In keeping with the spirit of this blog, I have a composer bio and piece description up for this piece as usual. But so much has already been said about the man and the music. There’s very little that I could possibly add other than to consolidate what’s already out there. Therefore, I highly encourage you to explore the richly informative links below.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was a child prodigy born in Salzburg, Austria who toured Europe as a boy, playing keyboards and violin for nobility and the general public. He began composing at age 4, amassing an impressive output of over 600 pieces by the time of his untimely death at age 35. His compositions encompassed solo keyboard works, symphonies, operas, string quartets, concertos, chamber music of all stripes, and religious works. He famously died while composing his Requiem, K. 626. It is possible that he believed himself to be writing his own funeral music, but it is unlikely that he was poisoned by the composer Antonio Salieri, as is asserted in the film Amadeus. In life, he had a reputation as a prankster, which shone through in his music at times (witness the 4-voice canons Difficile lectu and O du eselhafter Peierl). He is remembered today as perhaps one of the greatest composers who ever lived.
Mozart wrote the Serenade in C minor, K. 388 in 1782. Exactly when it was finished, when it premiered, for whom he wrote it, and what motivated its composition are all unknown. We do know that wind music was very much in vogue in the Holy Roman Empire of the day thanks to Emperor Joseph II‘s establishment of a Harmoniemusik ensemble at his court. These usually consisted of pairs of wind instruments, often oboes, clarinets, French horns, and bassoons, as in K. 388, although basset horns and English horns sometimes also appeared. Very often they were used for light entertainment at parties (Mozart has one playing in the background during the ballroom scene of his 1787 opera Don Giovanni) or even to accompany the imperial supper. They were ideal for outdoor performances: many of the contemporary serenades written for Harmoniemusik were intended to be played outdoors, perhaps even with the musicians on the move. So the Serenade in C minor, with its dark tone and apparently serious purpose (let alone its minor key) would have confounded expectations for Harmoniemusik at the time, as it still does scholars of Mozart and wind music today. The Serenade is in four movements, closely replicating the common symphonic form of the day. The first is a straightforward sonata whose development seems to run out of steam before a forcefully dark recapitulation. The second, an andante in three, also takes sonata form (the development is all of two phrases) and includes cadenza-like passages for the first oboe and first clarinet. The third movement is a minuet marked “in canone”, and indeed there is always a canon going on. The final movement is a decidedly dark series of variations broken up by a some unrelated E-flat major material in the middle. After so much gloom, the Serenade takes an unexpected turn and ends with a noisy C major variation.
Here is a wonderful performance of the entire Serenade. Especially wonderful is the variety of approaches to the variations in the fourth movement.
Now for the links I promised. The Serenade has its own pages at Wikipedia, Hal Leonard, and Windrep.org. You can get certain versions of the score for free at the International Music Score Library Project. I am not the only blogger to have written about the Serenade: this enthnomusicologist’s blog post is much more comprehensive than mine when it comes to analysis and context, and I highly recommend you read it! The BBC did a “Discovering Music” program(me) on the piece in 2006. Fellow band blogger Dave Wacyk wrote about it at the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra site. The Chicago Chamber Musicians also have a write-up about it.
I couldn’t write about Mozart without including a scene from Amadeus. In one of my favorites, Mozart, on his deathbed, dictates the beginning of the Requiem’s “Confutatis” to Salieri: