Serenade No. 1

By Johannes Brahms
Composed in 1860

This six-movement serenade was Brahms first major orchestral work and was published in 1860. While Brahms initially intended this piece to be an octet, he first expanded it into a work for small orchestra and finally settled on this version for large orchestra.

The D Major Serenade has a youthful feel to it and is altogether more lighthearted than the later symphonies and other orchestral works Brahms composed. The initial Allegro is somewhat rustic in manner. It opens with bagpipe-like lower string drones and horn calls, which give way to weightier string and wind passages. The second theme features a rising arpeggio-like motif played first by the violins and bassoon and echoed by the ‘celli, and is followed by a more relaxed triple-time motif, featuring violas and oboes, before leading to an orchestral climax. A development section explores the opening themes in a number of different keys before returning to the opening horn theme. The movement ends in a soft graceful fashion with flute, violas and lower strings.

The second movement is a mysterious Scherzo, interspersed with waltz-like melodies in the violins and ‘cellos and a faster Trio section heralded by the winds. The Adagio consciously evokes the slow movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, with simple wind and string melodies supported by soft fast-moving string passages.

The contrasting Menuettos offer a refreshing respite, with clarinets and bassoon alternating with the strings. The short Scherzo which follows features stirring horn calls, picked up in turn by the rest of the orchestra.

The closing Rondo features a robust opening theme in the ‘celli, violas and winds, repeated in several guises. A soaring second theme is announced by the violins and picked up by the winds; other motifs, based on initial underlying accompaniments, make their appearance. After a short passage that seems to evoke Beethoven’s 9th symphony, the piece closes in an optimistic joyous fashion.