Art nurturing art – glorious moments. In 1890 Johannes Brahms heard the German clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, widely acclaimed for his musical sensitivity and his expressive way to play his instrument. The composer was deeply impressed by Mühlfeld’s talent. Mühlfeld had suggested to Brahms to write a piece of chamber music for the clarinet and the composer gladly took up the idea. Inspiration had struck. Between May and June 1891 he wrote the Trio in A minor for piano, clarinet and cello (Op. 114) while spending the summer in the Austrian resort of Ischl.
“If only for the pleasure of hearing these [Op. 114 and the Clarinet Quintet Op. 115) I am looking forward to Meiningen [where Mühlfeld worked]”, Brahms wrote to his friend Clara Schumann. “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.”
So, is this a summer piece? It is full of tenderness, like sunrays bathing my face on a clear and crisp winter day, especially the adagio. I imagine myself stepping out of the house and into the garden shortly after sunrise. The air is still, peace has descended over the vineyards. Nature is covered with little white ice crystals, a world of glitter. I imagine the pale blue sky, the sun, still very weak, but I can already anticipate how it will heat my face. I take a deep breath, I see the clouds of condensing vapour as I breeze out – and I feel contentment.
Inducing a Zen moment
Is this a winter piece then? The fourth movement is quite dynamic, stimulating, inviting to a walk to warm up and to enjoy the awakening nature. The Brahms biographer Peter Latham wrote some 50 years ago that apparently music historians and scholars have admitted that the trio is “not among the most interesting of [Brahms] compositions”. Really? But scholars can be wrong, can’t they? I find it pleasant enough to listen to it every month at least once.
Brahms Clarinet Trio is a piece to start the day in a Zen mood. A day marked by steadiness, gentleness and attentiveness towards people. For those reasons it may well become a day of enhanced productivity. A friend of Brahms remarked that “it is as though the instruments were in love with each other.” A calm, reflecting mind is not easily distracted, it keeps emotions in check and maintains body and soul in balance. Man can achive a lot when embued by such a spirit. A piece of little interest? Perhaps for the scholar, but not for the audience.
© Charles Thibo