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Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Serenade No 2 in A, Op 16
Adagio non troppo
As well as four symphonies, Brahms wrote two substantial serenades, each of them symphonic in structure, but with more movements than symphonic tradition dictated and with an open-air quality appropriate to Brahms's choice of title. The first, in D major, was originally an instrumental nonet but was later expanded for full orchestra. The second has remained a chamber-sized work, unusually scored for a mixture of woodwind, horns and lower strings. The resultant colouring, with its conspicuous absence of violin tone, has been described as sombre, though Sir Donald Tovey, Edinburgh's distinguished essayist and Brahmsian, preferred to call it mellow.
Brahms's serenades were written between 1858 and 1860, some sixteen years before the definitive version of the First Symphony. They are therefore early works, though Brahms always retained an affection for them, especially the second, which he referred to as his "beautiful opus" and to which he made a number of small improvements - in phrasing, expression marks and instrumental detail - as late as 1875. No composer knew better than Brahms how to give a composition an arresting opening, not necessarily loud. The A major serenade, more succinct than the D major, starts with a theme which has been considered ecclesiastical, but which, in terms of Brahmsian warmth and serenity, is no mere hymn-tune. A second theme melts into graceful triplets and, in contrast, a third, "swaying indolently over a dance-rhythm", as Tovey vividly remarked, makes use of jerky rhythms.
After this leisurely first movement, Brahms inserts a short scherzo with lively Bohemian cross-rhythms, before reaching the grand central adagio whose counterpoint reminded his friend Clara Schumann of Bach "almost", she said, "it might be an eleison". It is certainly a species of passacaglia, beginning over a ground bass in A minor but soon flowing into other keys. Foretastes of the Fourth Symphony's finale and that of the St Anthony Variations are audible here. Melodically and contrapuntally the movement is very rich, with a climax signposted by a horn theme in A flat. To counterbalance his Bohemian scherzo, Brahms makes the fourth movement a sort of Viennese minuet, with a rocking main theme and a wistful oboe tune in the central trio section. The finale is more robust, again with some Viennese, almost Schubertian touches. To the variety of delightful woodwind detail, a piercing piccolo here adds its exuberant voice.
© Conrad Wilson