Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is considered to be one of Mozart’s most famous compositions. Completed August 10, 1787, while the composer was freelancing in Vienna, A Little Night Music is an upbeat serenade originally written for two violins, viola, cello, and double bass.
Consisting of just 4 movements, the piece has been dubbed a “supreme mastery in the smallest possible frame.” In reality, Mozart intended the piece to be longer, at least according to his own record keeping. The composer lists the piece with 5 movements – the first of two minuets is missing from the surviving manuscript.
You may be surprised to find that historians have little information about how this beloved work came to exist. Despite the large collection of letters, documents, and notes left by Mozart, the only mention of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is in the composer’s personal catalogue of works. No commission request is listed, and the piece was published posthumously. Hence, theories abound as to why Mozart wrote the piece in the first place.
Was it spontaneous composition? Or was the work written for a special occasion? In Mozart’s time, serenades served as festive music for social gatherings and celebrations. Because this musical form was usually performed outside, serenades were often heavy on the wind instruments. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, however, is written for all strings, which indicates an indoor event. Serenades could also be quite lucrative for composers. Since Mozart was severely in debt when he wrote this piece, money may have been a motivation.
To further add to the mystery, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik has a drastically different tone than the other works Mozart completed at that time. He was in the midst of writing his opera buffa Don Giovanni, which ends with the main character being dragged off to hell. This dark comedy seems to be a reflection of Mozart’s life in that moment. The composer was short on work, out of money, and had recently lost his father. The jubilant sounds of A Little Night Music may simply have been Mozart’s attempt to bring some light into his quickly darkening world.