A work in progress – half serenade, half symphony

Jubilant splendor. © Charles Thibo

“Sonnez cors et trompettes!” (Sound the horns and trumpets).  This French expression came to my mind when I listened to Johannes Brahms Serenade No. 1 in D, Op. 11, especially to the jubilant first movement. It has been recorded by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, back to back with Schumann’s Cello Concerto that I have presented in a post two days ago. I never had really cared to listen to Brahms’ serenade in D consciously before I began to study Schumann’s piece. An omission I later regretted! Because… because it is incredibly beautiful, rich, melodious – very much a reverence to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. It displays an overall sunny, optimistic mood, a piece that requires no effort to listen to and has no deeper meaning thant to give the audience 55 minutes of pleasure.

Brahms considered the piece a work in progress. A first draft, written between 1857 and 1858, had only four movements. Brahms performed this version in September 1858 before a narrow circle of friends: Clara Schumann, the violinist Joseph Joachim and the composer and conductor Julius Otto Grimm. Joachim qualified the last (fourth) movement as “just as well conceived as the first, the trio is lovely too, however  the orchestration of certain parts is too difficult for the violins.

Four or six movements?

The composer and his friends were undecided: Should this be a piece for a full-fledged orchestra or does it rather require a small ensemble? What nobody said, but what everybody was thinking: Is this a symphony? Does it live up to the standard of a symphony t the middle of the 19th century? Curious, isn’t it?  Brahms writes a wonderful piece and once he is done, he and his friends ask themselves what the composer actually did write?

The premiere took place in Hanover on January 16, 1859, conducted by Joachim by a string detachment, a flautist, two clarinettists, a horn and a bassoon player. However this version had already six movements and Clara Schumann asked in a letter dated March 31, 1859: “I was surprised to learn about six serenade movements while I know only four. Or did you add two movements, that I knew previously?” At some point towards the end of 1858 Brahms added the two scherzi at the end of the serenade.

The original score is lost

However this is not the end of it. In late autumn 1859 Brahms informed Joachim that he wants to transform the piece into a symphony. He chose to destroy the score of the original version. At the end of January 1860, he was done with the symphonic version; at its premiere on March 3, 1860 it was again conducted by Joachim. Brahms comment about his own work: “If anyone dares writing symphonies after Beethoven, they must be very different.”

A fanfare is the prominent theme of the first movement and it will come back several times through the other five movements. It is the large-scale, fully developed first movement and in the lengthy third movement with its elaborate motivic construction that edges this works a little closer to the symphony category. But Brahms stuck with the designation “serenade”. This may explain why it took a while until the piece became part of the Brahms repertoire performed around the world. Had he labeled it as his first symphony, it would most likely have generated a quicker success.

© Charles Thibo

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3 thoughts on “A work in progress – half serenade, half symphony”

  1. I always had a hard time with his serenades. I always loved his symphonies, but to this day, I don’t consider the serenades on par with his other orchestral works.

    That said, the recent recording with Riccardo Chailly made me warm up to them a bit more.

    1. Quite so. It took me some time to warm up to his works, but now I am all “fire and fury” for him, to take up the madman’s quote of the day.

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