Back at my meditation point. I have been there a few days ago, it was the photographic setting of the post published on All Souls Day, and as a keen observer you have recognized the iconic shape of the dead tree. Of course. So here I am again, this time for a recapitulation of a whole life. Not mine, no, but the life of a composer I have grown fond of: Johannes Brahms. In 1891 he wrote the Clarinet Quintet in B minor (Op. 115) for the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld, to whom he also dedicated his Clarinet Trio in A minor (Op. 114).
Brahms’ quintet is one of his most often performed piece of chamber music and a favourite of the audience. From its conception – the scoring and the structure – it emulates Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s famous Clarinet Quintet, but its expressive force is very different. It’s much more earnest, full of depth and very condensed. The composer looks back on an arduous life and upon his own achievements in the field of music, his failures, with serenity and a hint of melancholy. And perhaps also on the impossible love of his life, Clara Schumann. Is this it, then? Brahms didn’t know it, but he would die at the age of 64 years, six years after having completed the piece.
The quintet received its first private performance in 1891 in Meiningen, with Mühlfeld and the Joachim Quartet, led by the violinist Joseph Joachim. Joachim had been a friend for a long time friend, while Mühlfeld belonged to Brahms inner circle since Brahms had settled down in Vienna. As the quintet is a very personal work, the composer certainly appreciated that it was being interpreted by musicians dear to him. They understood how he felt and thought, they were familiar with Brahms’ aesthetic concepts. And Brahms had been profoundly impressed by Mühlfeld’s virtuosity. It’s a pity that there is no recording of Mühlfeld’s performance. The gramophone had been invented in 1887, but music on records became available only around the turn of the century.
The first four bars are the center piece of the main theme and define the other themes of the piece. The musicologist Ulrich Krämer emphasizes that the quintet is the best illustration of Brahms’ ability to integrate and unify different themes into melodies that rest in themselves. And the piece is not without challenges. The high-pitched notes for the clarinet are tricky, and about the end of the second movement, the composer and clarinettist Jörg Widmann said in an interview: “The last note must almost vanish, which requires true virtuosity as playing the clarinet requires vigorous breathing. Each performs carries with it the risk that you botch up the last note.”
The Clarinet Quintet has been recorded by Sharon Kam, Isabelle von Keulen, Ulrike-Anima Mathé, Volker Jacobsen and Gustav Rivinius.
© Charles Thibo