In March 1891 Brahms visited Meiningen, where a private performance by the highly regarded clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld was arranged for the composer. Brahms was entranced with Mühlfeld's sweet tone and moving interpretations and that summer he composed the Clarinet Trio, Op. 114, and the Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115. These works were premiered in Berlin that year with Mühlfeld in both works (with Brahms himself in the Trio and the Joachim Quartet in the Quintet). Their popular success was immediate (the Quintet had 50 performances in its first two seasons) and in 1894 Brahms composed two Clarinet Sonatas, Op. 120, which he and Mühlfeld toured throughout Germany and Austria. Brahms was so pleased and impressed that he gave all the fees from their performances to Mühlfeld, as well as lifetime performing rights and the manuscripts of both sonatas.
The four movements of the Clarinet Quintet are connected by a web of motivic cross-references - so much so that the Quintet as a whole seems in retrospect to be a set of variations seeking its theme, which it finds in the Finale, itself a theme with five variations and a coda. The sense of elegiac reflection is unmistakable, but this is also music of great emotional urgency and creative passion. The finely spun, arching tranquility of the Adagio, for example, is interrupted by an anxious, rhapsodic middle section that could have come directly from one of Brahms' slower Hungarian Dances. Yet both sections are built from the same motive, heard at the beginning in the clarinet.
"How the subtle fusion of the instruments, with the soft and insistent wail of the clarinet above them, lays hold of one," Clara Schumann wrote to Brahms after she heard the work. "The joy that I had survives in my heart and for that I am grateful."
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.