The Kennedy Center

Clarinet Trio in A minor, Op. 114

About the Work

National Symphony Orchesra Composer Portraits - Johannes Brahms Composer: Johannes Brahms
© Richard Freed



By Richard Freed © 2004

Mozart, in his last years, became acquainted with the brilliant artistry of the clarinetist Anton Stadler, and composed for him a matchless concerto (K. 622) and two chamber music masterworks: the Clarinet Quintet, K. 581, and the Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano, K. 498. Brahms had a similar experience late in his life, when his attention was called to the playing of Richard Mühlfeld, the principal clarinetist of the Meiningen Orchestra. With all his symphonies and concertos behind him, Brahms had composed nothing in more than a year, and had in fact just completed the details of his will, when the conductor Fritz Steinbach arranged for Mühlfeld to play for him in March 1891. He had never written for the clarinet in his chamber music, but his reaction to Mühlfeld was an immediate restoration of his creative drive and by the end of that year, in Berlin, the clarinetist gave the premieres of the first two works Brahms composed for him: the Trio we hear this evening and the more celebrated Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, Op. 115. Brahms himself was at the piano in the premiere of the Trio; Mühlfeld was partnered by the Joachim Quartet in the Quintet. Three years later came the two sonatas for clarinet and piano Op. 120, the last Brahms composed for any instruments.

The clarinet, of course, had become a favorite among Romantic composers for its expressive qualities. After Mozart, Carl Maria von Weber composed several concerted works and chamber music for the instrument, and he gave it special attention in the scores of his operas and his two symphonies. Schubert made conspicuous use of the clarinet in his own chamber and orchestral works, and even included a part for the clarinet in one of his most striking (and most extended) songs, Der Hirt auf dem Felsen. For Brahms, the clarinet's mellow coloring lent itself splendidly to the ruminative and sometimes melancholy nature of his music. His use of the cello in his Op. 114 Trio, in contradistinction to the viola in Mozart's K. 498, provides an overall darker coloring that is in keeping with the "autumnal" character that one hears even in Brahms's early music and which deepened over the years.

Not that Brahms was a pervasively melancholy sort, and especially not after he became acquainted with Mühlfeld, whom he addressed sometimes as "Fraülein Klarinette" or "Fraülein Nachtigall." Brahms's friend Eusebius Mandyczewski, a respected musical scholar, caught the spirit, writing of the Clarinet Trio in a letter to the composer, "It is as though the instruments were in love with each other."

And perhaps that is all that needs saying about the work. The Trio's four movements, in contrast to the expansiveness of the contemporaneous Clarinet Quintet, are concise in their proportions and tend to be somewhat understated in respect to expressiveness, suggesting perhaps a level of comfortable resignation, cushioned by sunlit reminiscence as well as sunset acceptance. Brahms's biographer Karl Geiringer, among others, called attention to the introduction of the second theme in the first movement as a canon in inversion; as was a device found in the scores of Haydn and other earlier composers whom Brahms revered, it has been suggested that his use of it here constituted an acknowledgement of the old masters as he neared his life's end.