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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Brahms's Clarinet Quintet

This was a tricky script to adapt for the blog. In the original version for radio I included a commentary on each movement, pointing out structural points and other things over the music as it went along. Omitting this commentary makes the result rather shorter than my usual posts, but I think there’s still enough of interest to warrant including it here. I’ve included links to a recent - and very beautiful - video performance of the quintet given by members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at the end of the discussion of each movement.


It's interesting how chamber music is an area of composition in which many of the big names have produced some of their best and most intensely moving music. You don't always have to have a big orchestra or a choir or the trappings of opera to make an impact.

In the 18th century Mozart and Haydn showed what chamber music could do, elevating music for small ensembles from the world of light entertainment into the realm of great art. Haydn's string quartets and Mozart's string quintets and later piano trios are the obvious markers here, but in 1789 Mozart produced a rare gem which to this day is one of the pinnacles of chamber music of any age, the clarinet quintet K581.

Scored for clarinet and string quartet (that is, two violins, viola and cello), Mozart's clarinet quintet was one of his works which were inspired by the playing of the clarinettist Anton Stadler. I mention it here to introduce a clarinet quintet written just over a century later which is often thought of as the other truly great work for this combination of instruments. Of course, I'm speaking of the clarinet quintet of Johannes Brahms.

Johannes Brahms (1889)

In 1890 Brahms was 57. He was at the pinnacle of his career and was famous throughout Europe. But he felt that his work as a composer had come to an end and

declared he would compose no more, choosing rather to devote himself to performing as a conductor and pianist.

Then, just as Mozart had been inspired to write for the clarinet by encountering Stadler, Brahms was stirred out of this creative wilderness by the playing of Richard Mühlfeld. Mühlfeld was the principal clarinettist in the Meiningen court orchestra, an orchestra which had for a decade (under the direction of Hans von Bülow) been a focus of Brahms performance in Germany.

Richard Mühlfeld was born in 1856 and had originally joined the Meinigen orchestra as a violinist. But after three years he changed to clarinet and this was clearly the right move. When Brahms heard him play he was stunned, and he wrote enthusiastically about Mühlfeld's playing in his letters to Clara Schumann (the widow of the composer Robert Schumann, and one of the finest pianists of the age). This is the playing which made Brahms reverse his decision to stop composing. In 1891 he produced the clarinet trio Op 114 and the clarinet quintet Op 115, specifically with Mühlfeld's playing in mind.

Richard Mühlfeld

Interestingly, in 1894 Brahms decided again to stop composing, and again the playing of Mühlfeld inspired him to compose more for the clarinet, this time producing the two sonatas for clarinet and piano, Op 120, in 1895.

Clarinet quintets had occasionally been written by composers between Mozart and Brahms, but it never really became a major form of composition. Weber wrote a clarinet quintet which was published in 1816, and Anton Reicha's clarinet quintet was published in 1829. After Brahms's 1891 example of the form, a number of composers contributed to the genre including Jean Françaix, David Diamond, Ferruccio Busoni, and a number of English composers including Arthur Bliss, Gordon Jacob and Herbert Howells.

Given the fact that the clarinet quintet is one of Brahms's last works (he died in 1897) it's tempting with the benefit of hindsight to view it as a farewell to life or - to use that tired and overused adjective - autumnal, and there is most definitely an air of reflection and tranquillity in the work. The clarinet itself does that by its very nature, and the key of B minor in which the work is based is a key which throughout recent western music history has been used to express bleaker, darker emotions. (The best example of this is Tchaikovsky's last symphony, written around the same time.)

But in many other respects, Brahms's clarinet quintet is modern and looks forward. This is most evident in the structure of each of the four the movements. The classical forms Brahms loved and used his whole life are the starting point, but he makes the boundaries blurred and more fluid, creating more questions with open-ended answers.

The first movement, for example, is notionally in sonata form. It is in fact the only one of Brahms's late clarinet works in which the exposition is repeated in the classical manner, although even then it's done in a subtle way that's hard to pick at first hearing. But in other respects it's not always easy to work out where the composer saw the end of one section and the beginning of another. The key relationships are often ambiguous too.

First movement video here from 0’00.

