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Serenade in D minor, Op. 44

About the Work

Antonín Dvorák
Quick Look Composer: Antonín Dvorák
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Music of Dvorák & Janácek Fri., Mar. 23, 2012, 8:00 PM
© Peter Laki

The heyday of the serenade as an orchestral genre was in the 18th century, culminating in the works of Mozart and, to a smaller degree, Beethoven. The early Romantics (Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn) showed little interest in the orchestral serenade, but the generation following them-Brahms, Dvorák, Tchaikovsky-revived it; in their hands, the genre came to embody these composers' desire to revisit the past and to make it meaningful to the present.

Dvorák's two serenades (one for strings and one for winds) are products of the composer's early maturity. His music had come to the notice of Johannes Brahms, who introduced him to his own publisher, Fritz Simrock in Berlin, as well as his closest friend, the great violinist Joseph Joachim, one of the most influential musicians in the German-speaking world.

"Take a look at Dvorák's Serenade for Wind Instruments"-Brahms wrote to Joachim in May 1879. "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. Have it played to you; I feel sure the players will enjoy doing it!"

The work is an homage to Mozart; at the same time it is imbued with the spirit of Czech folk music. Like Mozart, who wrote one of his greatest serenades in C minor, Dvorák managed to use a minor key without any connotations of darkness or tragedy. 18th-century wind music often included a double bass for harmonic support; Dvorák continued that tradition but added a cello as well.

Opening the work with a march is a further classical touch, although Mozart probably wouldn't have used a tritone (augmented fourth, a somewhat unsettling interval) so prominently at the very beginning. The traditionalism of the second-movement minuet is equally deceptive; Dvorák wrote "Tempo di Minuetto" but-as several commentators have pointed out-what he really meant was the Czech sousedská ("neighbor's dance"). And the movement's faster-moving trio section evokes the furiant, the folk dance emphasizing the hemiola rhythm (one-two-three one-two-three onetwo one-two one-two) that both Smetana and Dvorák frequently used in their works.

In the third movement, the first clarinet and the first oboe take the lead and spin out a lyrical melody to the palpitating accompaniment of the horns. The finale subjects a simple dance tune to a fairly sophisticated development, culminating in a recall of the first-movement march just before the lively conclusion.