Mozart: Serenade in B-flat, K. 361 “Gran Partita” (1783 – 84)
Shortly after moving to Vienna in 1781 Mozart met the clarinetist Anton Stadler, who became a close friend and was to be the recipient of several transcendent late Mozart works—the Clarinet Quintet K. 581 and the Clarinet Concerto K. 622. On March 23, 1784 the newspaper Wienerblättchen announced Stadler’s benefit concert for the following day at Vienna’s National-Hoftheater, promising to include “a big wind piece of quite an exceptional kind composed by Herr Mozart.”
This was the Serenade K. 361, popularly known as the “Gran Partita” due to being christened as such, in an unknown hand, on the autograph score. In choosing to write a “Serenade” for Stadler rather than, say, a concerto, Mozart was reflecting his origins in Salzburg, where orchestral serenades were a dominant genre. His own father Leopold may have written as many as thirty (all now lost), while surviving examples from Wolfgang and Salzburg court organist Michael Haydn bear witness to an exuberant public art made up of a heterogenous collection of dances and marches, blended with symphonic and concerto movements.
Only four of the seven movements were performed at Stadler’s 1784 benefit concert; Mozart could not have been present given he was performing at his own subscription concert at the Trattnerhof that evening. Those four movements were more than sufficient to elicit a rapturous response from diarist Johann Friedrich Schink, who gushed: “I heard music for wind instruments today by Herr Mozart, in four movements, glorious and sublime…oh, what an effect it made—glorious and grand, excellent and sublime.”
For this, the last of the three wind serenades written in Vienna, Mozart happily indulged himself in his penchant for experimenting with instrumental color. Two recently-developed wind instruments—clarinet and basset-horn—had claimed Mozart’s interest. In a letter of 1778 recounting his recent experiences with the celebrated Mannheim Orchestra, Wolfgang wrote to his father Leopold: “Oh, if we only had clarinets, too. You have no idea of the glorious effect of a symphony with flutes, oboes, and clarinets.”
As much as he enjoyed writing the B-flat Serenade, Mozart was fully aware that it was unlikely to have much in the way of shelf life past its original performances; the unorthodox instrumentation dictated limited distribution. Mozart may have been referring to the Serenade when he wrote Leopold on February 10, 1784 that “There are pieces I must write that will bring me money right now—but not later.”
Four pairs of instruments—oboes, B-flat clarinets, basset-horns in F, and bassoons—are joined by four horns (in F and B-flat) and an underlying string bass, which may be represented by a contrabassoon instead. Amidst the Serenade’s mixed bag of seven movements we find variations, two minuets, a “Romanze”, and perhaps most memorably, a third movement Adagio of breathtaking lyricism.
--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 Examiner.com.