I. Marcia. Maestoso II. Menuetto III. Rondeau. Allegretto
“Serenity” is an apt word to describe Serenata notturna. The word sereno (“serene”) probably has something to do with the origin of the word serenata (“serenade”), along with sera (“evening”). Serenades, then, are pieces written for a quiet and serene evening, performed mostly outdoors, sometimes under a young lady’s window and sometimes at festivities of various kinds. The genre (closely related to, and sometimes indistinguishable from, divertimentos and cassations) occupy a central place in the output of Mozart’s early years.
The present work is unusual among Mozart’s serenades in that it is relatively short, having only three movements (the others can have up to seven). The date of the autograph, January 1776, suggests that it was not intended for an outdoor performance, though precisely what kind of venue Mozart had in mind is not known. Mozart followed the Baroque concerto grosso practice here, with its small group of soloists contrasted with a larger complement, called ripieno (“full”). The small group is a string quartet in which the cello is replaced by a double bass. This gives the January work a somewhat “summery” sound: a double bass, which could be played standing up, would have been more appropriate for an outdoor performance than a cello. Yet the ripieno has cellos but no bass, presumably because Mozart could count on only one bass player for the occasion.
The Serenata notturna opens with a slow march that is more lyrical than military in character. Next comes a Minuet, with a Trio played by the solo group alone. The final Rondo is the longest and most individual movement of the work. Its cheerful main theme is suddenly interrupted by an elegant Adagio alluding to French Baroque music; the Adagio is cut off in its turn and a quick contredanse melody appears. (Mozart was probably quoting a tune popular at a time but long since forgotten.) A last return of the rondo theme brings the work to its conclusion.