Clarinet Quintet in B minor
Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method
Duration: 35–40 minutes
Time of Creation: 1891
World Premiere: November 24, 1891 (Meiningen, private) / December 12, 1891 (Berlin, public)
Table of Contents
Brahms' Clarinet Quintet in 5 Sentences
Johannes Brahms wrote his Clarinet Quintet in B minor for clarinet, two violins, viola and violoncello after he had actually already declared his intention to stop composing. But then he met the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, who had originally taught himself to play the clarinet, but in the course of his career became the most famous and successful clarinetist of his time. Brahms was so enthusiastic about Mühlfeld’s clarinet playing (there are also enthusiastic comments from other contemporaries) that he wrote several works for him (in addition to the clarinet quintet, a clarinet trio and two clarinet sonatas). The public premiere of the clarinet quintet in Berlin in December 1891 marked the international breakthrough of Richard Mühlfeld, who played the clarinet part in it. The quintet has often been interpreted as a musical expression of Brahms’ unhappy love for Clara Schumann.
4 Highlights from Brahms' Clarinet Quintet
Highlight 1: First Movement – Allegro
The two violins open the Clarinet Quintet with a wave figure that occupies a central role in the work: it recurs in the great clarinet solo of the second movement as well as at the very end of the work. The clarinet takes up this wave theme and spins it on:
Highlight 2: Second movement – Adagio
The second movement in particular has often been associated with Brahms’ unhappy love for Clara Schumann. Brahms was in love with Clara Schumann all his life, but even after the death of her husband Robert Schumann, the two did not get together. Hungarian influences also play a role in this movement – Brahms imitates the cymbal, a Hungarian instrument, for example.
By the way, the end of the movement is technically challenging: the last note must be as soft as possible, which on the clarinet always carries the risk that it will not “respond” – that is, not sound at all:
Highlight 3: Third movement – Andantino
The heart of this movement is the fast middle section, in which Brahms’ love of Hungarian music is once again evident:
Highlight 4: Fourth movement – Con moto
The fourth movement is a variation movement, and variations were Brahms’ specialty. Here he was able to fully exercise his mastery of developing the smallest musical units. Stylistically, Brahms also runs riot here: The first variation always reminds me of the Baroque masters (Bach, for example), while the second is again Hungarian in style. And then a final outcry at the end…that’s quite powerful:
3 Questions and Answers about Brahms' Clarinet Quintet
Question 1: For whom did Brahms write his clarinet quintet?
Brahms wrote his Clarinet Quintet for Richard Mühlfeld, who was self-taught on the clarinet, but in the course of his career became the most important clarinetist of his time.
Question 2: Who played the first performance of Brahms' Clarinet Quintet?
The clarinet part was played by Richard Mühlfeld, to whom the work was dedicated. He was accompanied by the Joachim Quartet, one of the most important string quartets of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Question 3: How did Richard Mühlfeld's career continue?
Richard Mühlfeld achieved his international breakthrough with the world premiere of Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B minor. He then gave concerts year after year in the most important European musical capitals (Vienna, Berlin and London). In London, in particular, he became a public favorite.
2 Recommended Recordings of Brahms' Clarinet Quintet
Recording 1: Andreas Langenbuch, José Maria Blumenschein, Cristian-Paul Suvaiala, Junichiro Murakami, Simon Deffner (Live, 2019)
This recording features members of the WDR Symphony Orchestra: