MOZART:  Divertimento in D major, K.136 (125a)  │  Serenade in D major, K.239, Serenata Notturna

Joannes Chrisostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart, who began to call himself Wolfgango Amadeo about 1770 and Wolfgang Amadè in 1777 (but never Amadeus except in jest and in the combination "Wolfgangus Amadeus"), was born January 27, 1756, in Salzburg, Austria, and died December 5, 1791, in Vienna, Austria. He composed his Divertimento in D major, K.136 (125a), in early 1772 in Salzburg, and his Serenade in D major, K.239 (known as the Serenata notturna), in January 1776, also in Salzburg. We lack information on the early performance history of either. The San Francisco Symphony first played the Divertimento in March 1970 under the direction of Seiji Ozawa; the most recent performances here were given in April 2006 under the direction of Joshua Bell. Performance time: about twelve minutes.

The San Francisco Symphony first played the Serenata notturna under Enrique Jordá’s direction in February 1955; Alexander Barantschik led the most recent performances here in January 2005. The work is scored for timpani and strings, including two solo violins, solo viola, and solo double bass. Performance time: about fourteen minutes.

Divertimento in D major
Divertimentos, serenades, and instrumental works in related genres flowed from Mozart’s pen as often as they were required to serve as background music for indoor or outdoor dinners, receptions, and any number of other private or civic gatherings. By and large, Mozart seemed to attach titles to these pieces almost indiscriminately, although some of their names do suggest specific functions, at least in their etymologies. A “notturno” or “Nachtmusik” (the Italian and German terms being equivalent) was a “night piece,” a “serenade” was an “evening piece,” a “divertimento” was a “piece for enjoyment.” (In the 1770s, the decade of both Mozart works played here, the terminology was still loose, and terms could collide and overlap. Such is the case with the Serenata notturna, a work that Mozart apparently viewed as both a serenade and a notturno—if we care to imagine that there was any practical difference between those genres in the first place.)

During his years growing up in Salzburg, Mozart produced an impressive catalogue of such “incidental” pieces for strings, winds, or mixed ensembles. The Divertimento in D major, K.136(125a), is one of three roughly similar works that Mozart wrote early in 1772—roughly speaking, when he was fifteen going on sixteen. By that time he had already been composing for a decade, and he had achieved solid expertise. His great masterpieces still lay ahead, but by 1772 Mozart was making important strides. In 1770, Pope Clement XIV awarded him the Order of the Golden Spur, effectively an honorary knighthood; in 1771, during a trip to Italy, he had been honored by Milan’s musical élite for his exceptional work; and by the end of 1772 his opera Lucio Silla would mark an important breakthrough in his journey as an opera composer. Though much of Mozart’s work from the period has fallen into the shadows, this divertimento is one of the earliest that continues to hold sway in the repertory.

Each of the three pieces in this set is headed with the inscription Divertimento, but that is written in a hand other than Mozart’s. The edition from which the San Francisco Symphony is performing in this concert accordingly labels these pieces as divertimentos, but a competing edition identifies them as “Three Salzburg Symphonies without Winds.” That seems acceptable, too. Each of these works is structured identically to coeval pieces Mozart did call symphonies, and if a musicologist steeped in the vagaries of Classical instrumental music were shown this score with no title attached, he or she would have no reason to assume that it was anything other than a symphony. Still, Mozart did not actually label this piece as such, a decision that may or may not be significant.

Then, too, this piece has long been claimed as a piece of chamber music. Among the available recordings, music-lovers will find readings by even such eminent string quartets as the Amadeus, the Kocian, and the Talich. Certainly the D major work played here sounds like a proper string quartet when played by a proper string quartet. The sparkling figuration of sixteenth-notes that fills the first-violin part (and sometimes the second-violin part as well) in the first movement seems to make more reasonable demands if they are aimed at a virtuoso soloist rather than an entire orchestral section—or, better put, it takes a very well honed section of virtuoso violinists to make that movement flow fluently. If this piece was intended to be a string quartet, was it even for a standard string quartet as we know it, comprising two violins, viola, and cello? The score doesn’t actually mention a cello; the lowest line is simply labeled basso, which could refer to the fact that it functions as the bass line (which it does) or perhaps that it was to be played by a double bass. We know that the combination of two violins, viola, and double bass was a common ensemble in Mozart’s Austria, documented in pictures as well as in music and known, in fact, as a “divertimento quartet” or “Salzburg quartet.” These chamber-musical assemblages may have bearing on how we choose to treat the piece even if we present it in an orchestral guise; we could dispense with cellos entirely, and simply use multiple players of the “divertimento quartet” configuration, or consider it a scaled-up standard string quartet (with no double basses), or treat it as a symphony in all its fullness, with cellos and double basses reinforcing each other at the octave on that bottom line.

