Something called a divertimento, whatever it may be, ought not to be a heavy thing. And Johannes Brahms, whatever his virtues, did write a good deal of music which can become heavy – sometimes for good reasons, and sometimes not. Charles Ives remarks on this in his Essays before a Sonata:
To think hard and deeply and to say what is thought, regardless of consequences, may produce a first impression, either of great translucence, or of great muddiness, but in the latter there may be hidden possibilities. Some accuse Brahms’ orchestration of being muddy. This may be a good name for a first impression of it. But if it should seem less so, he might not be saying what he thought.
Recordings and performances of Brahms are often judged on whether they can avoid falling into polyrhythmical webs and bass-heavy pits – traps set unintentionally by a composer who seriously intended, as Ives notes, to ‘say what he thought’.
The Serenade No. 1, Op. 11, avoids these issues by tending toward translucence. It was originally written by Brahms as a string/wind octet, expanded to a nonet, and ultimately rescored for large orchestra. His ultimately large orchestration did not remove any of the lightness, however. The full-orchestra version is radiant. Still, one could happily wonder what the lightly-orchestrated (and now lost) originals sounded like. First, as a six-movement divertimento-form work, it clearly falls in line with Beethoven’s Septet, Schubert’s Octet, and Mozart’s grand Divertimento for string trio, K. 563 – three pieces which mix lightness and depth as well as music itself might be imagined to manage. Second, the musical content would seem to support a lighter orchestration quite well. It is full of dance rhythm, deft modulations, and a purely tuneful quality rarely associated with Brahms’ orchestral music. Several reconstructions of the work have been offered over the years; the reconstruction of the nonet version heard today is by Alan Boustead.