A Collaborative History of the Clarinet: Brahms / Mühlfeld

It was in May 1890, when Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was just 57 years of age, that his friend, Billroth, wrote in a letter, ‘He rejected the idea that he is composing or will ever compose anything.’ (qtd Mason 1970; 219) While Mason suggests that it would have been perfectly satisfactory to close with what is arguably one of his greatest masterpieces (the Viola Quintet of 1890), it is to the immeasurable benefit of the clarinet’s repertoire that he met Richard Mühlfeld (1856-1907), clarinettist with the Meiningen orchestra.

Brahms, however, was no stranger to collaboration. His lifelong friendship and partnership with violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), produced the intensively collaborative Violin Concerto (1878). Their friendship, which it was said suffered due to the unfortunate combination of Brahms’ gruffness and Joachim’s oversensitive suspiciousness, was saved only by the pair never living within the same city (Schwarz 1983). However, they shared similar musical ideals and aspirations; while working together on the Violin Concerto, Brahms and Joachim exchanged a number of letters and many sketches were sent back and forth. These continued long after the premiere of the work, and indeed after subsequent performances: the orchestral parts were more sparsely notated, Joachim developed ossias for less-experienced violinists and some of the solo part was changed, for example. ‘…whenever Joachim’s violinistic advice was accepted, it provided important, sometimes crucial. His collaboration tested Brahms’ own inventiveness; the composer felt challenged to devise alternates.’ (Schwarz 1983; 513)

While Brahms must have heard a variety of clarinettists during his lifetime, there must have been something truly unique about Richard Mühlfeld. The clarinets he played have been tested in more recent years; they produce a fine sound with good intonation. In addition, he was said to have been very friendly with a good personality (Lawson 1998). Lawson goes on to describe how their work together proceeded:

‘Brahms asked to be made familiar with [Mühlfeld’s] repertory and discussed the nature of the clarinet with him at some length. It seems that amongst the works played to Brahms by Mühlfeld was the Mozart Clarinet Quintet and Weber’s F minor Concerto; there was also some Spohr. Brahms was captivated; on 17 March he wrote to Clara Schumann, ‘Nobody can blow the clarinet more beautifully than Herr Mühlfeld of this place’. He thought him the finest wind player he had ever heard, calling him the ‘Nightingale of the orchestra’.’ (Lawson 1998; 32)

It should be mentioned, however, that Brahms’ taste for the clarinet was already highly developed, and while his technical knowledge may have increased dramatically due to the infuence of Mühlfeld, the ‘…confidence with which he handled the orchestral clarinet from the time of the Serenades onwards provided a secure base from which to discover yet more of the instrument’s potential.’ (Lawson 1998; 20) Mason writes at length to describe what might have appealed to Brahms in the sound and fexibility of the clarinet:

‘The clarinet, mingling better with the piano, as Brahms thought, than the bowed instruments, is no less romantic in expression and luscious in tone-color than the horn, while far more various in tone and flexible in articulation. It rivals indeed the violin in the variety of its tone-colour in different registers (if not quite in intimate human feeling in its expression), and equals the piano in flexibility, adding a certain indescribable sort of voluble neatness peculiar to itself. It has three separate registers, each strongly characterized and each appealing potently to the musical nature of the mature Brahms…’ (Mason 1970; 220)

In the summer of 1891, Brahms’ along with Richard Mühlfeld and the Joachim String Quartet, premiered the Trio, op. 114, in A minor for clarinet, cello and piano, and the Quintet, op. 115 (Pino 1999).

Lawson, C. (1998) Brahms: Clarinet Quintet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Mason, D.G. (1970) The Chamber Music of Brahms. Amsterdam Press Inc.

Pino, D. (1999) The Clarinet and Clarinet Playing. Dover Press

Schwarz, B. (1983) “Joseph Joachim and the Genesis of Brahms’ Violin Concerto” The Musical Quarterly. 69(4) 503-115

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