About the Music
Considered one of the pieces that brought Brahms back out of retirement, his Clarinet Quintet is a lush masterpiece filled with colour.
In mid-1890, the fifty-seven-year-old Johannes Brahms finished his String Quintet No.2 and semi-publicly declared that it would be his last work. He felt himself slipping out of the tenor of the times, and he was weary. Around about this time he found himself, improbably, listening to ragtime played on a banjo. He loved the rhythmic vitality of this new American music, and could imagine himself exploring it, as he had lovingly pastiched Hungarian folk music so many years ago – but he knew he was now too old. ‘My whole life I’ve been a hard worker,’ he told a friend. ‘Now for once I’m going to be good and lazy!’
And then in January 1891, he visited the small town of Meiningen for a festival. Brahms knew Meiningen and its orchestra well. In the early 1880s, his friend Hans von Bülow, then the music director, had very generously put the orchestra at Brahms’ disposal so the composer could hear and refine his latest works. That January, the program included the principal clarinettist, Richard Mühlfeld, playing solo music by Mozart and Weber. Brahms was thunderstruck. He spent hours listening to Mühlfeld play, and that summer composed two major works for him: a trio, and the Clarinet Quintet.
Mühlfeld is often credited as the inspiration for these works (and for Brahms’ cancelling his retirement plans). Brahms’ biographer Jan Swafford, however, makes a slightly more nuanced suggestion. The clarinet is the star of the Quintet in a way that’s quite unusual for Brahms’ chamber music. Brahms was never terribly hung up on colour for its own sake, but hearing this most versatile instrument played so superbly was a revelation. Perhaps Brahms was inspired not by Mühlfeld per se, but by the clarinet itself.
Copyright © Alastair McKean 2020. All rights reserved.