Sunday 19 November 2017

Classical: Of post horns and love songs... a musical story

Lesser known: Mozart's serenade No 9 is a small-scale symphony really.
Lesser known: Mozart's serenade No 9 is a small-scale symphony really.

George Hamilton

It must have been the sight of the bright yellow Spanish pillar box in Madrid the other week that put the music in my head. The post horn symbol took me back in my mind's ear to the time when the shrill sound of the horn announcing the approach of a speeding stage coach carrying the mail was as familiar as, these days, the wail of a siren as blue lights come flashing by.

That's what brought me to one of the less familiar of Mozart's serenades. The Los Angeles Philharmonic featured it in one of their concerts in the 1940s, then went for over 70 years without including it again.

The coiled brass horn with a bell like a trumpet but no valves is part of the line-up for one of the composer's sprightly musical diversions. His Serenade No 9 is a small-scale symphony really, but to describe it as such is something of a contradiction in terms, for it has no fewer than seven movements.

The sixth of those - its second minuet - puts first a piccolo, and then the post horn out front. The absence of valves restricts the horn's compass - it can't play every note - so its part sounds like a bugle call, a sharp counterpoint to the stateliness of its setting in the middle of a courtly dance.

So striking is its late appearance that it's ended up giving a piece that offers a great deal more than its intervention a nickname - the Post Horn Serenade.

But then, serenades are like that. You fancy they're not meant to be taken as seriously as symphonies at all.

They grew out of the kind of love song that a Romeo would sing of an evening as he stood outside looking longingly up at his Juliet, watching him from the open window of her boudoir. "An evening song for courtship" as the Encyclopedia Britannica rather formally puts it.

The serenade gets its name from the Italian for evening - sera - and that very fact is celebrated in the title of another one of Mozart's, the ever popular and very familiar Eine kleine Nachtmusik.

That translates literally as "a little night music", but would be the German way of describing this particular number. It is a little serenade, for it lasts just about 15 minutes, compared to the Post Horn which in a generously expansive reading could be playing for three times as long.

Eine kleine Nachtmusik is undoubtedly one of Mozart's most popular pieces, and really sums up what the genre is all about - light and lively, positive and tuneful.

Serenades were less formal constructions, intended not for the concert hall but more relaxed gatherings, and were often written for specific occasions.

The one known as the Haffner is an example of that. Sigmund Haffner was a friend of Mozart's so who better to ask to provide the music when his daughter was getting married.

The serenade that resulted was subsequently buffed up, polished, and expanded, to become what's now known as Mozart's Symphony no 35, a not uncommon practice for composers who'd use their lighter material as a starting point for something on a larger scale.

Serenades were extremely popular as outdoor entertainments, played by smaller ensembles in parks and gardens at the end of lazy summer days. They never lost their association with the evening, even if the amorous element eventually fell by the wayside.

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