In December 1890, the 57-year-old Johannes Brahms decided to retire from composition. He finished his Viola Quintet in G Major and sent it off to his publisher with a note, “With this letter you can bid farewell to my music—because it is certainly time to leave off.” But just months later, on a trip to Meiningen, he heard the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld play in a private recital and was dumbfounded by his artistry. Mühlfeld had originally joined the court of Saxe-Meiningen as a violinist in 1873, but practiced his secondary instrument, the clarinet, until he was accomplished enough to be named principal clarinetist of the court orchestra in 1879. The court conductor, Fritz Steinbach, took a special interest in his playing and arranged the audition for Brahms. Indeed, there must have been something exceptional about Mühlfeld: he inspired Brahms to write four clarinet pieces: the Clarinet Trio in A Minor, the Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, and two Sonatas in F Minor and E-flat Major.
Brahms wrote the Clarinet Quintet in the summer of 1891, as he vacationed in Bad Ischl, a spa town near the Alps. Mühlfeld premiered the piece with the Joachim Quartet in Berlin on December 12, 1891, and it was instantly recognized as a deeply moving work. The audience applauded until the musicians repeated the Adagio as an encore.
It may be a cliché to describe the piece as “autumnal,” as so many critics and commentators have, but it may also be the best word to describe how it feels. Of all the woodwinds, the clarinet blends most easily with strings: its wide range, liquid tone, and dynamic control allow it to conceal itself inside the string quartet and then come in and out, at will, as a soloist. In Brahms’s hands, it is like chilly breeze that tempers the warmth of the other instruments, while carrying a vanishing recollection of something past.
The opening Allegro begins with a brief violin duet from which much of the piece grows. Wavering between major and minor, it builds to a staccato statement, driving the further revealing of a second theme. The concomitance of these two ideas, more poignant together than apart, forms the heart of the opening movement. The Adagio begins with a dreamy melody in the clarinet, tended to by the strings, and then the melody is taken by the violin, gently subverted by the clarinet. In the middle section, the clarinet cries out wildly, before the opening calmness returns. The Andantino is an easygoing pastorale that turns into an unrestrained Presto, quick and airy, evocative of the outdoors. A theme and five variations make up the finale, marked Con moto. In the fifth variation and coda, the opening of the first movement returns, first as a subtle presence, and then affirmatively—wistfully concluding the quintet with a memory of how it began.