Brahms composed this work in 1858, during his three-year tenure in the principality of Detmold as choir conductor and court pianist. With court services requiring only three months a year of his time, at a modest but regular salary (including piano lessons for the princess), Brahms had plenty of time to concertize, study, and extend himself creatively. Although his musician-father had begun by teaching him the violin and cello, the boy Johannes was fascinated by the piano, which his loving parent encouraged. Not surprisingly, most of Brahms' early music was written for those three instruments, the piano in particular. Schumann, however, wasted no time in urging his new (and last) protégé to compose for orchestra, a symphony no less. What Brahms labored to create without success during a three-year period after the master's mental collapse -- when he was living chez Schumann in Düsseldorf to help Clara raise her seven children -- found its way into the First Piano Concerto (1856-1858), and later on into the German Requiem.
Serenade No. 1 likewise evolved -- from a nonet for winds and strings, written at the Detmold in 1858, but recast for chamber orchestra during the next year (both versions have been lost, or were destroyed by the composer). He gave this material its final and surviving form in 1859, adding two more movements to the original four before publishing it in 1860 as his first orchestral work. Odd as it may seem today, both this and a second Serenade in A, Op. 16, written in 1860 (without violins, only lower strings, winds, and brass) were considered avant-garde, on the cutting edge of modernism!
Posthumous analysts have enumerated the influences of Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven -- even Schumann -- in this sweetly bucolic work. But its uniquely Brahmsian sound, even early on, renders derivation hypotheses irrelevant. Among German-speaking composers of the nineteenth century, only the teenage Mendelssohn and 20-year-old Mahler revealed comparably distinctive voices early on.
Although Brahms employed sonata-form in the opening Allegro molto and the Adagio third movements of the Serenade No. 1, it is basically a dance work. The jaunty, dotted main subject sets a mood that recurs several times before its apotheosis in a rondo-finale, one that virtually cries out for choreography.
In between, we find plenty of diversions and surprises. Both the second and the fifth movements are scherzos. The first of them is marked Allegro non troppo (that modifying "not-too-much" remained a Brahmsian caution throughout his lifetime). Song sections are cast dramatically in D minor, but the slightly-faster trio inhabits sun-dappled B flat major.
The third movement, Adagio non troppo, is the work's emotional fulcrum; this too is in B flat major. A full-blown development section does not cramp or curb the movement's soaring melodism.
A minuet within a minuet follows -- the first one in G major, the second one in G minor with an espressivo, legato theme played the violins over plucked violas. The second scherzo comes next, an unqualified Allegro in D major, with a rio in C. The shortest movement in the piece, it pays overt homage to Beethoven.
The concluding rondo in 2/4 time is another unmodified Allegro in D major. Clarinets and bassoons an octave apart, playing in thirds, announce the principal subject. While concert-hall decorum forbids our dancing in the aisles, there's really no way to keep one's feet from tapping in time with the music.