Brahms's First Serenade, op. 11, has played a relatively minor role in scholarly accounts of Brahms's stylistic development, which often depict the work as a tentative step toward the composer's ““first maturity”” or as one of several failed attempts to create a symphony. By contrast, the earliest reviewers of the Serenade heard the piece as a crucial turning point in his career, and they interpreted his choice of genre as a bold statement in the emerging debate on the future course of German music. In this view, the genre of the orchestral serenade forged a link with an idealized Viennese classicism, thereby representing a denial of the ideals of Franz Brendel's ““New German”” school.
By reading Brahms's Serenade in terms of genre, we can begin to assess the qualities that informed its contemporary reception. Approaching genre as an interpretive mode allows us to understand the composer's provocative juxtaposition of numerous topics of discourse——the symphonic, the pastoral, the sublime, as well as the reinterpretation of specific classical gestures——as a key to the musical meaning of the piece. Brahms's extensive references to music by Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven go beyond simple allusion to embrace the reinterpretation of compositional techniques that situate the piece within the tradition of instrumental Nachtmusik. Heard through genre, the Serenade thus emerges as a pointed response to mid nineteenth-century theories of radical modernism.
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