Program Notes

Serenade in E-flat major, Opus 7

BORN June 11, 1864, Munich, Bavaria
DIED September 8, 1949, Garmisch, Germany

COMPOSED 1882, in Munich 

WORLD PREMIERE: November 27, 1882. Franz Wüllner conducted at the Hotel zu den drei Raben in Dresden

US PREMIERE: February 12, 1898, with Walter Damrosch and members of the New York Symphony

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets; 2 bassoons and contrabassoon; 4 horns

DURATION: About 10 mins

In 1882 Strauss had not yet emerged as Richard Strauss. I cannot imagine anyone guessing the composer of the E-flat major Serenade for Winds just by listening. Strauss was an extraordinarily accomplished and confident teenager, and this one-movement work is music of charm as well as skill. The Strauss most of us know best—the tone poems of the 1880s and 1890s, and the operas from the early years of the twentieth century—is full of Wagner, and in 1882 that particular magic had not yet made its effect on his work.

Strauss’s father, Franz, was principal horn in the orchestra of the Bavarian Court Opera in Munich for forty-nine years. One reads that his playing of the solos in the Wagner operas was heartbreakingly beautiful. He loathed every note of them. He detested Wagner the man and he feared and hated the whole current of modernism that Wagner stood for. Young Richard, therefore, was brought up in a strictly classical orthodoxy. At seventeen, having barely arrived at Brahms by way of Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Schumann, he secretly studied the score of Tristan against his father’s orders. More than sixty years later he recalled how he had “positively wolfed it down as though in a trance,” but he had not yet internalized it to the point that it influenced his own compositions. The honeyed classicism of the Serenade is a tribute to Franz Strauss’s paternal influence, and having grown up in the house of the most admired brass player in Europe must have had some bearing on Richard’s lifelong flair for wind music.

The Serenade is short as well as sweet. A single movement, it takes perhaps ten minutes in performance. The tempo is andante. The sonority brings Mozart to mind. The thirteen winds are not exactly those of Mozart’s so-called Thirteen-Wind Serenade (actually for twelve winds with string bass), but it is probably inevitable that we think of Mozart when we hear music for wind ensemble written with so beautiful a sense of euphony. The soft-edged lyricism of the music itself suggests Mendelssohn, especially in the opening phrases. Strauss’s imagination for sound yields beguiling results throughout.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

(February 2018)

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