Richard Strauss’ much-performed Serenade op. 7 is an early work: he completed the composition on 11 November 1881, when he was 17 years of age and would soon take his school-leaving examinations. As the son of a prominent musician – his father Franz Strauss was principal horn player in the Munich Court Orchestra and an influential personality in Munich’s music life – he received thorough musical training in the family home with the assistance of his father’s renowned colleagues. Numerous smaller and larger compositions had already been written by this stage, including many songs, his (first) Symphony in D minor, String Quartet op. 2 and Piano Sonata op. 5, and he was working on the Violoncello Sonata op. 6. Much of this had already been performed in Munich.
The Serenade for 13 wind instruments enjoys a special position among the works of his youth (and suggests that this period was coming to an end): it is the work that brought recognition to Strauss as a composer outside his native environment.
However, the finished work was initially left untouched for a year. Strauss had just begun university studies without particular enthusiasm (lectures on philosophy, aesthetics, cultural history, Shakespeare) when his Serenade was premiered on 27 November 1882 at a concert (‘Vierter Übungsabend’) given by the Dresden Tonkünstlerverein (Dresden Musicians’ Society) and conducted by Franz Wüllner. Wüllner, who directed the Munich Court Orchestra until 1877 and was therefore an old acquaintance of his father, would later also conduct the premieres of Till Eulenspiegel (Cologne 1895) and Don Quixote (Cologne 1898). Following the premiere in Dresden of the Serenade (repeated on 5 January 1883 at another concert: the ‘Zweiter Produktionsabend’), star conductor Hans von Bülow showed interest in the piece (his publisher Eugen Spitzweg had drawn his attention to it). Spitzweg, who owned the Munich publishing house Josef Aibl Verlag and was something of an idealist, had also become active on behalf of Richard Strauss and at the end of 1882 had arranged for the Serenade to be printed (score and instrumental parts). Bülow had previously always spoken disparagingly to Spitzweg about the music of young Strauss, although it is possible that memories of disputes with Strauss’ father at the time of Bülow’s employment in Munich initially played a role here. However, he approved of the Serenade and included the now two-year-old piece in the programme for his concert on 26 December 1883 performed by the Meiningen Court Orchestra – supposedly as a favour to Spitzweg, but presumably with a keen sense of the composition’s quality. This prompted Richard Strauss to write an effusive letter of appreciation:
‘Esteemed Herr von Bülow!
To my immense joy I heard the news from Mr Spitzweg the day before yesterday that it is the intention of your Excellency to perform my Wind Serenade Opus 7 in one of your concerts. I am delighted that such great honour has thus been bestowed upon my little beginner’s piece. – And I would like to express my most heartfelt and sincere thanks to you, esteemed master. [...]’
The performance by Bülow and the Meiningen Court Orchestra (which at the time was a major European orchestra) was the highlight of young Strauss’ fledgling career to date, and more was to come: Bülow initially integrated the Serenade into the programme for the subsequent orchestra tour (January 1884) and performed the piece in Nuremberg, Worms and Neustadt / Hardt – another letter of thanks was due. Then Bülow also decided to present the work, which – as he would later describe in a letter to his agent Gutmann (9 October 1884) – displayed ‘our wind players in their virtuoso splendour’, at a guest performance in Berlin. Strauss, who was himself in Berlin with the aim of establishing contacts, wrote to Munich at the beginning of February: ‘My dear Mama! Bülow is playing my Serenade on 26 February here!!!! Marvellous! [...]’ The concert took place on 27 February, conducted by Franz Mannstädt; Strauss reported back to his parents with some pride: ‘Dear Papa! Well, they liked the Serenade, it was almost as successful as Weingartner’s, which is very pretty, but according to Bülow my piece is the best of the three. [...]’ On the evening before the concert he had met Bülow personally for the first time. Later in the same letter there is a description of him:
‘He was very kind, very cheerful and very funny and asked me to attend the rehearsal on Wednesday so he could specifically play my Serenade for me. He talked about it in exceedingly glowing terms and then invited the musicians to applaud me, and he himself joined in as well. In the evening during the performance, which was conducted by Mannstädt, he was sitting in the audience, and at the end of the Serenade he came out specially, applauded towards the back and waved without noticing me because I was sitting in the front row. But I did not go forward. [...]’
Beforehand, Strauss had enough reason to fear the cancellation of this important Berlin performance: only a short time previously, Benjamin Bilse had snatched the title ‘Berlin premiere’ from the Meiningen ensemble with his private orchestra of much lesser significance. Strauss personally experienced the representation of his Serenade in Bilse’s ‘beer concert’ (Strauss) and wrote to his parents:
‘Next Wednesday the swine will perform it again. Never before has a performance seemed so repugnant to me. Now the one in hand. Far too slow, I thought they would all go to sleep, and then the wind instruments were not at all in tune. But they liked it; if only Bülow doesn’t find out about it and remove it from the programme in a blind rage [...].’
This fortunately did not happen. Bülow’s recognition took Strauss a huge step forward: firstly he was commissioned by Bülow to write another composition (a suite for wind instruments with several movements, later called op. 4); secondly Bülow arranged for his appointment as Mannstädt’s successor in Meiningen in the winter of 1885 / 1886.
The autograph of the Serenade is in good condition and kept at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York. On the last of the 41 written pages, the aforementioned date was added behind the final double bar line. The musical notation of the young composer is neat and precise; there is an impression of routine and self-confidence – on the whole it is more reminiscent of Strauss’ late, mature writing than the earlier works of his youth.
The cover bears the dedication: ‘For his esteemed teacher / court kapellmeister Wilhelm Meyer.’. Friedrich Wilhelm Meyer taught Strauss compositional technique for five years, starting in 1875: he was a well-informed practitioner chosen by Strauss’ father who only used a little 52-page book on form for his instruction and otherwise relied on practical exercises, which young Strauss must have been welcomed.
The single-movement Serenade op. 7 follows the conservative musical thinking of its dedicatee at least at a formal level: a classical sonata form with typical key relationships is recognisable as far as the exposition (until bar 80) and reprise (from bar 122) are concerned. Between these sections, however, (instead of a textbook development treating the whole material from the exposition) there is an independent middle episode in B minor, which merely incorporates a little motif from the second subject group and uses this throughout. Sound highlights are created by two intensifications in this middle section.
The themes in the Serenade are highly delightful but not at all adventurous – neither the calmly balanced cantilena of the principal oboe (E flat major) heard at the beginning, nor the charming secondary theme (B flat major, starting in bar 31). Listeners are reminded of Schubert, Schumann or Mozart, whom Strauss idolised throughout his lifetime, and it is possible that Mozart supplied a model for the wind instrumentation: with the exception of the flutes and contrabassoon (Mozart: basset horns and double bass) the Serenade has the same scoring as his famous K 361 (‘Gran Partita’), composed almost 100 years earlier. It unfortunately did not occur to Mozart to use an additional bass instrument specifically for the final chord which had played nothing until then – this is a curiosity of Strauss’ Serenade.
The young Strauss displays astounding expertise in his handling of the timbres of the massive wind apparatus; in this respect his Serenade is also an impressive study on instrumentation. The various instruments are cleverly employed according to their sound and technical peculiarities and have impressive passages, to the delight of the musicians and also the audience. And consciously selected combinations of instruments repeatedly form new, interesting shades of colour – to the delight of the audience and also the musicians.
Stefan Schenk, March 2012
(English translation by Rosemary Bridger-Lippe)