Brahms — Trio in A minor, Op. 114 for Piano, Clarinet, and Cello

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When Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) com­pleted his String Quin­tet in G major, opus 111, in the sum­mer of 1890, he thought he had fin­ished his work as a com­poser. A firm believer that one should not write music unless truly inspired, Brahms was feel­ing exhausted as a com­poser and quite happy with his new quin­tet, which he decided was the per­fect way to end his long career. He also felt he deserved to take things easy.  A recent trip to Italy had been vir­tu­ally per­fect, as he exclaimed in let­ters to his friend Clara Schu­mann, and Brahms was look­ing for­ward to more vacations.

In the fall of 1890, Brahms began set­ting his affairs in order, which led, a few months later, to writ­ing his will. (Among its pro­vi­sions was one leav­ing the Gesellschaft der Musik­fre­unde his valu­able col­lec­tion of orig­i­nal man­u­scripts. These included the full scores of Mozart’s Sym­phony in G minor, Haydn’s Sun Quar­tets, var­i­ous sketches by Beethoven and Schu­bert as well as the close of the con­cert ver­sion of Wagner’s Pre­lude to Tris­tan und Isolde.)

But within a few months Brahms was newly inspired to return to com­po­si­tion, thanks to a visit to the ducal Court of Meinin­gen in March 1891. The Meinin­gen Orches­tra was con­sid­ered one of the finest in Europe, and on March 17th, Brahms enthu­si­as­ti­cally wrote to Clara Schu­mann about a per­for­mance of Weber’s “very fine F minor Con­certo for clar­inet. It is impos­si­ble to play the clar­inet bet­ter than Herr Mühlfeld does.”

It was thanks to Richard Mühlfeld’s play­ing that Brahms com­posed his Opus 114 Trio in A minor for Piano, Clar­inet and Cello, as well as his Opus 115 Quin­tet for Clar­inet, two Vio­lins, Viola and Cello, and his last piece of cham­ber music, the Opus 120 Two Sonatas for Clar­inet and Piano.

A few months after Brahms first heard Mühlfeld play, the com­poser explained to Clara Schu­mann why he was look­ing for­ward to a return trip to Meinin­gen to hear pri­vate per­for­mances of his newly writ­ten clar­inet trio and quin­tet. “If only for the plea­sure of hear­ing these (his Opus 114 and 115) I am look­ing for­ward to Meinin­gen. You have never heard such a clar­inet player as they have there in Mühlfeld. He is absolutely the best I know. At all events this art has, for var­i­ous rea­sons, dete­ri­o­rated very much. The clar­inet play­ers in Vienna and many other places are quite fairly good in orches­tra, but solo they give one no real pleasure.”

Brahms became per­son­ally fond of Mühlfeld, refer­ring to him as “my dear nightin­gale” (because of the unusu­ally sweet tone with which Mühlfeld played) and “Fräulein Klar­inette.” One week before Brahms died, he had lunch for the last time out­side his home — with Richard Mühlfeld and a few other close friends.

The pub­lic world pre­mier of the Clar­inet Trio (and the Clar­inet Quin­tet) was given in Berlin on Decem­ber 12, 1891, to an extremely enthu­si­as­tic audi­ence, which included the painter Adolf Men­zel. Mühlfeld’s play­ing so com­pletely cap­ti­vated Men­zel that he sketched the clar­inetist as a Greek god and sent the draw­ing to Brahms with the words, “We con­fess our sus­pi­cions that on a cer­tain night the Muse itself appeared in per­son (dis­guised in the evening dress of the Meinin­gen Court) for the pur­pose of exe­cut­ing a cer­tain wood­wind part. On this page I have tried to cap­ture the sub­lime vision.”

The inti­mate, decep­tively simple-sounding Clar­inet Trio is in four move­ments, marked Alle­gro, Ada­gio, Andante grazioso, and Alle­gro. Not sur­pris­ingly, the wist­ful, some­what melan­choly tim­bre of the clar­inet per­me­ates the entire piece with the cello and piano parts also often hav­ing an autum­nal color to them. Some crit­ics unfairly have char­ac­ter­ized the Trio as being a bit aus­tere. It would per­haps be more accu­rate to describe the emo­tions as being held close to the vest, rather than being grandly expan­sive. But this very inti­macy leads to won­der­ful byplay between the instru­ments, as if they are old friends com­plet­ing each other’s musi­cal thoughts. A friend of Brahms, Euse­bius Mandy­czewski, per­haps summed it up best when he remarked, “It is as though the instru­ments were in love with each other.”

This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nally in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here by per­mis­sion.