classicism) along with his musical investigations (first Viennese school, Renaissance counterpoint, and Wagnerian drama) permeate the work. While they mingle in friendly discourse, none is dominant.
It’s an obvious question: why does a lengthy five-movement work carry the title of a genre better known for its lighthearted appeal than its profundity. Stenhammar starts giving us the answer right away: the opening motive scampers along before dissolving into a playful woodwind conversation, then into a wide-ranging violin solo. The combination of short motives and gossamer orchestral colors recall the Mendelssohn of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (and, of course, of that composer’s own musical postcard from Italy). Both the carefree mood and the stylistic eclecticism reinforce the suggestion of a serenade. The graceful shape of the melodies recalls Stenhammar’s fondness for vocal writing – another outgrowth of his literary bent.
The next three movements are played without a break, beginning with the Canzonetta, a subdued waltz. Here the composer uses a clarinet solo against an accompaniment in cellos. The juxtaposition of warm timbres emphasizes the registral distance between them; both the widely spaced timbres and the occasional punctuation from the horn section suggests the atmosphere of an outdoor performance. The subsequent Scherzo breaks the quiet mood with mischievous passages that again recall Mendelssohn. Though not an official trio, there is a contrasting section that features horns in counter-rhythms with the strings. The Notturno reflects its title not only in its hushed atmosphere, with flitting fragments of pizzicato strings and woodwind, but in a distant fanfare motto that again places us outdoors. The Finale is the longest of all the movements, and operates as a kind of summary – not in the narrow sense of repetition (although there is some) but in a deeper sense of drawing musical strands together. Like the Overtura, it moves along a series of musical ideas: lush melodies, agitated interjections, and a waltz are all woven into what appears to be moving toward a weighty symphonic resolution – but the ending is whimsy itself, dropping us lightly back into that Florentine springtime that inspired Stenhammar in the first place.
- Susan Key is a musicologist and frequent contributor to Los Angeles Philharmonic programs, specializing in American music.