The Kennedy Center

Serenade No. 6 in D major, K. 239 "Serenata notturna"

About the Work

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
© Richard E. Rodda

Serenade No. 6 in D major, K. 239, "Serenata Notturna"
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Born January 27, 1756 in Salzburg
Died December 5, 1791 in Vienna

The late-18th-century "evening piece" — the Serenade — like its close relatives, the Divertimento, Cassation and Notturno, was music for entertainment. Such compositions were ordered by the wealthy of Mozart's time along with the catering and the party decorations for their wedding receptions, family reunions, dinner parties and other festive gatherings, and were performed as background music to the meal (as a sort of 18th-century Muzak), or to accompany the promenading of the guests as they exchanged pleasantries, or to provide the centerpiece of the occasion's entertainment. The Serenades, etc. were popular at garden parties during the summer, where wind instruments were especially favored because of their sturdy sound, and throughout the year in the ballrooms of palaces and elegant homes, where the individual movements were often separated by long pauses to allow for conversation, refreshment, flirtation and similar amusements.

There was no standard instrumentation or length for 18th-century Serenades. They were written for ensembles ranging from string or wind trio to full orchestra, and contained three to ten movements, which were mostly based on dance and sonata forms, with an occasional variations or rondo thrown in for variety. Often a march was played before and after the entire work to accompany the entry of the musicians (Mozart's father, Leopold, complained in his old age that he could no longer participate in these pieces because he had difficulty memorizing the music for this little processional) or to usher the guests into the hall or dining room. The music was appropriately light in style and pleasant in expression, and it was a genre that Wolfgang Mozart, who adored parties, found particularly congenial. He wrote some two dozen works titled "Divertimento" or "Serenade" — including the best-known, Eine kleine Nachtmusik, K. 525 — as well as many others under a variety of names. Of this ingratiating music, John N. Burk wrote, "For the most part, Mozart used simple means to please his casual listeners, capturing their attention with wit, attaining distinction with his sensitivity to balance and color, his lively and unfailing imagination.... He neither wrote above the heads of his audience, nor did he demean his art." Mozart always gave his patrons more than their money's worth.

The occasion or patron for which the delightful Serenade No. 6 — the Serenata notturna (so called by Mozart on the title page) — was composed is unknown. Since the score was completed in chilly Salzburg in January 1776, it was certainly not written for a garden party, and may have been intended for some now-forgotten New Year's celebration or perhaps for one of the events of the upcoming Carnival. (Mozart loved the masked balls that were the highlight of the pre-Lenten season.) The work is scored for two small "orchestras," one comprising four soloists: two violins, viola and double-bass; the other, two violins, viola, cello (without bass) and timpani. These paired performing forces were probably placed in opposite corners of the room, answering each other in an antiphonal manner. Mozart's interest in such spatial pieces was exercised again exactly one year later, when he wrote the echo-filled Notturno for Four Orchestras (K. 286) for New Year's Day, 1777. (The ballroom scene at the end of Act I of Don Giovanni uses a similar multi-orchestra device to stunning dramatic effect.) The Serenata notturna comprises three compact movements: a genteel march (with a timpani solo!) better suited to crinolines than to khakis; a country-dance minuet; and a spirited rondo, one of whose episodes probably quotes two rustic melodies familiar to the Salzburgers of the time, but which are now forgotten. This music, light-hearted and perfectly formed, must have well pleased its first hearers, if the words of one late-18th-century visitor to the city are to be believed: "Here everyone breathes the spirit of fun and mirth. People smoke, dance, make music and indulge in riotous revelry, and I have yet to see another place where one can with so little money enjoy so much sensuousness."