The Kennedy Center

Quintet for Clarinet, Two Violins, Viola, and Cello in B minor, Op. 115

About the Work

National Symphony Orchesra Composer Portraits - Johannes Brahms Composer: Johannes Brahms
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

As an unrepentant, life-long bachelor (he once vowed that he would "never undertake either a marriage or an opera"), Johannes Brahms depended heavily on his circle of friends for support, encouragement and advice. By word and example, Robert Schumann set him on the path of serious composition as a young man; Schumann's wife, Clara, was Brahms' chief critic and confidante throughout his life. The violinist Joseph Joachim was an indefatigable champion of Brahms' chamber music, and provided him expert technical advice during the composition of the Violin Concerto. Hans von Bülow, a musician of gargantuan talent celebrated as both pianist and conductor, played Brahms' music widely, and made it a mainstay in the repertory of the superb court orchestra at Meiningen during his tenure there as music director from 1880 to 1885. Soon after arriving, Bülow invited Brahms to Meiningen to be received by the music-loving Duke Georg and his consort, Baroness von Heldburg, and Brahms was provided with a fine apartment and encouraged to visit the court whenever he wished. (The only obligation upon the comfort-loving composer was to don the much-despised full dress for dinner.) Brahms returned frequently and happily to Meiningen to hear his works played by the orchestra and to take part in chamber ensembles. At a concert in March 1891, he heard a performance of Weber's F minor Clarinet Concerto by the orchestra's principal player of that instrument, Richard Mühlfeld, and was overwhelmed. "It is impossible to play the clarinet better than Herr Mühlfeld does here," he wrote to Clara. "He is absolutely the best I know." So fluid and sweet was Mühlfeld's playing that Brahms dubbed him "Fräulein Nightingale," and flatly proclaimed him to be the best wind instrument player that he had ever heard. Indeed, so strong was the impact of the experience that Brahms was shaken out of a year-long creative lethargy-the Trio for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano (Op. 114) and the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings (Op. 115) were composed for Mühlfeld without difficulty between May and July 1891 at the Austrian resort town of Bad Ischl, near Salzburg. Three years later Brahms was inspired again to write for Mühlfeld, and he produced the two Sonatas for Clarinet and Piano (Op. 120). Both the Trio and the Quintet were first heard at a private recital at Meiningen on November 24, 1891 presented by Brahms (as pianist), Mühlfeld and the members of the Joachim Quartet. The same forces gave the public premieres of both works in Berlin on December 12th.

The Clarinet Quintet's mood is expressive and autumnal, with many a hint of bittersweet nostalgia, a quality to which the darkly limpid sonority of the clarinet is perfectly suited. The opening movement follows the traditional sonata-form plan, with the closely woven thematic development characteristic of all Brahms' large instrumental works. The main theme, given by the violins in mellow thirds, contains the motivic seeds from which the entire movement grows. Even the swaying second theme, initiated by the clarinet, derives from this opening melody. The Adagio is built in three large paragraphs. The first is based on a tender melody of touching simplicity uttered by the clarinet. The central section is an impetuous strain in sweeping figurations seemingly derived from the fiery improvisations of an inspired Gypsy clarinetist. The Adagio melody returns to round out the movement. Brahms performed an interesting formal experiment in the third movement. Beginning with a sedate Andantino, the music soon changes mood and meter to become an ingenious combination of scherzo and rondo which is closed by a fleeting reminiscence of the movement's first melody. The finale is a theme with five variations, the last of which recalls the opening melody of the first movement to draw together the principal thematic strands of this masterful Quintet.