Johannes Brahms

Serenade for orchestra No. 1 in D major, Op. 11

    Description by Roger Dettmer

    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.


    1. Allegro molto
    2. Scherzo. Allegro non troppo - Trio. Poco più moto
    3. Adagio non troppo
    4. Menuetto 1 - Menuetto 2
    5. Scherzo
    6. Rondo

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2017 Ondine ODE 12912
    2016 Challenge Classics CC 72692
    2015 Decca 4786775
    2015 Brilliant Classics 95073BR
    2015 BCMF Records BCMF 006
    2014 Somm SOMMCD 0139
    2013 Onyx / Onyx Classics ONYX 4101
    2013 Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / RPO RPOSP 038
    2013 Profil - Edition Günter Hänssler PH 13038
    2013 Deutsche Grammophon 002894791046GB41
    2012 Philharmonia Baroque PBP 05
    2012 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099963565
    2011 Decca / Universal
    2011 Tudor Records TUDOR 7183
    2010 Denon Records
    2010 Decca
    2010 Decca 4782365
    2010 Denon Records
    2010 Alto 1098
    2010 Centaur Records 3092
    2009 Denon Records
    2009 Deutsche Grammophon 477 818-3
    2008 Guild Historical 2337/38
    2008 Corona Classic Collection 0002632CCC
    2008 Cpo 777300
    2008 Brilliant Classics 93554
    2007 Deutsche Grammophon 000860902
    2007 Deutsche Grammophon
    2007 Pentatone Classics 5186188
    2007 Scandinavian Classics 220535
    2006 PhilArtis 604
    2006 Profil - Edition Günter Hänssler 5041
    2006 EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics 0946365229
    2006 Supraphon 38682
    2006 Deutsche Grammophon 4765786
    2005 EMI Classics
    2005 Berlin Classics 0013592BC
    2005 EMI Music Distribution 68655
    2004 ASV 745
    2001 Romeo Entertainment 7209
    2000 Praga PRD250 148
    1999 Music & Arts CD1038
    1999 Naxos 8 553726
    1999 Forlane 16671
    1999 CBC Records 5145
    1999 Telarc Distribution 80522
    1998 Supraphon 1992
    1998 Arte Nova 39104
    1998 ASV 6216
    1996 London 448200
    1996 Deutsche Grammophon 449 601-2GJB5
    1996 Naxos 553227
    1996 Ars Musici 1130
    1996 IMP Classics 2046
    1995 Orfeo 8101
    1994 Vanguard 8049
    1994 Naxos 504001
    1994 Naxos 550280
    1994 Philips 442 068-2PB4
    1994 Sony Music Distribution 57973
    1993 Telarc Distribution 80349
    1990 Sony Classical 45932
    Deutsche Grammophon 410654
    Nonesuch 79065
    Eufoda 1298
    RCA 6247
    Chandos 8612
    Supraphon 111992
    ASV 421
    Brilliant Classics 93554/5
    Naxos 8558071/74
    Philips 426298