The Serenade as a musical form began life as the Italian serenata, a vocal work, usually a love song, to be sung outdoors. (The lady at her window or on the balcony was not obbligato.) As such, serenades appeared in Mozart’s operas Abduction from the Seraglio and Don Giovanni; but at the same time, increasingly, the form was being taken over by the instrumental serenade – a sort of divertimento – music to be played outdoors in the evening purely as entertainment – a diversion. Mozart himself wrote many of them - some extremely well known – for a variety of combinations of instruments.
- Mozart’s serenades include some of the most well known classical music ever written. They include Eine Kleine Nachtmusick (“A Little Night Music”), the Haffner Serenade Posthorn Serenade, and, for winds, the great Gran Partita for 13 instruments.
The nineteenth century saw the serenade become more orchestral, whether for full orchestra, string orchestra or winds, at the same time having the odd foray into chamber music (surely an oxymoron).
- The “biggest” serenades are the two of Johannes Brahms, the first specified for “large orchestra”, the second for same without violins. They are youthful and vigorous. At the very end of the century, Max Bruch wrote a concerto-style serenade for violin and orchestra. In the last third of the century, three serenades were written for string orchestra that hold pride of place: Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and Edward Elgar have Serenades for Strings that delight. Dvorak also wrote a cheerful wind serenade. A much played chamber work, a string quartet, is Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade. It is one of the few happy works from a generally melancholic composer.
The twentieth century brought some interesting concoctions. The ”anything goes” attitude of the times led to variations.
- Igor Stravinsky wrote a serenade for solo piano. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music was scored for 16 particular vocal soloists to a text from “The Merchant of Venice”. Benjamin Britten’s distinctive Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings set texts with evening or nocturnal themes from some of England’s greatest poets.
Meanwhile the song has gone on, with the serenade in its most ancient form having spent the centuries pouring from the lips of ardent lovers from the early chansons and madrigals to opera, operetta and stage musicals, continuing to refuse to show its age. A Hollywood film musical even has a serenade, ostensibly to a donkey.
“Oxford Companion to Music”
“The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music”