This piece, for the same instrumentation as the Schubert octet, was commissioned by The Nash Ensemble in 1978, sketched out in part that summer, then written in full early the next year as relaxation from concurrent work on the complex Second Concerto for Orchestra. Though ‘relaxation’ isn’t quite the right word! I remember how, as the deadlines for both pieces neared, I’d concentrate on the enormous orchestra pages during weekdays and work up a further complete brief movement for the octet over the weekends, to be posted off to Boosey and Hawkes first thing every Monday. There was never time or occasion to make a fair copy. Nor to think overmuch about what I was doing in giving an affectionate twist to tonal common practice and light-music clichés all the way from Biedermeier Vienna to Southend Pier.
There are five movements: an opening Marcia, with a trio stringing together some well-known phrases over a stereotyped chord sequence, then a Menuetto alla tarantella which whirls along in a kaleidoscope of displaced bar lines and phrase-lengths. The gaunt opening of the Andante is given harmony and melody in four modulating variations and climaxes in a fifth, which opens out into a heartfelt dying rise and fades away on distant roundabouts. The second Menuetto, unlike the first, is a stolid affair, ostensible neo-Classical except that the ‘repeats’ take different turnings; its Trio is a tender hybrid of Schubert and Poulenc; both ‘cubistified’. The Finale is really another tarantella in which a few scraps of silly tune are put through the textural, tonal and rhythmic mincer. Again, after the climax it fades away, this time into a sort of ‘haunted ballroom.’
The Serenade in C is dedicated with pleasure to six (by splitting the minuet and trio of the fourth movement) of my colleagues at Caius College, Cambridge.
© Robin Holloway
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