Join us for an afternoon of chamber music presented by members of the Clinton Symphony Orchestra. The concert is at 3:00 pm on Sunday, November 10 at Zion Lutheran Church in Clinton, Iowa.

The third group on the program is:

Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115        Johannes Brahms

Rob Miller, clarinet

James Fudge and Theresa Johnson, violins

Hyun-Kyung Ryn, viola • Ann Balderson, violoncello

Enjoy the following program notes about Brahms and the Clarinet Quintet:

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) came late to the clarinet as a chamber music instrument. It was not that he did not relish the clarinet for its sound and weight within a combination of other instruments; his orchestral compositions, particularly the symphonies and serenades, clearly demonstrate otherwise. Rather Brahms had a low opinion of clarinetists as chamber players; based on his experiences, the art of clarinet playing had deteriorated since Mozart and Weber. In an exchange of letters between himself and his confidante Clara Schumann, the composer expressed, on the one hand, his admiration for the clarinetists in the Vienna orchestras who performed well in large ensembles; on the other hand, Brahms dismissed these same instrumentalists for their lack of ability to excel in solo work.

Thus Brahms’ friends were surprised when the composer took a sudden interest in the clarinet after he had unofficially retired from composing. But the transformation came not through any particular initiative of Brahms. Nor did it come about in association with his Vienna contacts. Rather it came about as a result of his friendship with the celebrated conductor Hans von Bülow who headed the orchestra in Meiningen. Bülow was the first important conductor who was not himself a composer by trade. He had assumed leadership of the Meiningen orchestra in 1880 following somewhat tempestuous conductorships at Berlin and Hanover. Eclectic in his musical tastes, he did not favor one school of music over another and served equally well as a champion both for Brahms the classicist and for Wagner the progressive.

From 1880 to 1885, Bülow built the Meiningen orchestra, never exceeding fifty members, into the finest in Europe. Members were expected to play scores from memory, and, at times, to play standing to show their commitment. The annual Meiningen music festivals founded by him attracted music lovers from all across Europe and the United States. Incidentally, it was Bülow who linked Brahms with Bach and Beethoven to form the ‘three Bs’ of music.

Bülow invited Brahms, ‘the great lion,’ to come to Meiningen to premiere the composer’s newly finished Piano Concerto No 2 in B-flat major, Op 83. There, Brahms came under the good graces of Georg II, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, the chief patron of the orchestra. The two got along famously, and, thereafter, Brahms’ scores were featured regularly on the orchestra’s programs, and, with an open invitation from the Duke, Brahms became a regular guest at the festivals. Strangely, it was not until a decade after he began his Meiningen visits that Brahms became fully aware of the orchestra’s chief clarinetist, Richard Mühlfeld.

Mühlfeld joined the Meiningen orchestra as a violinist in 1873. He was seventeen at the time. By 1876 he was appointed first clarinet in the orchestra after having taught himself the instrument, and as the orchestra’s reputation under Bülow’s leadership rose, so did Mühlfeld’s. Mühlfeld specialized in playing the clarinet concerti of Mozart and Weber, and it was the Mozart concerto that Brahms heard in a private concert for the composer arranged in March 1891 by Fritz Steinbach, the successor to Bülow as conductor at Meiningen. The spirit to compose arose again in the aging composer.

Brahms was so enthused by Mühlfeld’s artistry that he immediately wrote to Clara Schumann, ‘It is impossible to play the clarinet better than Herr Mühlfeld does here.’ So moved was he that Brahms set at once to composing for the clarinetist as much as for the clarinet. In the course of the following summer, he composed two chamber works specifically for Mühlfeld: Trio in A Minor, Opus 114, for piano, cello, and clarinet, and Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op 115. Both works were premiered at Meiningen in November 1891. The Trio was performed by Brahms, piano, Robert Hausmann, cello, and Mühlfeld, clarinet. For the Quintet, Brahms called on his old friend Joseph Joachim for whom he had written his Violin Concerto to lead his quartet with Mühlfeld as soloist again. It was the first time the Joachim Quartet had used an assisting artist other than a string player, prompting a contemporary of Brahms to joke: ‘it was on this occasion that the Joachim Quartet lost its virginity.’

On Mühlfeld’s playing of the Clarinet Quintet, an occasional substitute player with the Joachim Quartet reported that three qualities stood out.

He used two clarinets, A and B-flat, for the slow movement, to simplify the gypsy section; he had a fiery technique with a warm tone—and a big vibrato.

When asked if he meant ‘rubato’ rather than ‘vibrato, the old man answered,

vibrato—much more than Joachim, and as much as the cellist.

In 1894, Brahms added two additional compositions to the clarinet repertoire with the Clarinet Sonatas, Op 120, both for Mühlfeld, ‘the best wind player I know.’ On the occasions that they were together, Brahms would introduce Mühlfeld as ‘Fraulein Klarinette’ and ‘prima donna’, placing the clarinetist in the class of ‘an operatic soprano.’

~Program notes by William Driver

Musical Friendships – Clarinet Quintet – Brahms

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