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Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.

Wolfgang Amadè Mozart (1756–91) composed his C minor Serenade (K.388/384a) in Vienna in either July 1782 or late 1783. We are beset by confusion about the chronology. On July 27, 1782, Mozart wrote to his father about a piece he was writing that he called Nacht musique—“Night Music,” a linguistic equivalent to the Italian-derived term “serenade,” perhaps derived from the word sera, meaning “evening.” (The Latin serenus, meaning “serene,” seems to be its ultimate ancestor.) Many scholars believe this is the piece to which he was referring. It was almost certainly written before February 1784, since that is when Mozart started keeping a catalogue of his newly composed works and this serenade isn’t in it. (Neither is the string quintet transcription he made of this piece in 1788, but that is somewhat explained by the fact that it wasn’t really newly composed at that point.)

One has difficulty thinking of this ominous, dark-hued piece as a specimen of a serenade or “night music,” which was almost always of a cordial nature, something that might serve as the background to pleasurable evening entertainments. Yet Mozart did call it a Serenade originally—or, to be precise, a “Serenada,” as he inscribed it on the autograph score, replacing the original notation of “Parthia.” At about that time, Habsburg Emperor Joseph II was growing passionate about wind music and accordingly established as part of his court staff a Harmonie (wind band) ensemble consisting of a wind octet. He seems to have been inspired at least in part by the fact that another Viennese noble, Prince Schwarzenberg, had already established a wind band, and the Emperor felt compelled not to be outdone. Mozart may have composed this piece hoping to get a commission from the Emperor. Another person who has been suggested in connection with this work is Prince Aloys Joseph Liechtenstein, a serious music connoisseur who was also shaking up his musical establishment just then; possibly it was his refined ear that Mozart was hoping to charm with the subtlety of his C minor Serenade.

Its intricacies are many, but they are thrust most obviously to the fore in the third movement, a tour-de-force of canon with a somewhat angry mien. Mozart takes some liberties with his canon-writing here, to be sure, but the “follow-the-leader” effect of canon comes across clearly to the ear, the more so as Mozart deliberately works memorable dissonances into the proceedings. In the minuet proper, the canon proceeds between parts at a distance of a measure, usually pitched an octave apart. In the major-key central trio section of this brainy movement, Mozart switches to a different mode of canonic writing: a canon in inversion, with one line reflecting the rising and falling of the other as if in a mirror—when one line goes up, the other goes down, and so on. In certain aspects, this Menuetto prefigures the corresponding movement of Mozart’s famous Symphony No. 40 in G minor (K.550).

Singling out the Menuetto is not meant to slight the other movements. The first is beautifully balanced and highly emotive, on the whole taut and tense. The second is a gracious respite, set in the relative-major key of E-flat; one might say that it is the only movement in the whole piece that is characteristically “serenade-like.” Following the canon-laden Menuetto, Mozart offers a finale that, like so much of this piece, defies expectations about how a serenade should sound. Where nearly all serenade finales are light and bubbly, Mozart’s continues the nervous moodiness that pervades this work. This final movement is cast as a theme with variations, all but one of which maintains the minor key and a sense of seriousness that can verge on the terrifying. And yet, Classicist that he is, Mozart feels compelled to at least pretend that everything leads to a happy ending, and he concludes the movement in the major key and in an upbeat spirit, no matter how convincingly he has upheld a conflicting emotional argument up until that point. —James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. He is the author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published by Oxford University Press.