Brahms Serenade no. 2 in A, op. 16

performed by the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig under Riccardo Chailly, or below with the London Symphony Orchestra under István Kertész

(cover image by Saketh Garuda)

In our discussion of Brahms on the blog over the years, we first addressed his symphonies, and then began to delve into his chamber works, but there are other pieces, like today’s that show us the beginnings of his symphonic thought. Brahms’ serenades, as says Wiki, are “two of the earliest efforts by Johannes Brahms to write orchestral music.” We have from this time not only the two serenades, but also the first piano concerto.

The second of Brahms’ two serenades dates from 1859, and was premiered on February 10, 1860, almost a month before the first serenade was first performed. Different from the ebullient, rich, gorgeous first serenade, which was originally written for a chamber ensemble and then scored for orchestra (with the original chamber score lost to history), the second was actually written for a chamber orchestra. Wildly, the omission of instruments for the smaller ensemble includes not only the typical victims like trumpets, trombones and percussion, but… also violins! No violins! (That may come as a shock, but go listen to the first movement of his Requiem, another magnificent work that came before his first symphony; no violins in that movement, as I recall.)

The work is smaller not only in orchestral forces, but scale. It has a duration of about a half hour, and is in five, not six, movements:

  1. Allegro moderato (A major)
  2. Scherzo. Vivace (C major) — Trio (F major)
  3. Adagio non troppo (A minor, ends in A major with a Picardy third)
  4. Quasi menuetto (D major) — Trio (F minor)
  5. Rondo. Allegro (A major)

The first and longest movement reaches, in Chailly’s recording, a mere seven minutes. What’s interesting, I think, is that if you just listened to this piece without any info, you may be hard pressed to pick out what’s ‘unusual’ about it missing violins, like that novel without the letter E. It’s definitely more chamber-y than the first. There’s no thundering timpani, no momentous swells of orchestral weight; woodwinds carry a lot of the upper-voiced parts in the violins’ stead, but that gives it an intimate, bucolic, very colorful sound, more than a true chamber piece, but more chamber than orchestra.

Overall, this first movement is a much lighter, more easygoing work than the first, which hints at the weight and power of the later Requiem and first symphony. Blair Johnston says of the first movement that “only during the development section does Brahms brew any real anxiety, and only in that same section do the strings assert themselves.” It’s more pastoral and… woodsy than Mozart’s serenades we discussed, but is more serenade-like than his own first.

After the soft, warm closing of the first movement, we have a wonderfully exciting scherzo, one of the most exhilarating things in this entire work. It’s bursting with energy and playfulness. It’s the shortest movement of the work, but is so effective in its effervescence that not much more is needed.

The second-longest movement is the central adagio, and the darkest, beginning in A minor, but still by no means tragic. In fact, it’s probably much more akin to the seriousness we’re accustomed to hearing from Brahms. I hear glimpses, flashes even, of the first symphony, but not much more than that, despite some of the heroic-sounding horn calls. In fact, this is the closest to a full-symphonic sound we get, really, and gives weight to what would otherwise be a kind of outdoor picnic lunch of a beautiful piece.

We finish the adagio back in A major, and reach a ‘quasi-minuet,’ and this is much more like the treatment in the composer’s first three symphonies where we get something that’s sort of clearly holding the place of a minuet but isn’t one, and is even farther from being a scherzo. This much slower, more reserved movement is nearly twice as long as the scherzo and is charming in an intermezzo-ish kind of way. Woodwinds do most of the talking here.

The rondo finale gets us back to A major and the opening exclamation is the boldest thing in this work, dance-like, almost folksy, and jubilant. The conversation in the ensemble, the way the the instruments call and answer each other, feels more symphonic, and we have more calls from horns. This five-and-a-half-minute finale is about as long as the final movement of the first, but feels relatively larger here. The word ‘frolicking’ comes to mind, with piccolo trills sounding like the delighted shouts of children. It ends in a big, grandiose way, but isn’t dramatic, if that makes sense. This isn’t his second symphony; no quiet endings here, but it’s also not thunderous.

I’m again still surprised that the composer of these works, the first piano concerto, the Requiem, Haydn variations, was so apprehensive to produce his first symphony, but his attention to detail apparently paid off, because, y’know, it’s only one of the greatest symphonies ever written. These works give such a vivid glimpse into what this man was already capable of, despite his own self-doubt or worries about living up to Beethoven. Big shoes to fill.

What’s the last piece we’ll see for the year? You’ll see this weekend, and I bet that post will even be on time! Stay tuned for that and thanks so much for listening.

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