Born: May 7, 1833, Hamburg, Germany
Died: April 3, 1897, Vienna, Austria
His inclusion with Bach and Beethoven in the famous triumvirate of composers known as the “Three Bs” illustrates the stature of Johannes Brahms as one of the greatest of all composers. Dedicated to the style and musical values of important Classical era predecessors such as Beethoven and Mozart, Brahms also brought to his compositions an expansiveness of form and richness of harmony characteristic of the Romantic period in which he lived. A child prodigy, Brahms earned a living from his teens playing piano in theaters and taverns. Around the age of twenty, Brahms met the famous violinist Joseph Joachim in Hamburg, who in turn introduced him to Robert Schumann. Schumann became Brahms’ most important mentor, and Schumann’s wife Clara became his lifelong friend and closest confidant. Brahms ultimately settled in Vienna, where he was a very familiar figure for his last 35 or so years of life. His compositions in all the major genres of the day (other than opera, which he never attempted) have become significant parts of the standard repertoire.
Clarinet Sonata in F minor, Op. 120/1
Duration: 23 minutes
It is a fascinating coincidence that both Mozart and Brahms, late in their lives, encountered great clarinetists that inspired them to create some of their most beautiful music. In the case of Brahms, it was Richard Mühlfeld (1856-1907), principal clarinetist in the Meiningen Court Orchestra that had premiered several of Brahms’s works, including Symphony No. 4 in 1885. Brahms developed great affection for Mühlfeld, sometimes referring to him as “Fräulein Klarinette” or “Fräulein Nachtigall” (Nightingale) because of the delicate quality of his sound. By late 1890, after the completion of his String Quintet No. 2, Brahms felt that he had retired from composing. But in March 1891, he spent a week at the Meiningen court attending an arts and music festival at which Mühlfeld performed, and he was struck once again by the beauty of his playing. Inspired, by November Brahms had completed the Clarinet Trio, Op. 114 and the Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115, and three years later came the two Op. 120 Clarinet Sonatas, both written in July of 1894. Mühlfeld and Brahms presented the first performance of the Sonatas on January 11, 1895 in Vienna. Brahms also arranged the Sonatas for viola or violin, and both of those arrangements are heard now and then.
The F minor sonata is in four movements. The noble stride of the first takes on a stormy quality at times, while also relaxing for more lyrical passages. After an introduction in octaves from the piano, the clarinet enters with the first main theme, which it continues to embellish as the piano repeats it. A second theme, marked marcato, is more strongly accented. Elements of those themes are developed before they return in their original form. The slow second movement is nocturnal and melancholy. Opening with a descending idea that is repeated twice, the music then becomes more agitated before the opening music returns.
Like the second movement, the third is largely in a major key. It’s a lighthearted Intermezzo in the style of a Ländler, the Austrian folk dance that so often inspired Brahms as well as Franz Josef Haydn and Franz Schubert before him. The energetic, impetuous Finale largely carries on in the major mode. Appearing three times in a sort of rondo form, the playful opening section features several repetitions of three accented F notes that become an important motif throughout. Two more leisurely interludes provide contrast. One commentator has said that the two Clarinet Sonatas represent “the zenith of Brahms’s compositional technique, obtaining a maximum of expression from a minimum of gestures.”