Brahms, J.

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



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.





Johannes Brahms — Sextet in B‑flat Major for Strings, Opus 18



In 1857 Johannes Brahms (1833 – 97) moved to the small prince­ly Court of Det­mold to assume his first offi­cial posi­tion in the world of music. His main duties were to give piano lessons to Princess Friederike, to per­form as pianist at court con­certs (of which there were many, since music was the prince’s over­rid­ing pas­sion), and to con­duct the choral soci­ety. The appoint­ment came at an aus­pi­cious time for Brahms. His good friend and cham­pi­on, the com­pos­er Robert Schu­mann, had died the year before, and Brahms found solace in his fre­quent long, soli­tary walks in the near­by Teu­to­burg­er Forest.

Though his duties last­ed only from Sep­tem­ber through Decem­ber, he was able to live, albeit mod­est­ly, for an entire year on his court salary. He was also giv­en a great deal of free­dom in the way he han­dled musi­cal affairs in Det­mold, though on occa­sion his some­what uncon­ven­tion­al behav­ior must have tried the patience of the more con­ser­v­a­tive mem­bers of the court. Brahms wrote to a friend in Ham­burg: “The oth­er day I con­duct­ed my choral soci­ety, which is rich­ly adorned with Serene High­ness­es, with­out a neck­tie! Luck­i­ly I didn’t have to feel embar­rassed or vexed, as I only noticed it when I was going to bed!”

This peri­od of tran­quil­i­ty and study of the clas­sic com­posers result­ed in a rich out­pour­ing of com­po­si­tions from the young Brahms. In addi­tion to the First String Sex­tet, Opus 18, he took his first steps in orches­tral com­po­si­tion with the two Ser­e­nades (Opus 11 and Opus 16), con­tin­ued work on his First Piano Con­cer­to (Opus 15), and, of course, wrote numer­ous pieces for chorus.

The first of Brahms’s two sex­tets for strings was writ­ten dur­ing 1859 – 60 and was pre­miered on Octo­ber 20, 1860, with the composer’s good friend, the great vio­lin­ist Joseph Joachim, as part of the sex­tet. Brahms obvi­ous­ly had a great deal of affec­tion for this music. He made a four-hand­ed piano arrange­ment of it and tran­scribed the sec­ond move­ment for solo piano (which he pre­sent­ed to Clara Schu­mann as a forty-first birth­day present and which Brahms him­self appar­ent­ly played often). When a friend made a piano trio ver­sion of the sex­tet, Brahms was delighted.

The Sex­tet is in the clas­sic four-move­ment form, the sec­ond move­ment being a theme with six vari­a­tions. For years, com­men­ta­tors and crit­ics have delight­ed in try­ing to pin­point exact­ly which com­pos­er influ­enced which theme or move­ment of the sex­tet. (Does the last movement’s feel­ing of seren­i­ty owe more to Haydn or Schu­bert? Which theme in the first move­ment is most like­ly to have been inspired by Beethoven?) Such musi­cal games aside, the sex­tet offers an aston­ish­ing wealth of melody, cou­pled with a mas­ter­ful sense of pro­por­tion. The music’s light­ness of tex­ture (some­thing Brahms would lat­er bring to his Hun­gar­i­an Dances) allows the lis­ten­er to rev­el in the composer’s delight at the dif­fer­ences in tim­bre between the vio­lins, vio­las, and cel­los. One way Brahms empha­sizes the dif­fer­ences in tex­ture is by play­ing the dif­fer­ent pairs of instru­ments off against each oth­er. His writ­ing is so clear and so vivid that lis­ten­ers can eas­i­ly fol­low the indi­vid­ual musi­cal lines as they are woven together.

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