About this Piece
Richard Strauss had just turned seventeen when he composed his Serenade for 13 wind instruments in 1881. In true prodigy style, he had already published a string quartet, a piano sonata, some shorter piano pieces, and an orchestral march, and his catalogue of unpublished compositions included a full-length symphony.
As the teen-aged son of the Munich court orchestra's principal horn player Franz Strauss, the young Richard already lived in a world saturated with music. Franz' musical tastes were fairly conservative. According to Richard, "His musical trinity was Mozart (above all), Haydn, and Beethoven. To these were added Schubert, as song-writer, Weber, and, at some distance, Mendelssohn and Spohr. To him Beethoven's later works, from the Finale of the Seventh Symphony onward, were no longer 'pure' music (one could begin to scent in them that Mephistophelian figure Richard Wagner)."
Strauss Senior was decidedly unsympathetic when it came to "new" music, and no one was newer in late-19th-century Munich than Wagner. Stories abound about clashes between Franz Strauss and Wagner, with the horn player railing against Wagner's music while playing it with incomparable skill and beauty. Even Wagner was forced to admit of Strauss Senior that "when he plays his horn, one cannot stay cross with him."
The beauty of Franz Strauss' horn playing certainly influenced his son's writing for winds in the Serenade, which utilizes four of his father's instrument along with double woodwinds and contrabassoon (or double bass or tuba, depending on the available resources). The teen-aged composer's assured writing could also be attributed to his first-hand knowledge of the orchestra. His father directed the Wilde Gung'l, an amateur orchestra that played in a Munich tavern, and young Richard was a frequent and curious visitor at rehearsals, and he eventually joined the orchestra, in 1885, playing among the first violins for three years. Franz' preference for the music of the classical and early Romantic eras also seems to have shaped his son's early compositional efforts to a considerable extent.
The Serenade premiered in Dresden on November 27, 1882, conducted by the noted conductor Franz Wüllner, who had led the Munich premieres of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, the first two installments in Wagner's 14-hour Ring tetralogy, in 1869 and 1870. The work is much more than simply a deft imitation of Mozart and Mendelssohn; it represents the young Strauss' filtering and distillation of these influences into something remarkably original. The contour of the melodies easily identifies the seventeen-year-old as the future composer of works filled with moments of achingly beautiful lyricism like Der Rosenkavalier and, especially, his late opera Daphne, with its rich wind scoring.
The Serenade is in a single, sonata form (exposition of themes, development of themes, recapitulation of themes) movement. Strauss' use of sonata form, which was an innovation of the classical era of Mozart and Haydn, reflects his immersion in the works of his father's "musical trinity." The music itself is melodic and lyrical, with the second theme (prefaced by a brief, minor-key transition) reveling in the rich, full sound of the 13 wind instruments. The development section starts with the oboes over a series of sustained notes played by the horns and the contrabassoon. A rising figure in the lowest instruments creates a sense of anticipation as the development approaches the recapitulation. The recapitulation begins with what is perhaps the most evocatively beautiful moment in the Serenade, as the horns play the first theme with great warmth, which surely must have put a smile on Franz' face. The work ends gently, with the flutes, a gesture that offers a premonition in miniature of some of Strauss' ravishing writing for the soprano voice in his greatest operas.
-- John Mangum holds a Ph.D. in history from UCLA. He is the Philharmonic's Program Designer/Annotator.