In 1874, Antonin Dvorák applied for and won the Austrian State Stipend for young composers, and in the process, his work came to the attention of influential critic Eduard Hanslick. Dvorák applied again -- and won again -- in each of the next four years, earning the respect and aid of Johannes Brahms in getting his works published along the way. The stipends allowed Dvorák to quit his organist post and concentrate on composition and performing his works, which suddenly increased in number as his popularity among the general public in his homeland and throughout Austria rapidly grew. In this period, Dvorák wrote two serenades, one for strings (B. 52) and one for winds (B. 77), a hearkening back to the entertaining and charming music of Mozart and the Classical era.
The four-movement Serenade for winds in D minor, B. 77, was written in just two weeks in January 1878. Dvorák scored it for two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, three horns, cello, and double bass, with an ad lib contrabassoon part as well. Despite the lack of the higher register that would have come from the inclusion of flutes in the mix, the work as a whole has a lightness to it that stems from Dvorák's graceful melodic lines and ensemble writing, fitting for a piece recalling the refinement of the Classical era. Its form may be descended from Classical ones, but the music is entirely filled with Slavonic folk music rhythms and harmonies. It opens with a Moderato quasi-Marcia that can be oh-so-serious or mocking if its humor isn't balanced just so. It's the only movement in a minor key; all of the remaining movements are in major keys, adding to the good-natured qualities of the serenade overall. The second movement may be titled Minuetto and feel something like a Classical minuet, but it's really a Bohemian sousedská with a furiant trio using a hemiola pattern. Thirdly is an Andante con moto, a mostly pastoral scene, but with moments of passion created in arcing lines for the oboe and clarinet. The finale is something of a rondo, as playfully structured as it is teasing in rhythm and textures. It recalls the theme from the first movement in one of its episodes, set against the more dance-like main theme of the movement.
Dvorák conducted the premiere of the work at a Prague concert on November 15, 1878, in a program devoted to his compositions, something that was only just starting to happen for the composer. The serenade was immediately well-received and published the following April. Brahms praised it, writing to the violinist Joseph Joachim: "a more lovely, refreshing impression of real, rich, and charming creative talent you can't easily have....I think it must be pleasure for the wind players." And it remains a well-loved favorite of wind players and enthusiasts.