'English wind playing at its best' (The Independent)
Largo – Allegro molto [9'20]
Menuetto – Trio I – Trio II [8'32]
Rondo: Allegro molto [3'21]
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It has long been accepted as a necessary paradox of cultural history that the greater or more enduring a work of art, the less we can usually expect to know about its origins, or the intentions of its creator in putting it before the world. From the realm of music such masterpieces as Bach’s B minor Mass, Beethoven’s late string quartets and Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major Symphony provide ready proof of this assertion. However much we may identify with or respond to the musical phenomenon, the fact remains that in each of these cases we possess remarkably little concrete knowledge about the genesis of the work.
Mozart has left us with many such elusive works: his last opera The Magic Flute, the incomplete Requiem, and his final three symphonies, Nos 39, 40 and 41, written in the unbelievably short period of six weeks in the summer of 1788, being among the most notable examples. Despite the firm place which these works occupy in the modern concert repertoire—the many thousands of elucidatory words that have been expended on them in print, and their obvious inspiration and appeal to later generations of composers and audiences—their genesis remains shrouded in mystery. In the case of the three symphonies, for example, we know neither the reason for their composition, nor whether Mozart ever heard them performed. We may, of course, be tempted to the opinion that such historical questions are ultimately of secondary importance when viewed in the context of the inherent and indisputable greatness of the music itself. Yet sometimes issues of this kind simply demand to be confronted if our understanding of the work in question is not seriously to be impaired, and this indeed is the case with the Serenade in B flat, K361. Certainly almost no other work of Mozart has been the subject of so many contradictory theories concerning the history of its composition, while the huge number of textual inconsistencies between the various sources present potential performers with serious problems in unravelling the composer’s true intentions.
For a long time it was believed that Mozart must have composed the Serenade sometime in either 1780 or 1781, probably for a performance in Munich. Not only was it erroneously thought that the clarinet was unknown in Vienna at this time, but the Munich Hofkapelle was universally noted for the excellence of its wind players, hence making it the most likely vehicle for this grand work. The lack of any direct reference to the Serenade in Mozart’s letters, and the absence of any other documentary evidence, should have provoked caution on this point. Nonetheless, it was not until the preparation of a new critical edition of the Serenade for the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe by Daniel Leeson and Neal Zaslaw in the 1970s that this date of 1780/1 was seriously challenged, together with a host of other theories and legends concerning the work that had acquired almost universal currency.
Although the choice of as many as thirteen instruments was somewhat unusual, it must be realized that in writing this Serenade Mozart was following in a long and well-established tradition. During the latter part of the eighteenth century multi-movement works of a predominantly light-hearted, entertaining nature for various combinations of instruments were produced throughout the countries of central Europe. Variously titled ‘divertimento’, ‘cassation’, ‘notturno’ or ‘serenade’ these works found their origin in the popular custom of an aristocrat wooing his lover by engaging a band of musicians to perform outside her window. The precise use of the different titles for this kind of music and their stylistic implications are still only partly understood, but this need not detain us here. Suffice it to say that by the 1780s such works were already beginning to be transformed into genuine concert pieces, albeit ones in which the outdoor origin of the musical style often remained clearly visible.
Of the various combinations of instruments used for these works, undoubtedly one of the most important was the wind octet, comprising two each of oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons, with the clarinets occasionally replaced by cors anglais. The popularity of the wind octet can be traced back to April 1782 when Emperor Joseph II established such a group at the Viennese court, engaging it for both private and public entertainments. Many aristocrats were quick to follow this example by setting up similar groups and so-called Harmoniemusik soon became established as one of the most popular forms of musical entertainment throughout the 1780s and 1790s. Every major composer and hundreds of Kleinmeister wrote both original works and made arrangements for the combination; indeed, several of Mozart’s operas were arranged for Harmonie by the oboist Johann Wendt, including Don Giovanni and Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
The particular combination for which Mozart wrote his Serenade K361 represents, of course, a considerable expansion of the normal wind octet. Although several other composers had previously written for an enlarged ensemble, none had done so on a scale comparable to Mozart. By the addition of two more horns, as well as two basset horns, the sonority of the upper register was considerably enhanced to compensate. Mozart added a part for double bass to strengthen the already relatively weak bassoon parts. Although the autograph is quite explicit in calling for a string bass, the Serenade has often been performed using a double bassoon and is hence commonly, though quite erroneously, referred to as the ‘Serenade for thirteen wind instruments’.
The autograph score is preserved today in the Library of Congress in Washington; a facsimile edition with an instructive foreword by Alfred Einstein was published in 1976. Although the autograph naturally provides many clues as to the composer’s intentions, it remains a somewhat controversial document, the interpretation of whose detail has been a vexed issue of Mozart scholarship for many years. To take the most important issue, it bears a rather indecipherable date, which was interpreted as 1780 by Köchel in his catalogue of Mozart’s music. In taking this as the correct reading of the autograph date, Köchel was also following the publisher, Johann Anton André, who had settled upon 1780 as the probable date of composition when compiling his own Mozart catalogue in 1833. Einstein later re-assigned the work to 1781 on the basis of a new reading of the date on the autograph, while yet another scholar, taking up a misleading comment made by one of Mozart’s first biographers, Georg Nissen, suggested that the Serenade may have been performed for the first time as an entertainment at Mozart’s wedding supper in August 1782.
