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There is no known performance or occasion for the Serenade in C minor, K. 388, but then music for wind ensemble in Mozart’s time was often ephemeral, written for a specific, usually outdoor, affair and seldom enduring beyond the moment. (Which may be part of the reason that Mozart arranged this one for string quintet five or six years later, publishing it in a set of three on subscription.) It was probably the “Night Music” that Mozart refers to in a letter to his father in July 1782, composed in hopes that it might find favor with the Emperor’s newly established Harmonie, or wind band.
In any case – and either version – it is a masterpiece. The imposing Allegro opening contrasts several ideas in stern C minor with gracious music in the major mode. The mellow Andante in E-flat major glows warmly, glancing references to darker matters notwithstanding.
In the Minuet and Trio Mozart displays his substantial Viennese study of the music of Bach and Handel, as the bassoons take up the oboes’ melody in canon a bar later. The major mode Trio is also written in canon, but this time the answering part is inverted, that is, upside down in relation to the leading part. (This might be another case of Haydn’s influence: the minor-mode minuet in Haydn’s Symphony No. 44 is also composed in canon.)
For his finale, Mozart turns to variations, yet another form of which he was an incomparable master. (These prefigure the finale of his C-minor Piano Concerto, K. 491.) These variations seem to work themselves into an existential corner, petering out uncertainly before a sudden change, ending in buoyant C major.