Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) was a Czech composer who was helped to prominence in Europe by such luminaries as Johannes Brahms and the critic Eduard Hanslick. These two men were among the panelists who awarded Dvořák the Austrian State Prize for Composition in 1874 (and again in 1876 and 1877). Dvořák wrote music in a nationalistic character for much of his career, mostly focused on his native Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic). He is also famous for having traveled to America in the 1890s, where he directed the National Conservatory and wrote his most famous work, Symphony no. 9 “From the New World.” He now has a detailed biography on Wikipedia, an extensive website dedicated to him in both Czech and English, and an ongoing Society in his name that is dedicated to Czech and Slovak classical music.
The Serenade, op. 44, came about in 1878, emerging in a seemingly spontaneous rush during two weeks that January. It came immediately before the Slavonic Rhapsodies (op. 45) and the first set of Slavonic Dances (op. 46), and as such it reflects some of their style and the direction Dvořák was to take with his music. It also came immediately after the tragic loss of his three young children, so it likely represents a new beginning in both his life and career. Its most unusual feature is its instrumentation: 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (and optional contrabassoon), 3 French horns, cello, and bass. This very closely resembles the harmonie band that was popular at the end of the 18th century, and may be a nod specifically to Mozart’s most famous serenade, the Gran Partita in B-flat from the early 1780s (a comparison of both pieces’ third movements strengthens this impression). It was to be the only time that Dvořák used this instrumentation, and only one of two serenades that he would write (the other being for strings).
The instrumentation matches what would have been used in a serenade in the classical era. Such pieces were intended to be played outdoors, often by musicians on the move, a function to which wind instruments were particularly well-suited. However, Dvořák uses a more traditional symphonic structure for this work, which ends up in four movements with the middle two flipped from their usual placement. The first movement is a stately, Baroque-sounding march. In somewhat of a twist, the second is a triple-meter dance approximating the Czech dance sousedská (despite the title “Minuetto”), with a Furiant thrown in in place of the usual trio. The third movement is slow, and sounds strongly like Mozart’s “adagio” from the Gran Partita. The final movement races to its finish, but not before bringing back the entire A section of the first movement in a uniquely 19th-century move. The whole thing sounds strongly like Dvořák, reflecting both his knack for accessible writing and fervor for his native Czech music.
As much as it pains me to admit this, the best performances of this piece that are on YouTube all come from unconducted ensembles. Conductors, I challenge you to learn this piece and create compelling performances of it so that we may retain an indispensable role in this piece in the future! For now, here is a joint British-Russian group delivering quite a performance:
Read more about the Serenade at the Dvořák archive, on this website from 1999, at the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra blog, on Musicweb International, at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, at Chicago Chamber Musicians, and on Wikipedia. Also, full sheet music for two different public domain editions of this piece is available on IMSLP.