Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Born: January 27, 1756, Salzburg, Austria
Died: December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria
No reminder is really needed of the unique stature of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the history of Western music. His vast catalog of compositions – over 600 of them, including some 15 operas, 17 masses, 50 symphonies, 20 piano concertos, 23 string quartets, and much more – epitomizes the German-Austrian Classical style. His music is recognized and loved all over the world for its melodic, harmonic, and textural richness and beauty. The son of a well-known violinist and pedagogue, Mozart was one of the greatest prodigies ever, playing his first public concert at age five and composing his first music at seven. Before reaching the age of ten he had already played recitals in front of the likes of Marie Antoinette and King George III of England. He traveled throughout Europe through his teens. After failing to find a secure post elsewhere, and having grown dissatisfied with his career in Salzburg, Mozart moved to Vienna, where he spent the last decade of his life. While he enjoyed some successes with his new operas and piano concertos, life there grew more and more precarious, leading to his early death at age thirty-five.
Serenade No. 12 for Winds in C minor, K. 388 (K. 384a)
Duration: 24 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 horns, 2 bassoons
A common feature of the musical world in eighteenth century Europe was the commissioning of new music to serve as entertainment, or background music, for parties, social occasions, and civic functions. Most composers of the day wrote such works, which went by names like divertimento, serenade, cassation, partita, or nocturne. Mozart wrote many of these himself, often simply for some relatively easy income. Such entertainment works tended to fall easily on the ear, and were in cheerful major keys. But that is far from the case with the present, often dark and portentous C minor Serenade.
No one knows for certain when, or for what purpose, this work was written. On July 27, 1782, Mozart mentioned in a letter to his father Leopold that he was writing a piece that he referred to as Nachtmusik, or “nocturne.” It would seem that he meant this C minor work, which he ended up simply titling Serenada or Serenade. He may have intended it for the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II, who had just hired a permanent wind octet – or Harmoniemusik, as it was then called – for his court, or for Prince Aloys Joseph Liechtenstein, another music fan that Mozart was courting for commissions. In any case, Mozart seems to have thought highly of the Serenade, and in 1787 made a second arrangement of it for string quintet (K. 406/516b).
The opening Allegro is in sonata form, with its usual exposition, development, and recapitulation of the main melodies. The music is tense, sometimes stormy, even projecting a martial spirit at times, with alternating flowing and more staccato passages. Moving into the relative major key of E-flat major, the slow movement is graceful and waltz-like. It provides some respite from the seriousness of the rest of the work, with brief solo cadenzas for the first oboe and first clarinet.
The Menuetto takes the form of a canon, in which the bassoons answer phrases from the oboes one bar later. Its central Trio section is similarly imitative, but in this case the answers are upside down (inversion, in musical terminology). The final Allegro is a theme and eight variations. All of the variations but one remain in a tense, serious minor key. But Mozart does pull a “happy ending” out of his hat, concluding the work in an optimistic, even jaunty C major.