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Serenade No. 2 in A minor, Op. 16 (1859)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

In the late 1850s, young Austro-German composers struggled with the so-called “anxiety of influence.” Beethoven had transformed the symphony into a musical blockbuster, a monumental dossier of the most intense human emotions. In the post-Beethovenian, mid-nineteenth century central Europe, it was an overwhelming task for composers to delve into the symphonic world; the weight of the struggle can be sensed in the German critic Hermann Reiters’s remark from 1871, that “even the decision to write a symphony must be reckoned a noteworthy event.”

Brahms in his early twenties also underwent such anxiety. He was working as a conductor, pianist, and piano teacher at the court of Detmold in northern Germany between 1857 and 1860. Most of his compositions until then were songs and piano music, yet they possessed symphonic idioms and scopes that led Schumann to described them as “veiled symphonies.” Perhaps it is only natural that Brahms conceived his first orchestral work from piano music: his first piano concerto, Op. 15 (1858), was originally written as a sonata for two pianos and later expanded into a symphonic work. Another work from the same year, Serenade No. 1, Op. 11, was conceived as a wind and string octet and then reworked as an orchestral piece. In 1859, Brahms finally composed Serenade No. 2 in A minor, Op. 16, the first work he envisioned as orchestral music from its conception. Yet, even after completing the three orchestral works, it took him more than a decade to complete his first symphony, which he began sketching in 1855 and finished in 1876.

The choice of the genre of serenade indicates that Brahms was easing into the symphonic world; it also evidences that he was studying musical forms from previous centuries. As a popular musical genre of the seventeenth century, the serenade was played in open air to honor or entertain. Compared to symphonies, serenades are less expansive, use more wind instruments, and have richer dancelike elements. Mozart provided many great examples of such serenades, and Brahms seems to have studied them, as well as those by Schubert and Beethoven, in efforts to expand his musical vocabulary. While Brahms’s Serenade No. 2 naturally bears many similarities to serenades by older composers, Brahms adds an interesting personal touch, namely omitting the violins altogether so that the main melodies are carried by the woodwinds. Without the violins, the resulting sonority is mellow and warm, a quality reinforced by the favoring of the bassoons and the lower clarinets.

The gracious first movement proceeds in a relaxed manner; only in the extensive middle development section, where the music is carried to the remote key of D-flat, is the easy-going character disrupted slightly. The Scherzo and Trio second movement, marked Vivace, is an energetic and folkish dance movement. Agility is enhanced by humorous rhythmic displacement, in which the consistent emphasis of the third beat is occasionally disrupted by the “correct” stressing of the first beat. Clara Schumann—to whom the Serenade is dedicated—admired the reflective third movement, Adagio non troppo, which is the emotional centerpiece of the Serenade. It looks toward Brahms’s mature works with the use of the ostinato-like bass line treated in a contrapuntal manner, rich two-against-three hemiolas, dramatic horn writing of the middle section, and the overall bold harmonic language. Another dance movement lightens the mood, but it has some introspective qualities that make it undanceable. The heaviness is partially due to the use of the compound duple meter of 6/4, rather than the triple meter typically used for a minuet—hence the movement’s title, “Quasi Minuetto.” The fifth movement is a high-spirited and brilliant Rondo. Hunting-horn idioms and the use of the piccolo, which has been saved for this movement, create an outdoorsy quality. Its elegant and charming second theme, played first by the oboe and then answered by the cello, provides opportunities for expressive development in the middle section.

- Jung-Min Mina Lee, Duke University, Music Department