Composer's life: Born in Hamburg, Germany, May 7, 1833; died in Vienna, Austria, April 3, 1897
Composition dates: 1858-1859; revised 1875
First performance: Hamburg, Germany, February 19, 1860, Brahms conducting
First BSO performance: Boston Music Hall, November 6, 1886, Wilhelm Gericke conducting
The score of Brahms’s Serenade No. 2 calls for a small orchestra without violins: 2 flutes (with piccolo added in the last movement), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and a string section of violas, cellos, and basses.
For those who know only a bit of the music of Johannes Brahms it is generally a pleasant surprise to encounter his two Serenades, written in 1858-59. In them one finds little of the sober, somber, craggy Brahms or his penetrating lyricism. Instead, these are light, largely sunny, at times even folksy outings. Why they turned out that way has, for all his relative youth at the time, a long background.
Born in 1833, Brahms grew up in Hamburg, the son of a street musician, and from early childhood was trained toward a career as a concert pianist. When he brought his first pieces to his teacher, the man realized that he had not a piano prodigy, but a composer prodigy, on his hands. When Felix Mendelssohn died, that teacher observed: “A great master of the musical art has gone hence, but an even greater one will bloom for us in Brahms.” Brahms was fourteen at the time. At age twenty he knocked on the door of Robert and Clara Schumann in Düsseldorf, introduced himself, and played them a few of his pieces. That night Robert wrote in his journal: “Visit from Brahms (a genius).” Shortly after, Schumann published an article that called this young student the coming savior of German music—saving it, that is, from what Schumann saw as the vandalisms of Wagner and Liszt, who had turned away from Classical forms and genres. Brahms, Schumann declared, is “a real Beethovener.” The article made Brahms instantly notorious around the European musical world. Soon after that, Schumann fell apart and was committed to an asylum from which he never emerged.
Brahms knew that the article had made him famous before he had much to show for it or much sense of where he was headed. It placed a crushing and lifelong burden on his creativity. For some years after, he composed as best he could in a sort of limbo, trying one thing and another. Schumann had called him a “Beethovener,” and among other things that meant he was expected to write symphonies. He made a stab at one that did not take off, though it provided the germ of his First Piano Concerto. Brahms knew the musical world was waiting to see what he could do with a symphony, and many were hoping for him to fall on his face. He also knew that his craftsmanship might not be up to the task. That was demonstrated when he got himself into the massive First Piano Concerto, which took an excruciating four years to finish as he struggled with matters of form and orchestration. When he showed the beginning of an orchestral draft to his older friend Joseph Joachim, a violin prodigy and experienced composer, Joachim burst into laughter.
For Brahms these were his years in the wilderness, uncertain in his work and his life and his income. But part of that time he had a pleasant job in the little court of Detmold. There he directed a women’s choir and performed solo and chamber music on keyboard, and had capable musicians and a small orchestra at his disposal. Naturally he began to write choral music, which at first he found frustrating. “My stuff is written so impractically!” he groaned to Joachim.
At Detmold in 1858 he produced a Serenade in D major for a chamber ensemble of winds and strings, then turned it into an orchestral piece, his first completed one. On the title page he wrote “Symphony-Serenade” then, probably with a sigh, scratched out “Symphony.” He was not going to masquerade this effort as more ambitious than it was. Besides, it was in the mode of a serenade: tuneful, largely cheerful, in six movements. In it he proved himself entirely competent with the orchestra, but not yet with a particularly distinctive voice.
The next year he produced the A major Serenade No. 2, eventually Opus 16, for chamber orchestra. There are five movements, the central one an expansive Adagio and around it two faster dancelike movements. It calls for a full complement of woodwinds and two horns, but strings without violins. That scoring throws the main focus of the piece on the winds, and gives the ensemble a darker cast than usual. The reason Brahms left out the violins is obscure, but he did it once more in the opening movement of his German Requiem, beginning that elegiac work with a twilight ambiance.
The modest wind theme that opens the A major Serenade is not particularly “Brahmsian” to our ears, but it is warm and winning, introducing a movement of great charm. The movement also has some elements prophetic of the later Brahms, such as a frequent juxtaposition of duple and triple patterns, and a tendency to roam harmonically beyond the expected for an unpretentious serenade. Roaming harmony and intricate rhythms would be thumbprints of his mature style. The formal outline is traditional sonata form, the second section with a sighing theme, then a lilting one. Brahms would stay true to the old forms, but as here he would handle them freely. He does not repeat the exposition but rather begins the development with a feint at a repeat; the development is long and wide-ranging in keys; and the recapitulation gets back to the home key of A major for a quiet interlude before it arrives at the opening theme.
Second is a jaunty scherzo marked “Vivace,” featuring tousled rhythms resulting from two-beat patterns intruding into the three-beat meter. Call the middle Trio section ironically earnest. The central slow movement, much longer than the others, is the most striking of the five not only because it is somber, harmonically searching, contrapuntally dense, and finally sorrowful, all unexpected in the genial genre of the serenade. The movement is also a kind of passacaglia, that being a centuries-old slow dance built on a repeated bass pattern. In his devotion to old forms, Brahms sometimes went back to the Renaissance. He would return to a solemn passacaglia for the finale of his last symphony. But here again he is free with the form: rather than repeating unchanged, the bass pattern moves around in keys.
The fourth movement, titled “Quasi Menuetto,” is a fast 6/4 heard as two-beat 3+3, so really it has little to do with the old Classical-era minuet. But it is dancelike in its lilting and gracious way, with a whispering, rather ironically conspiratorial Trio. The finale is the expected dashing Rondo, brightened with the addition of a piccolo. The recurring theme is a folksy tune, but keeps bursting into triplets, and the main theme keeps changing in a generally untrammeled formal outline. A jubilant ending assures us that it has all been in good fun.
If Robert Schumann had not written his article that thrust the young composer into premature fame and left him burdened for the rest of his life, Brahms might have given us more relaxed, expansive, and delightful outings like the Serenades. As it is, we must be content with the two we have.
Jan Swafford is a prizewinning composer and writer whose most recent book, published in December 2020, is Mozart: The Reign of Love. His other acclaimed books include Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, Johannes Brahms: A Biography, The Vintage Guide to Classical Music, and Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music. He is an alumnus of the Tanglewood Music Center, where he studied composition.