No matter what instrumentation is used, the work’s appeal remains intact. The brilliant opening Allegro is cast in a sonata form, though a simple one by Mozartian standards, with not much complication (though at least a nod to the minor mode) in the truncated development section. A gentle Andante with an Italianate musical accent unrolls with the sort of casual lyric inevitability that came as second nature to Mozart. For the finale, Mozart returns to a sonata form. This time the contrapuntal pretensions of the development section are likely to make listeners smile broadly as they cheer the composer along the path toward his musical maturity.

Serenata notturna
Many of Mozart’s serenades may fairly be considered pleasant but forgettable. A few, however, rank as true masterpieces of their genres, including the Haffner Serenade (K.250), the Posthorn Serenade (K.320), and the Wind Serenades in B-flat major (K.361, the Gran Partita) and C minor (K.388, later transformed into a string quintet). The Serenade in D major (K.239) falls midway along that spectrum. Although nothing in it approaches profound soul-searching, it stands a cut above Mozart’s generic entertainment music, and it deservedly maintains a steadfast place in the repertory.

If Salzburg’s summer breezes were frequently filled with notes, one imagines that in winter the music must have stayed mostly inside. The serenade played here was actually a piece of winter music, written in January, a morsel of information the composer jotted on his score. Although we have no record of its early performance history, it is logical to assume that Mozart produced it for festivities connected to the pre-Lenten celebration of Carnival. In Mozart’s day, Carnival enlivened Austria’s winter months over a span of several weeks in January and February, reaching its end with the beginning of Lent. Although Salzburg was considerably smaller than Vienna, Johann Pezzl’s description of Carnival in Vienna in 1786 describes the general sort of celebration for which Mozart wrote this piece:

The main activity is dancing and everything associated with it. The Carnival begins on January 7 and lasts until Ash Wednesday. . . . On every street corner there are invitations in white, or red, blue, and yellow, announcing in the largest type . . . : “Today there is music in the such and such rooms,” “music with trumpets and drums,” “music by candlelight,” etc. . . . Carnival is a dangerous time. Many a virgin has lost her innocence and many a matron her virtue at this time. How could it be otherwise when, in those lovers’ hours, flushed with wine and dancing, a couple find themselves alone in a closed carriage going home and, having arrived there, the cavalier escorts his lady to her bedchamber . . . while her strict father, her vigilant mother, or her jealous husband . . . is otherwise engaged in pleasure. . . . Money-lenders, pawnbrokers, and usurers never have it better than during Carnival. Watches, buckles, boxes, rings, clothes, letters of credit—all sprout wings. . . .  Enough! The dance is over; smash the flutes. . . . On the morning of Ash Wednesday one leaves the dance floor and goes straight to church, receives ashes on one’s head, and then goes home to sleep it off.

The nocturnal hours of Carnival were action-packed. The Serenata notturna is precisely the kind of music that would have accompanied the festivities.

The K.239 Serenade is in some ways typical of Mozart’s serenades and in other ways not. It is certainly unusual in its brevity, since during the Classical period most Salzburg serenades (including Mozart’s) comprised six movements or more that together could run between forty minutes and an hour. Beyond that, the serenade proper was often prefaced by an independent march, and the minuet movements could be extended by two or even three central trio sections. Here, however, Mozart provides only three movements including the introductory march, and the minuet has to suffice with a single trio.

What is more typical, however, is precisely that which gives this piece its distinctive, memorable flavor: its instrumentation. It was common for Classical serenades to include a movement or two that spotlighted a soloist or a small “solo ensemble.” Mozart does that in each of the movements here, tossing his material back and forth between the orchestra of strings plus timpani and a solo group of two violins, viola, and double bass—a standard “Salzburg quartet” in which a double bass handles the lowest line. One could easily imagine an antiphonal performance of this piece, with the opposing forces positioned some distance from each other. Mozart was apparently getting interested in the idea of spatial composition about then, and just a year later he would compose a Notturno in D major (K.286/269a) for four ensembles, each consisting of two horns and a string quartet (with double bass instead of cello, just as in this serenade), with the second, third, and fourth groups being marked in the score as “echo ensembles.” Such cleverness would have jibed perfectly with the high jinks of Carnival entertainments, and so would the jocular rhythms and articulation we encounter in the D major Serenade.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: For the Divertimento—Neville Marriner conducting the Academy of St Martin in the Fields (Decca)  |  Anton Steck conducting Concerto Cologne (Archiv)  |  Ton Koopman conducting the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (Apex) 

For the Serenata notturna—Andrew Manze leading the English Concert (Harmonia Mundi)  |  Charles Mackerras conducting the Prague Chamber Orchestra (Telarc)  |  Peter Maag conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (London/Decca)  |  Isaac Stern with the Franz Liszt Academy Chamber Orchestra (Sony)

Reading: Mozart: The Early Years, 1756-1781, by Stanley Sadie (Norton)  |  Mozart: Serenades, Divertimentos & Dances, by Erik Smith (BBC Music Guides)  |  Mozart: A Musical Biography, by Konrad Küster (Oxford)  |  Mozart: A Cultural Biography, by Robert W. Gutman (Harcourt)  |  The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia, edited by Cliff Eisen and Simon P. Keefe (Cambridge)