Length: c. 13 minutes
Orchestration: timpani and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 6, 1973, David Zinman conducting
About this Piece
It wasn’t until the late 18th century that composers began to assert their individuality by breaking the ties that made them dependent upon church and aristocracy for their livelihood and their professional status. In fact, Mozart himself made a dramatic bid for personal freedom when in 1781 he kicked up his heels at his unappreciative (hateful) employer, the Archbishop of Salzburg, and made tracks for the fame and fortune he hoped awaited him in Vienna. (He indeed found some fame in the Austrian capital during the ten years that remained of his life, but pitifully little fortune.) But before screwing up his courage for the Viennese adventure, he relied upon church employment, concert engagements, and commissions for music from monied, upper class patrons of the arts.
Music made to order for particular public or private occasions was, of course, a way of life for composers of that period, and Mozart, like his colleagues, made every effort to please his customers with carefree, bright, elegant, entertaining products. The year 1776 found Mozart plying his trade with at least two “party piece” serenades. The larger and more famous of the two, the “Haffner” Serenade, was composed for a specific occasion — the wedding of a wealthy magistrate’s daughter.
If the present work was written on commission, the commissioner is not known, and if for an occasion, it has never come to light. But since it is not likely Mozart would have composed the Serenata notturna simply to pass the time of night, we must assume it was meant for some party or other. In any case, the guests must surely have been entertained by the delightful little work, scored for two small groups: a kind of concertino consisting of two violins, viola, and bass, and a tutti made up of strings and timpani — yes, timpani!
The results are disarming. The opening movement is a “majestic” March in which the conversations between the two groups are (comically) punctuated by the percussion. The minuet and trio are for the percussionless group, while the concluding Rondo reverts to both small orchestras. In the latter movement, Mozart indulges in one — no, two — little jokes by interpolating in its course first a short Adagio and then a peasantish Allegro. The effect is charming, even if we don’t know these interpolated tunes and thus don’t fully understand the joke. However, we can be certain his Salzburg audience did.