Brahms: Serenade in A Major, Op. 16 (1857 – 60)


The magisterially august Johannes Brahms of popular imagination is a far cry from the insecure young composer of the A Major Serenade who complained to Clara Schumann that he scarcely knew “how one composes, how one creates.” The later 1850s had been a difficult time for him. Robert Schumann’s mental breakdown and death had left Brahms brooding about the emotional price tag attached to the gift of creativity, while occasional critical barbs scattered amidst mostly positive reviews of his works were inflaming his rapidly developing propensity for prickly defensiveness.


He responded by withdrawing from the public arena, releasing no compositions between 1856 and 1860, and accepting a well-paid but quiet appointment for three months out of the year as piano teacher and choir master in Detmold, a secluded country town about 100 miles southwest of Hamburg. Mostly, though, he occupied himself with self-examination and studies in counterpoint, early music, and folk songs. In addition, with the D Minor Piano Concerto Op. 15, and the two Serenades Op. 11 and 16, Brahms began training himself in the complex art of orchestration.


Both of the orchestral serenades speak the language of neo-classicism, very much keeping with Brahms’s interest in the music of his forbears, with the A Major Serenade standing as one of the most consciously classicist works of his entire output. Even the scoring sets it apart from Brahms’s other orchestral works: double woodwind, two horns, violas, cellos and basses, but no violins, trumpets, or timpani. Normally the violins would carry the lion’s share of the melodic business, but given their absence, the job falls instead to the winds, while typically reticent instruments such as the viola are granted a refreshing freedom of expression.


What emerges is a lightly-woven sonic tapestry shot through with streaks of color, surprising coming from a composer not particularly noted for instrumental derring-do. Such transparency stands in dramatic contrast to Brahms’s later orchestral style, in which contrapuntal density produces a characteristically beautiful but monolithic body of sound. Brahms matched his instrumental geniality with musical materials of tenderness and warmth, apparently delighting in the gentle charm of this unabashed divertimento. He told a colleague that “I was in a perfectly blissful mood. I have seldom written music with such delight.”


The Serenade is structured much like a Mozartian divertimento, featuring a pair of dances (Scherzo and Quasi-Menuetto) flanked by three movements in classical symphonic forms: a traditional opening sonata-allegro form, an intensely lyrical Adagio non troppo in elaborate ternary form, and a cheerfully strutting Rondo by way of conclusion.


--Scott Foglesong is Chair of the Department of Musicianship and Music Theory at SFCM, a regular contributor to the San Francisco Symphony’s program book, and the author of the weblog S.F. Classical Music Examiner on