Brahms' Clarinet Quintet

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Clarinet By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Clarinet
Last updated: 02/12/2017
Tags: brahms, chamber music, clarinet

After Brahms finished his second string quintet aged 57 there was a period when he struggled for creativity; his efforts to compose more symphonies and other works had failed. It was the clarinetist of the Meiningen Court Orchestra, Richard Muhlfeld, who changed this. After hearing him, Brahms described him as "simply the best master of his instrument" and, with his playing in mind, he wrote two pieces in quick succession: the Clarinet Quintet and the Clarinet Trio. The Clarinet Trio (for clarinet, cello and piano) was well received but the Quintet was instantly a hit. Muhlfeld was joined by the great Joseph Joachim and his quartet and they performed in concert halls in Berlin and in London. The London Musical Times reviewed the piece:

 "The Clarinet Quintet is not only among (Brahms') finest efforts, but among the masterpieces of chamber music by the great composers"

But the piece would have sounded quite different to what we are used to today. Interestingly, the style of string playing at the time was to play with little or no vibrato, but by all accounts Muhlfeld's playing was rich with vibrato: a reverse of today's style. In the aforementioned review his playing was said to be "superb in the lower register", playing on a clarinet which was an ancestor to the modern German clarinet. This clarinet, created by Carl Baermann, was proven in 1986 to be very capable of producing a rich tone when English clarinetist Keith Puddy used the very same instrument to record Brahms' clarinet sonatas.

The piece is in four movements and although the clarinet is often the leading voice, there are plenty of moments for the strings to take the limelight. In fact, as the London Musical Times reviewer noted, "the clarinet is frequently treated as an orchestral rather than as a solo instrument". In particular, the finale is especially virtuosic for both the strings and the clarinet. Where the clarinetist can really show off is the middle section of the second movement; the music morphs in to a Hungarian folk music style and the clarinet takes centre stage.

The piece is filled with heart-wrenching melancholy and moments of pure bliss, as well chances for the performers to show individual brilliance. We are very lucky that Brahms came across the clarinet playing of Richard Muhlfeld. In fact, most of the great pieces of the clarinet repertoire were written with a singular player in mind: Mozart had Anton Stadler, Weber had Heinrich Baermann, Brahms had Muhlfeld, English composers of the mid-20th century had Frederick Thurston. Benny Goodman crossed over into classical music and inspired Copland, Poulenc and Bartok. Today, Martin Frost has come to the fore as a player who is taking what was conceived to be possible on the clarinet to a new level.


Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters, Styra Avins

The Musical Times and Singing Circular, vol.33, no. 591 (May 1, 1892). p. 277

Charlie Dale-Harris Clarinet Teacher (St Albans)

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