After an exhaustive study of such physical characteristics of the autograph as its watermarks and binding, the editors of the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe reached a quite different conclusion—that the first surviving mention of the work in connection with a benefit concert for Anton Stadler in March 1784 referred in fact to the first performance of the work. In addition to the various physical features of the autograph which bear out the date of composition as 1784, we know that Mozart was fascinated by the basset horn around this time, and that in the two Bohemian players Anton and Vincent Springer who were then in Vienna he had two very competent performers. Last but not least, this new dating of the Serenade confirmed a feeling that many commentators had already experienced on listening to the music itself, namely that its general character marks it out as being a later work than the other two wind serenades, those in E flat and C minor, K375 and K388, both of which were indisputably written in 1782.
The editors of the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe were able to clear up two other major points of controversy. The first concerns the subtitle on the autograph, ‘Gran Partitta’ (sic). This was always taken in the past as a comment on the part of the composer relating to the musical character of the work, and was interpreted and commentated upon as such by several authors, including Einstein. In fact, by a detailed analysis of its physical characteristics it can be shown fairly conclusively that this descriptive subtitle was not written by Mozart at all, but rather added by some unknown person at a later date, probably between 1792 and 1799, when the score was eventually bound. Consequently it is of absolutely no significance to an understanding of Mozart’s own intention in writing the Serenade. The second disputed point of scholarship concerns two complementary suggestions made with monotonous regularity in recent years: namely, that the unusual number of movements in the Serenade was occasioned either by the fact that it actually began life as two quite separate works which were later welded together; or that Mozart did indeed plan it as one work but wrote it at two quite different periods of his life. Again, although the character and ordering of the movements might appear to support to some degree both of these hypotheses, the physical make-up of the score proves beyond doubt that Mozart planned the work as a unified whole from the outset, and wrote it over a fairly short period of time.
All of these points of scholarly disputation are admirably summarized in the foreword to the edition of the Serenade in the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe and presented more exhaustively in an article in the Mozart-Jahrbuch. Although many matters concerning the genesis of the work remain unclear, and indeed with the passage of time will probably never be satisfactorily resolved, the hypothesis of the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe is undoubtedly the most satisfactory to date. According to this it would thus appear that Mozart composed the Serenade K361 for a benefit concert for Anton Stadler, given in the Burgtheater in Vienna on 23 March 1784. Mozart probably began work on the score in February of that year and, given the general context of a benefit concert for one of Vienna’s most gifted wind players and the superb performers almost certainly at his disposal for the occasion, it is not surprising that Mozart was moved to compose a work on such a grandiose, or indeed, as Einstein points out, symphonic scale. The concert was announced thus in a contemporary journal, the Wienerblättchen: ‘Herr Stadler, senior, in actual service of His Majesty the Emperor, will hold a musical concert for his benefit at the Imperial and Royal National Court Theatre, at which will be given, among other well-chosen pieces, a great wind piece of a very special kind composed by Herr Mozart.’
In fact, owing to the undue length of Mozart’s ‘great wind piece’ only four movements were performed on that occasion, as the critic Johann Friedrich Schink later reported in his memoirs: ‘I heard music for wind instruments today, too, by Herr Mozart, in four movements—glorious and sublime! It consisted of thirteen instruments, viz four corni, two oboi, two fagotti, two basset-corni, a contre-vioIin, and at each instrument sat a master—oh, what an effect it made—glorious and grand, excellent and sublime!’
Given the many uncertainties surrounding the genesis of the Serenade, it is perhaps not surprising that potential performers should face no small difficulty in establishing a definitive text for performance. In addition to the autograph score several contemporary manuscript copies survive in libraries in the Czech Republic and Germany, as well as various printed versions dating from the first publication of the work in 1803 by the Bureau d’Arts et d’Industrie in Vienna, not to mention three spurious arrangements for wind octet, flute quartet and string quintet. The differences between all these many sources are legion, yet what is clear is that most modern editions of the Serenade derive ultimately from the 1803 printing, which itself differs substantially in matters of detail from the autograph. Consequently, virtually all modern performances of the Serenade use sets of parts which are considerably at variance with Mozart’s intentions as expressed in the autograph score.
For the present recording, however, it is to the autograph that the Albion Ensemble has returned, using the facsimile edition mentioned above in conjunction with the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe for clarification over points of inconsistency. However, even the autograph score does not always make the composer’s intentions absolutely clear, as is seen especially in the ‘Romance’. Here Mozart notated part of the movement in shorthand fashion, as was indeed often his custom: at the end of the Allegretto section he simply wrote out four times the instruction ‘da capo senza repliche’, referring to the opening bipartite Adagio, each section of which is initially repeated. At the final bar of the second section of the Adagio he also wrote the comment ‘prima volta’, hence presumably meaning that this bar should be omitted on the repeat of the section. However, as it is also evident that Mozart apparently tried to erase the ‘volta’ sign his real intentions are quite unclear. It is hard to imagine that he could have intended this bar to he omitted on its appearance immediately before the Allegretto section since this would make no musical sense, yet its omission before the coda would indeed he very possible. Following the example of Roger Hellyer’s broadcast of the Serenade in the late 1970s, the Albion Ensemble decided to make this omission of bar 111 of the ‘Romance’ in their recording, thus offering a more fluid transition into the coda.
The glory and sublimity which Schink perceived in Mozart’s Serenade derives, of course, not least from the vast canvas on which it is painted, as well as from the skilful blend of divertimento-type music with symphonic elements. While the two minuets, and to a lesser extent the finale, demonstrate clearly the origins of the Serenade in music for entertainment, the vast sonata-allegro of the first movement, the profundity of the Adagio and the clever manipulations of the variation in the sixth movement show Mozart at his symphonic best. Despite his other music for wind ensemble, the Serenade K361 is undoubtedly sui generis: yet the careful handling of the instrumental combinations and the intricate weaving of the individual lines, not to mention the vitality of the music itself, convey a freshness and appeal that reflect perfectly Mozart’s optimistic mood in the mid-1780s.
Ewan West © 1989