Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Quintet in B Minor for Clarinet and Strings

Op. 115
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In 1890, at the age of 57, Brahms announced his retirement. It would seem that he was going to quit while he was ahead and leave whatever legacy he had crafted intact. He remarked, “I have worked enough; now let the young folks take over.” However, the retirement didn’t last long as he heard the clarinet playing of Richard Mühlfeld early in 1891, and was so inspired that he wrote four final works featuring the clarinet: a trio, a quintet and two sonatas. The Quintet for Clarinet and Strings was first performed at a private gathering on 24 November 1891, and later received its premiere in Berlin on 12 December 1891, and was “accompanied by the violinist Joseph Joachim and his celebrated string quartet – an exception to the quartet’s longstanding tradition of performing only music for string instruments at its recitals”. The critics and the composer’s friends all praised the work. Clara Schumann heard the work she proclaimed: “It is a really marvelous work, the wailing clarinet takes hold of one; it is most moving. And what interesting music, deep and full of meaning!” The second movement, Adagio, is based on a lamenting and brooding theme as though Brahms is reflecting the very nature of his life as the ethos of the Romantic artist is slowly coming to a close: a somewhat autobiographical statement. The idea of the autobiographical statement is also featured in the third movement, which begins with a Bach-like musical theme and featuring the cycle of 5ths, before launching into a Hungarian Dance (and who could forget Brahms’ Hungarian Dances composed in 1869). The final movement is a set of variations and the final theme returns to the very material we heard in the opening measures of the first movement with the work drawing to a close. The whole piece gives the listener the impression that the composer is looking back over poignant moments in his life, rendered with musical figures that represent the best of Brahms. The work ends with “a single, sobering chord: just beyond the Indian summer he feels the dead chill of winter.”


Alexandra Osborne (violin), Veronique Serret (violin), Neil Thompson (viola), Paul Stender (cello) and David Rowden (clarinet)

Video Credits

ABC Classic FM
Music Producer: Andre Shrimski
Sound Engineer: Andrew Dixon