Mozart Serenade no. 6 in D, K. 239, ‘Serenata Notturna’

performed by The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, or below by Le Concert des Nations under Jordi Savall

(cover image by Aleyna Rentz)

Now this is something a little different.

This three-movement work was written in (or at least dated) January 1776, and first performed shortly thereafter. If you’ve listened to some of the other works in this long stretch of Mozart pieces (I promise there’s only a few weeks left…), then you may notice that this piece sounds a little different than some of the others. We’ll discuss why shortly. First, though, that title.

Philip Huscher, for the Chicago Symphony, writes:

Serenata notturna, the title Leopold Mozart wrote atop his son’s score, is redundant, for a serenade by definition is night music.

Usually the things we find in Leopold’s hand on Mozart’s scores are tempo markings, but it seems this additional notation is indeed an odd one. Huscher speaks much more highly of the music than he does of the title, calling Mozart’s entertainment pieces “the most extraordinary background music ever composed,” and saying that they did eventually find “a more appropriate home in the concert hall.”

Granted, he may be speaking more of the collective works than this one in particular, but even in this individual work, we can find a lot to point out as unique. For one, as we’ve said, the piece is only in three movements, instead of the five, or seven, or eight of the other entertainment pieces. They are as follows, and the work has a duration of about fourteen minutes:

  1. Marcia- maestoso
  2. Menuetto- trio
  3. Rondeau- allegretto, adagio, allegro

Can’t ever miss the chance to include a minuet.

So it’s a shorter work, meaning we don’t have the multiple minuets, and not even a slow movement. Instead of the march being a separate piece, it’s one of the three movements here.

Also, what do you notice about the ensemble? Listen closely to the piece. What do you hear? What do you not hear? We do hear timpani, for one, which give a great weight to these usually much daintier pieces. We do not hear woodwinds. This piece is for strings and timpani only.

Something else you may notice if you listen a little closer, is that there’s more than just a soloist here, like we’ve seen in some of the previous pieces. There’s actually an entire quartet of soloists, but not the standard string quartet. We have two violins and a viola, but a double bass instead of a cello.

So those are the things that may be most noticeable about this work, and they make it seem, if you want to be a little more technical, more like a symphony or concerto grosso than his other divertimenti or serenades. But let’s give it a listen.

The first movement is a march. Apparently there are marches that were composed (and catalogued separately) before the performances of these pieces, and I really haven’t bothered to include them. Here, though, one of our three movements is the march, and the opening phrase is actually quite menacing before it reveals that it’s actually quite harmless. The violin does a lot to dispel that initial weight. This opening movement is bold and bright. It has the crispness and vibrance of what we usually expect from Mozart, but the timpani and the… marchiness give it additional spirit. Don’t forget to listen to the quartet, or what Wiki refers to as one of two orchestras. Okay, but it is a little repetitive…

The second movement is a minuet, with a trio featuring our quartet… but still called a trio (the name for this section of the movement rather than the actual orchestration, although that is where the name originates, and has just stuck). The minuet is… as you would expect it to be, but do keep an ear out for the quartet with a bass at its base instead of a cello, giving the ‘pyramid’ a much larger foundation and a bigger sound than you’d think from just four instruments, but recording quality helps.

The finale is more symphonic in nature, even structurally. It’s an exciting rondo with our quartet taking a front seat again. It’s just delightful, but contains exhilarating, galloping passages and even a little bit of humor, one of the standout finales of all the pieces we’ve discussed recently, I think, of which there will be a few weeks more, but we’ll get to symphonies and concertos shortly, so stay tuned for those and thanks so much for reading.

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