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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Born: January 27, 1756 in Salzburg, Austria

Died: December 5, 1791 in Vienna, Austria

Serenade in c minor

Composed: 1782/83

While music lovers generally benefit from a wealth of materials on Mozart’s biography, relatively little is known about the circumstances surrounding the composition of Wind Serenade No. 12 in C Minor. Unlike with most of his works, there is no mention of this wind serenade in any of his surviving letters. Even the completion date of the work—either July of 1782 or late 1783—is speculation based on the watermarks (hence its two catalogue numbers, K. 388 and K. 374a). What is known for certain, though, is the fact that Mozart was in Vienna when he composed this work, having just left Salzburg for good. He had also bid farewell to his previous employers, who had treated the composer as a mere musical servant and thus gave him limited artistic freedom. In Vienna, Mozart was eager to establish a career as an independent composer, and an opportunity arose during the celebrations for Emperor Joseph II’s accession to the throne in 1781. Upon hearing the news that the emperor would visit the court of Archbishop Colloredo, for whom Mozart was unhappily in service, he wrote to his father: “My main goal right now is to meet the emperor in some agreeable fashion, I am absolutely determined he should get to know me. I would be so happy if I could whip through my opera for him and then play a fugue or two, for that's what he likes.” The plan apparently succeeded, because Emperor Joseph II became Mozart’s patron shortly thereafter.

Such desire to impress the emperor is perhaps one explanation for Mozart’s composition of three wind serenades (K. 361, 375, and 388) between 1781 and 1784, as Joseph II was fond of wind instruments. In 1782, soon after his accession, the emperor established the Kaiserlich-Königliche Harmonie (the Imperial-Royal wind ensemble).

Harmoniemusik originally indicated a group of wind instruments, which was gaining greater significance in orchestral music during the early-18th century for its harmonic support and coloristic effects. By Mozart’s time, however, Harmoniemusik came to refer to a body of wind ensemble works written primarily for social entertainment, and was even used to describe the cultural phenomena of enjoying such music. Joseph II set high standards for his newly formed Harmoniemusik, keenly observing the caliber of his musicians and the novelty of the music being presented. The size of the wind ensemble also increased under Joseph II’s direction, from the customary pairs of oboes, clarinets, and horns, to an octet, with the addition of a pair of bassoons. It is telling that all three of Mozart’s wind serenades from this time are written to meet this new expectation for instrumentation. 

Many mysteries of the piece still remain, however. Wind Serenade No. 12, which Mozart nicknamed “Nachtmusik” (night music), uses a minor key, has four well-developed movements, and is alarmingly dark—none of which fit the usual characteristics of Harmoniemusik, or music for court entertainment. Mozart used minor keys sparingly, saving them for his concert works of serious nature; the key of C minor is nearly symbolic in Mozart’s works, associated with highly dramatic and deeply emotional music. The four-movement scheme is often reserved for symphonies, sonatas, or string quartets; loosely-connected multiple dance movements would have been the right choice for a wind serenade. Finally, it is fairly certain that, with all its austerity, the work would not have been considered successful entertainment music. Clearly, Mozart’s imagination and ambition for this serenade, or all three wind serenades from this time period for that matter, far surpassed the expectations of this genre. Mozart transcribed Wind Serenade No. 12 into a string quartet (K. 406) in 1787—a sign that he thought highly of the work. 


Some features to listen for… 

Shortly after moving to Vienna in 1782/1783, Mozart became acquainted with the works of Bach and Handel. Perhaps the seriousness of the three wind serenades reflects this new exposure. The influences of the two master composers are perceptible in Wind Serenade No. 12, in such places as the development of the first movement and the entire third movement that use canon, or multiple layers of music that imitate one another. 


Without hesitation, the first movement embarks on its dramatic journey, relaxing somewhat during the second theme in E-flat major, played by the oboe. The oboe theme returns at the end of the first movement in the recapitulation, but this time it develops into something more ominous. The second movement is closest to a typical serenade in nature. The third movement is a minuet and trio, starting and ending in C minor and transitioning briefly to C major in the middle section. Listen for close imitative gestures between the oboes and the bassoons; these gestures in the beginning (minuet) section are inverted in the middle (trio) section. Also, many accents on dissonances can be heard in this movement, which reflect the sturm und strung (storm and stress) style that was popular during the late 18th century. The fourth movement, in a theme and variations form, begins in C minor, explores the previously-introduced E-flat major, and ends in an exuberant C major as one might expect from a good Classical symphony. 


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

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