Original Intentions: The Brahms First Serenade as Chamber Music

Events in the life of Johannes Brahms during his 20th year had a profound impact on his career as a composer. He was suddenly cast from obscurity to fame after meeting Robert Schumann, who public proclaimed him to represent the best of German music to come. Young Brahms was very studious, ambitious, and accomplished by the time he met Schumann. His powerful F Minor Piano Sonata of 1853 foreshadows the profundity of expression found in his mature works. But the new mantle laid upon this talented young mind created an acute awareness regarding the importance of reception and legacy, most famously found in the fact that Brahms worked on his first symphony for twenty years before he was satisfied with it.

Brahms composed his first purely orchestral work, the Serenade in D Major Opus 11, at the age of 25; but like many large-scale works of this period, Brahms reworked the piece several times. (The opus 34 Piano Quintet comes to mind as a similar example; first conceived as a string quintet and then a sonata for two pianos, the final piano quintet version of opus 34 represents the third incarnation of this piece.) Originally imagined as a mixed octet and then a nonet, the music of Brahms’ first serenade was intended for the chamber music sound world of analogous works like the Beethoven Septet and Schubert Octet. The nonet version was performed in Hamburg in 1858, and characteristics of the two scherzi added later suggest that they were conceived with this instrumentation in mind. At the advice of his friend Joseph Joachim, Brahms decided to flesh out the instrumentation of his serenade, first to a chamber orchestra of single winds and about fifteen strings. After a performance conducted by Joachim in this chamber orchestra setting, Brahms decided to expand the piece for full orchestra, the version known today.

Several modern composers have been captivated by the original intentions of Brahms music such that they have reconstructed the first serenade in its original nonet instrumentation. Alan Boustead, whose version will be performed on NOVA this Sunday, wrote:

To reduce all the details of the existing orchestral score to a nonet would result in an unacceptable, uncharacteristic work in which all nine musicians would play almost entirely without rests. Rather, the principle of reconstruction has been to discover textures which would have given rise to Brahms orchestrating in the way he did. Many details of the orchestral version have been discarded as being unquestionably added during the re-casting; however, at many other points, the reconstruction is almost certainly exact...[For examples]: Brahms' known preference for the natural, valveless horn makes it possible to discover [that instrument's] original part with near certainty. The almost insignificant second-violin part in the orchestral version can often be discounted; where it is of importance, it seems not unlikely that its music was originally for the viola. The subsequent 'moving-up' of parts, giving more independence to the double-bass, creates a sound very characteristic of the composer.

JH, 2.25.15