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Clarinet Quintet in B Minor Op.115

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Quintet in B Minor for Clarinet and Strings Op. 115

When Brahms set his String Quartet in G Major Opus 111 off to his publisher, he hinted that no further works were to be expected from his pen. Though he did not actually say so, there was a clear implication that he felt written out. But in March 1891, while visiting the dual court of Meiningen, Brahms heard a performance by an extraordinary clarinettist, Richard Mühlfeld, and was moved to compose for him. For this welcome if unexpected muse, Brahms wrote four major works featuring the clarinet, the Opus 114 Trio and the Opus 115 Quintet, followed soon after by the two clarinet-and-piano sonatas of Opus 120.

The only comparable masterwork to precede Brahms’ clarinet quintet is one by Mozart. Both compositions were written late in their composer’s lives and both have a certain air of retrospection. Brahms’ piece is singularly elegaic in character, marked from the very opening with sustained, lyrical downward-tending melodies. The slow movement begins with another descending melody in the clarinet, echoed off the beat by the first violin over the subdued but uneasy accompaniment; clarinet and violin exchange parts as the phrase repeats and extends itself. The middle section of the movement is a wonderful evocation of gypsy music, which had fascinated Brahms from the earliest phase of his career. Here the swirling turns on the clarinet elaborate the strings as they hint at the main theme.

The last two movements both employ thematic transfiguration. The Andantino’s rocking melody becomes a lively Presto non assai. In the finale, the main theme appears in four different guises in a process of continuous development. At the very end of the work, Brahms brings back the opening of the first movement, once again emphasising the autumnal mood of the entire piece.

© Steven Ledbetter

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