The second movement is suffused with an air of delicate beauty. One writer refers to the first section as a "love song" although whether or not Brahms intended it as such is open to question. Here again we see Brahms taking a simple, classic structure (in this case ternary form) and treating it in a new way.

Ternary form is one in which one melody (called A) is heard at the start and at the end (although it need not be a literal repeat; the melody can be treated differently the second time around). In the middle is a section based on a different melody, called B. This A-B-A structure had been used for centuries, but here Brahms separates these divisions by having freer sections, not unlike a recitative in vocal music, in between.

Second movement video here from 10’12.

As we can see in bigger works like his symphonies, Brahms often avoided the traditional boisterous scherzo when it came to writing third movements, and the clarinet quintet is a case in point. Other composers might have taken the chance to lighten the mood here with a movement of great energy and power but as he so often did, Brahms decides to lighten but not trivialise.

The quintet's third movement is in the relative major key - D major - and is elegant from start to finish. It starts out as one of Brahms's "walking pieces". I coined this term when, as a child, I discovered the third movement of his first symphony, and it means exactly what you think it means: it just sounds like the music is walking casually along, without a care in the world.

Structurally, Brahms would have been expected to build this movement in a ternary structure, as was traditional for third movements, but again he does something different. We would normally expect the first section to come back and be heard more-or-less in tract after a contrasting middle section. In the quintet Brahms doesn't do this, choosing to give us just two contrasting sections with the barest mentioning of the opening melody right at the end, in lieu of a full reprise.

This movement is an excellent example of Brahms the psychologist. In lesser hands such a two part structure, especially with a second section so much longer than the first, would have seemed disjointed. But two subtle details - basing the melody of both sections on the same notes, and bringing back the first tune for a tiny bow at the end - make all the difference to the way we perceive the music. Far from being disjointed it's totally satisfying and needs nothing more.

Third movement video here from 20’53.

The fourth and final movement of Brahms's clarinet quintet in one respect pays homage to Mozart's quintet of a century before. Like Mozart's quintet, Brahms's ends with a theme and variations movement.

The theme is very reminiscent of the A melody from the previous movement - but it is back in the home key of B minor and it has a sort of melancholy, eastern European folksong feel about it. To make the sense of unity complete, the opening of the first movement is recalled at the end, and as always Brahms manages to make the end of a work feel completely “right”, regardless of the mood.

Fourth movement video here from 25’52.

Brahms's clarinet quintet had a private premiere before its first public performance. This took place in Meiningen with the man who inspired it, Richard Mühlfeld, playing the clarinet part. The string players were the members of the Joachim Quartet, led by Joseph Joachim who had already had a long association with Brahms. The Meiningen performance was on 24 November 1891. The first public performance was given by the same performers in Berlin a few weeks later on 12 December. Like so many of Brahms's masterpieces, it's never been out of favour with chamber groups, and especially with clarinettists, for whom it is a gift to play.

Schmutzer: Etching of the Joachim Quartet (1904). L to R: Robert Hausmann (cello). Joseph Joachim (1st violin), Emanuel Wirth (viola), Karel Halíř (2nd violin)

Interestingly, all of Brahms's late clarinet works - the quintet, the two sonatas, and the trio for clarinet, cello and piano - were published with the provision for the clarinet parts to be played on viola. As far as the sonatas are concerned, this is well-known; the two clarinet sonatas are frequently played by violists and they're a welcome addition to the viola repertoire (although personally - and I say this as an ex-violist myself - I prefer them on clarinet). The trio is occasionally heard as a trio for viola, cello and piano but it is far more usual to hear the original clarinet version.

I for one have never heard the quintet with the clarinet part played on viola (although I know of at least one recording) and it seems to me that such a provision was simply a marketing tool on the part of the publisher (although it could not have been added without Brahms's permission). The problem here is that there is already a viola in the ensemble, and the clarinet part would be lost in the string texture were it played on another viola. So while it might be fun for players to play the clarinet quintet that way if they are lacking a clarinettist but have a string quintet line-up, I for one (and this is just my opinion) think it would do violence to Brahms's intentions. The clarinet writing is so right for the clarinet. The leaps and runs - not to mention the high notes - are possible on the viola, certainly, but to me it's far from ideal.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in October, 2010.

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