Heirs of Serenade
My second doctoral concert demonstrated the ensemble double bass in its fundamental role. Each composer represented on the program had created a personal combination of instruments, each giving the double bass slightly different tone role in the chamber ensemble. Beethoven boldly reformed the old serenade tradition to which Strauss - crystallized by Hasenöhrl - and Nielsen added the flavors of their eras.
Commissioned by a bassist
As an important part of his profound music education Carl Nielsen played the violin for a long time with the Royal Danish Orchestra. In 1914 when Nielsen was already serving as an assistant conductor with the same orchestra, the principal double bassist, Ludvig Hegner commissioned a chamber work for mixed ensemble for a concert tour with Beethoven's Septet as the main work. As late as a week before the scheduled tour a friend who was visiting Nielsen saw posters of the upcoming tour concerts with the title Serenade. When the guest asked to see the composition the composer admitted that he himself did not yet know the piece. Despite its rapid genesis, Serenata in Vano (Useless serenade) beautifully presents Nielsen's splendid melodic imagination and instrumental understanding and yet follows the serenade tradition.
The story tells about a cheerful group of men who are serenading a lady in an effort to entice her to appear on her balcony. The first attempt (Allegro non troppo ma brioso) does not seem to have any effect and the lot decides to try a more romantic approach (Poco tranquillo é dolce). When the second version also draws a blank, the - still-light-hearted- group decides to stop the pointless pleading and marches (Tempo di marcia) back to the familiar pub.
Franz Hasenöhrl (1885-1970) was an Austrian composer and professor whose works are lesser known to audiences today. However, he might be remembered for some skillful arrangements of music by his more famous colleagues.
Richard Strauss's Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche Op.28 is a gigantic tone poem that pedantically follows the famous German tale. Strauss's characteristic orchestration is glamorous to the point that it nearly overshadows the musical substance. Hasenöhrl sensitively struck to that maybe just imaginary interface. He compressed the work to half of its original duration and the huge orchestral machine into a quintet, yet managed to retain the essential characteristics of the original composition. In substantially original roles are the clarinet as Till's jeering voice, and the famous opening motive's horn, whereas the violin, bassoon and double bass have to cover for the rest of the symphony orchestra. E.g. the double bass stands in for the snare drum at the moment of Till Eulenspiegel's decapitation.
Septet – new adventures of serenade
In 1800 30-year-old Beethoven, newly settled in Vienna offered his publisher Hoffmeister a substantial pile of compositions: the First symphony, three piano concertos, six string quartets (Op. 18) and the Septet. The publisher later accepted the entire package, although the Septet had already then begun a life of its own.
The ambitious composer was not very modest, but vigorously and obviously very effectively established himself in music circles of his new hometown, both as a pianist and as a composer. He had an obvious urge to get out under the shadow of his mentor, Joseph Haydn.
Beethoven earned money by arranging concerts of his own compositions. His Septet was premiered at Vienna Burgtheater in 1800 led by the famous violin virtuoso Ignaz Schuppanzigh. Success was instant and continued to the point that the composer tired of it.
The work carries on the composition tradition of the 18th century with distinguishing Beethovenian characteristics. In effect the composer produced a hybrid of serenade and symphony. One could easily pick four movements from the six for a classic sonata/symphony form – the third movement optionally either a traditional minuet or a more modern scherzo. Between which, carefully placed to the golden section, the composer created a variation movement according to the serenade tradition, with the theme following a popular German song Ach Schiffer, liber Schiffer from the Rheinland region. As in the symphonic tradition, an exceptionally beautiful symmetry is created with the slow introductions to both the first and last movements.
The instrumentation of the Septet reaches also further from the traditional serenade, in which the winds had mainly been used in pairs. In Beethoven's hands every instrument represents its part alone. The combination of clarinet, bassoon and horn was carefully chosen; clarinet being relatively new instrument. The composer had emphasized to the publisher that the parts were tutti obligati – all absolutely indispensable-, reference to the tradition of varying the instrumentation in the serenades.
Beethoven gave the instruments new roles; the bassoon does not play the bass line, the cello frequently ascends into the tenor register, and the instrument combinations are used in new ways. The role of the double bass depends largely on the tradition in wind serenades and divertimentos where the string bass doubles the bass line. However, this time as the sole bass instrument the double bass has profoundly orchestral role.