Serenade for Wind Instruments, Op. 44

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)

Antonín Dvořák, like Bedřich Smetana shortly before him, is known for infusing his music with Czech folk idioms, helping to build a national repertoire unmistakable from his home country.  His early youth was spent playing in local village bands, and later he played viola in the Provisional Theatre where Smetana’s works were often performed, helping him cultivate an ear for the melding of contemporary Western musical language with the traditional tunes he knew so well.  His Serenade for Winds, which marks the beginning of his maturity, was written as a homage to Mozart and the serenades of the classical period, but Dvořák shows his early mastery of integrating traditional folk elements into this piece of an entirely different style and culture, giving it a place in his own country.  The piece also served as a precursor for his Slavonic Dances which were to follow soon after; many of the Czech dance rhythms heard in the Serenade’s second movement were to be developed in the later piece.  It is little wonder that Brahms wrote to his friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, “Take a look at Dvořák’s Serenade for Wind Instruments…I hope you will enjoy it as much as I do…It would be difficult to discover a finer, more refreshing impression of really abundant and charming creative talent.”

It was Brahms who helped give Dvořák the push to start his career, when he served as a juror in the competition that awarded Dvořák the 1875 Austrian State Prize.  It was also Brahms who introduced Dvořák to his publisher shortly afterwards, and it was under the terms of the young composer’s first publishing contract that he was commissioned to write a serenade for winds, as well as a serenade for strings, a symphony, and other works.  The resulting Serenade in D Minor was composed in just two weeks in 1878, premiering on November 17th of the same year at a concert with the Prague orchestra of the Provisional Theatre with Dvořák conducting.

Like Mozart, Dvořák sets his Serenade in a minor key—D minor, as opposed to Mozart’s C minor—and like Mozart, he does not allow the minor mode to pull his piece into an expression of sadness, but instead creates a piece that is cheerful, and even cheeky at times.  There is no flute in Dvořák’s Serenade, giving the piece a distinct reedy, rich, and warm sound without the bright higher instrument.  All four movements spin their themes out of an opening tritone rise and play with dotted rhythmical patterns; Dvořák shows his symphonic skill of playing with thematic fragments to create new-sounding sections.

The piece opens with a pompous march, a satire of a stately, stuffy procession which staunchly carries forth.  This is Dvořák poking fun at pretension.  The lower sounding instruments help conjure up a group of stodgy old men moving steadily and self-importantly along.  The center section of the movement offers a departure from the procession, but it comes back again insistently, only to fade away again as the movement slows to a close.

The second movement is another clever joke of Dvořák’s.  Its “Tempo di Minuetto” marking refers to the popular 17th century Italian or French dance, but Dvořák uses this as a chance to slip in some Czech dances instead.  First, a sousedská, or “neighbor’s dance”, with a pleasant and easy going tune.  Next, the furiant of the faster trio section, a fiery dance that play with shifting accents in its 1-2, 1-2-3 rhythm.  The movement passes through a darker sounding rumbling of eighth notes that gets passed amongst the instruments before finally returning to the more even-keeled opening of the movement, although perhaps not quite restored to its original ease.

The slow third movement begins with a pulse in the lower instruments and unfolds into the lyrical heart of the piece, a gorgeous, lush expression of Dvořák’s melodic gifts.  The oboe and clarinet take the melody and float above the steady underpinning that supports it.  Suspended notes link together the melody line and create a dreamlike calm.  Further along, the lower line becomes  agitated and insistent repeated notes briefly increase the intensity of the movement, making the lilting upward fragments above sound almost like a cry, but soon enough all is right again, the reassuring, steady pulse retuning.

To end the piece, the finale builds in excitement as the instruments pass along little calls and fanfares before settling into a fast-moving tune that propels the movement along.  Just as the music is going comfortably along, the movement begins to slow into more stately pace as though in anticipation of something about to happen—and indeed, making one final appearance, the procession from the first movement returns, lest we had forgotten about the pompous parade, and bringing a symmetry to the entire piece by revisiting the opening material.  The appearance is brief, however, and soon the excitement returns, building up towards one final fanfare closing.

© Pamela Feo