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.
The Serenade in E-flat major, K. 375, exists today in two versions: a sextet of two clarinets, two bassoons, and two horns, and an octet that adds two oboes. The sextet came first, finished in October 1781 and premiered on the 15th at the home of Viennese court painter Joseph Hickel. Mozart documented what happened next in a letter to his father later that month:
At 11 o’clock at night I was serenaded by two clarinets, two horns, and two bassoons playing my own music: I had written it for St. Theresa’s Day for Frau von Hickel’s sister, or rather the sister-in-law of Herr von Hickel, the court painter, at whose house it was performed for the first time. The six gentlemen who executed it are poor beggars who play together quite nicely all the same, especially the first clarinetist and the two horn players. But my chief reason for writing it was to let Herr von Strack, who goes there every day, hear something of my composition. And so I composed it rather carefully. It was well received, too, and played at three different places on St. Theresa’s Night, because when they had finished it in one place they were taken somewhere else and paid to play it again. And so these musicians had the front gate opened for them, and when they had formed up in the yard, they gave me, just as I was about to undress for bed, the most delightful surprise in the world with the opening E-flat chord. (Excerpted from New York Philharmonic program notes)
The octet came the following year as Mozart’s attempt to get his music played at the imperial court (although William Mann suggests it was actually Prince Aloys Liechtenstein whose band first played both this and the contemporaneous Serenade in C-minor). Emperor Joseph II had established a Harmoniemusik ensemble at his court, creating a rush to compose new music for this ensemble. These usually consisted of pairs of wind instruments, often oboes, clarinets, French horns, and bassoons, as in this work, 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, even with the musicians on the move as Mozart’s letter suggests.
This serenade is in five movements, all of which begin and end in e-flat. It begins with a rather impulsive allegro that regularly shifts moods and character and is anchored by the e-flat chords that Mozart mentions in his letter. The first of the two menuettos is fitting with the character of the contemporary dance, stately and built around easily identifiable melodies, but with some chromatic twists. The central adagio is a delicate sonatina that achieves full bloom in its recapitulation. The second menuetto begins energetic and turns pensive in its trio. The finale blazes with enthusiasm to its final note.
Here is a wonderful performance of the entire Serenade that goes a long way towards capturing the contrasts of character in each movement. The video description is also very much worth a read for the curious:
The Serenade is much discussed on the Internet. Read more about it at Wikipedia (and please, please, somebody update this dinky article), Classical Archives, program notes at Chicago Symphony and New York Philharmonic, and this thesis about the evolution of Mozart’s wind writing. The music for both versions is available at IMSLP.
I couldn’t write about Mozart without including a scene from Amadeus. Here, Mozart mocks and improves Salieri’s march: