The word serenade is derived from the Italian word sereno, which means “calm”.
Classical and Romantic eras
The most important and prevalent type of serenade in music history is a work for large instrumental ensemble in multiple movements, related to the divertimento, and mainly being composed in the Classical and Romantic periods, though a few examples exist from the 20th century. Usually the character of the work is lighter than other multiple-movement works for large ensemble (for example the symphony), with tunefulness being more important than thematic development or dramatic intensity. Most of these works are from Italy, Germany, Austria and Bohemia.
The most famous examples of the serenade from the 18th century are undoubtedly the ones by Mozart, which are works in more than four movements, and sometimes as many as ten. His serenades were often purely instrumental pieces, written for special occasions such as those commissioned for wedding ceremonies. The most typical ensemble for a serenade was a wind ensemble augmented with basses and violas: instrumentalists who could stand, since the works were often performed outdoors. Frequently the serenades began and ended with movements of a march-like character—since the instrumentalists often had to march to and from the place of performance. Famous serenades by Mozart include the Haffner Serenade and one of his most famous works, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, which is atypical for only containing string instruments.
By the 19th century, the serenade had transformed into a concert work, less associated with outdoor performance for honorary occasions, and composers began to write serenades for other ensembles. The orchestral serenade began to dominate over the wind ensemble form. The two serenades by Brahms are rather like light symphonies, perhaps more closely related to suites, except that they use an ensemble Mozart would have recognized: a small orchestra (in the case of the Serenade No. 2, an orchestra entirely without violins). Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, Josef Suk, Edward Elgar and others wrote serenades for strings only, as did Hugo Wolf, who wrote one for string quartet (the Italian Serenade). Other composers to write serenades in a Romantic style include Richard Strauss, Max Reger and Jean Sibelius.