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.