Program Notes

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Trio in A Minor, Op. 114 for Clarinet, Cello and Piano (1891)

Notes for: July 11, 2006

In 1890, Brahms announced to his friends that he was retiring from musical composition. Although only 57, he had aged considerably, and he found the task of composing fatiguing. Further, he feared that his declining physical strength might impair his creative faculties. The following March, however, a visit to the German city of Meiningen persuaded him to change his mind and led instead to his final four chamber works, all focused on the clarinet.

Although a small city, Meiningen had one of the finest court orchestras in Europe, and Brahms went there occasionally to hear his works played. In 1891, he was impressed by the unusually beautiful playing of its principal clarinetist, Richard Mühlfeld. Mühlfeld had joined the orchestra in 1873 as a violinist, but after teaching himself to play the clarinet, he had become one of the most accomplished clarinetists in Europe. Brahms was so awed by both Mühlfeld’s artistry and the musical possibilities of the clarinet that he decided to write some chamber music for the artist and his instrument.

During the summer, consequently, while vacationing at Ischl near Salzburg, Brahms produced two works for Mühlfeld – the Clarinet Trio in A Minor, Op.114, and the Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115. So successful were these works that three summers later Brahms wrote two more pieces for Mühlfeld – the Clarinet Sonatas in F Minor and E flat Major, Op. 120. Then in 1895, to play the sonatas in public, Brahms and Mühlfeld went on a concert tour of several German cities.

The trio is overshadowed nowadays by the quintet – it is, indeed, lighter in texture and emotional weight. But it demonstrates Brahms’s mastery in the balance he achieved with such disparate instruments as the clarinet and the cello. The cello, in fact, spends much of the time in the tenor clef so that it might converse with the clarinet on equal terms. As one of Brahms’s friends commented, “It is though the instruments were in love with each other.”

Brahms obtained this balance in the first movement by assigning the presentation of both themes to the cello, but then repeating and expanding them with the clarinet. After the development, moreover, the clarinet restates the first theme in completely different dress – by extending the time value of the notes and in broken phrases. In the coda, the two instruments join in swift, whispered scale passages, ascending and descending.

The slow movement is only 54 measures long, but achieves a wide range of feeling in its short length. This time the clarinet presents the main theme, with the cello repeating and continuing it. The second theme is a broad phrase for the clarinet, initially against a cello pizzicato accompaniment.

The third movement, appropriately marked Andantino grazioso, is an easy-going waltz – it reminds some listeners of Brahms’s Liebeslieder waltzes. The middle section features clarinet runs in a rocking rhythm.

The finale is deceptive rhythmically, alternating and mingling 2/4 and 6/8 meters often in the same measure. The cello presents both themes, but the clarinet quickly joins in, and at the end the two instruments unite in a final statement of the first theme, now in a definite 2/4.

Copyright © 2006 by Willard J. Hertz

Notes for: July 18, 2017

As far as Brahms was concerned, the G Major String Quartet that he wrote at Bad Ischl in the summer of 1890 was going to be his last composition. He was 57 years old, tired, and sure that inspiration was deserting him. To a friend he said, “I’m just not going to do any more.” His resolution proved to be short-lived, however. Early in 1891 he was invited to Meiningen for an arts festival. There he heard the eminent clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld play Weber’s Clarinet Concerto and Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. Brahms was enchanted. Amazed by the nuances of color and volume that the clarinet could produce, he spent hours listening to Mühlfeld play, and the two became good friends. To Brahms, Mühlfeld became “Fräulein Klarinette” and “my dear nightingale.” Brahms’s creative juices again began to flow. That summer, back at Bad Ischl and newly inspired, he composed the Clarinet Trio, Op. 114, and the Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115, the first of the four great works for clarinet that would be his final chamber-music compositions.

The Clarinet Trio is a wonderful example of the concise, thematically unified style that over the years had come to distinguish Brahms’s compositions. While he fully exploits the clarinet’s range of timbre and dynamics – from its lush, soulful low tones, through its velvety center, to its sometimes delicate, sometimes sharp highest notes – at the same time, the three instruments continuously complement one another. In particular, “the harmonious blending of the tones of the clarinet and the cello are magnificent; it is as though the instruments were in love with each other,” as a good friend wrote in admiration.

Brahms builds the first movement from simple material: the rising arpeggios and falling scales of the opening are the source of contrapuntal development throughout the tightly constructed movement, right up through the coda, where the music floats away in a flurry of scales. He continues his romance with the clarinet in the serene Adagio. The three instruments pass long melodic lines and ornate accompaniments continuously back and forth, in a beautifully crafted movement that sustains an atmosphere of great peacefulness from beginning to end. For utter charm it’s hard to top the third movement, which begins with a graceful Viennese waltz and features, at the start of the folk-dance-like trio section, a yodeling clarinet. If Austrian folk style inspires this movement, a suggestion of gypsy style, with its rapid metrical shifts, propels the fiery, virtuosic Allegro with which Brahms ends the work.

Brahms was especially fond of his Clarinet Trio. As Jan Swafford provocatively suggests, “Perhaps the clarinet pieces are the only true love songs to an instrument Brahms ever wrote.”

Copyright © 2017 by Barbara Leish