Program Notes: Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet

June 13, 2022

Flute Quartet in D Major, K.285

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Born January 27, 1756, in Salzburg; died December 5, 1791, in Vienna

Mozart completed his first quartet (K. 285) in Mannheim on Christmas Day of 1777. It is a compact work, light in spirit, and probably well suited to the temperament of De Jong. The flute part is really little different from the first violin part of a string quartet of the time, but it is given a somewhat more conspicuous role of leadership in the ensemble. It contains very lovely idiomatic writing for the flute. This quartet is the longest, most substantial of the four flute quartets Mozart wrote. 

The first movement is a spirited Allegro, in fully-developed, classical sonata-form with the flute carrying the melodic line. The first theme is charming and contrasts with the second, which has a poignant feeling. In the center of the movement, there is some use of chromatic lines, and the flute enters into a dialogue with the strings. The next movement is a beautiful and poetic Adagio, in which the flute sings long, embellished lines above the plucked accompaniment of the strings. The noted early 20th century musicologist Alfred Einstein praised the second movement in this quartet as one “suffused with the sweetest melancholy,” and declares it is “perhaps the most beautiful accompanied flute solo that has ever been written.” It leads directly into the jolly final Rondo, Allegretto. This energetic movement is, like the preceding one, simple in its construction and very charming, with brief contrasting episodes, characteristic of a rondo. 


Movement for String Trio

Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson
Born June 14, 1932, in New York City, NY; died March 9, 2004, in Chicago, IL

The career of innovative American composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson spanned the worlds of jazz, dance, pop, film, television, and classical music. His works showcase his unique blend of Baroque counterpoint, American Romanticism, elements of blues, spirituals, and black folk music, and his own unique rhythmic ingenuity.

He received his B.A. at Manhattan School of Music, and after completing his M.A. in composition, he studied conducting at the Berkshire Music Center and at the Salzburg Mozarteum. From 1965 to 1970, he was co-founder and associate conductor for the Symphony of the New World and served as its acting music director during the 1972–73 season. At various times, he also served as music director or composer-in-residence for the Negro Ensemble Company, the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and for productions at the American Theatre Lab, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, and the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

Perkinson composed Movement for String Trio, a slow, melancholy Bach-like aria, just before his death. It was published posthumously in 2021. This short composition’s simplicity distinguishes it from the more complex musical structures of his other works. The cello plays a repeated chromatic descent characteristic of operatic lament basses, while the violin and viola carry on a dialogue as they embellish a minor-mode theme. In this most poignant movement, Perkinson plays with the rhythm, periodically adding or subtracting a single sixteenth note from a measure. His deliberate counterpoint in this work evokes Bach, who was one of the earliest and most enduring influences on his unique compositional style. 


Terzetto in C Major, Op. 74

Antonín Dvorák
Born September 8, 1841, in Nelahozeves; died May 1, 1904, in Prague 

In January 1887, Antonín Dvořák composed the Terzetto in C major for the unusual trio combination of two violins and viola, for the express purpose of amateur music making. At the time, a young chemistry student who loved the violin was renting rooms in Dvořák’s house, and Dvořák thought it would be fun to take up the viola once again to play with him. In his early adulthood, Dvořák had made a living as a violist, and on this occasion, he decided to compose a work scored for himself, the young student, and his violin teacher.

Unfortunately, both of the Terzetto‘s violin parts proved excessively difficult for enthusiastic, but not technically proficient, amateurs. Dvořák, still wishing to play with them, wrote another piece in the following week for them to play together. This second piece became Op. 75a, a work he called Terzett, the German form of the word terzetto. This original setting was not published until 1945. 

The Terzetto is a charming and sweet work in four movements. The first movement, Introduzione, Allegro ma non troppo, has an innocent main theme, playfully tossed between the players. In the Larghetto, a slow movement in three-part form, cherubic tenderness dominates. Dvořák creates the impression of a new countermelody when the original melody is stated a second time, simply by taking the middle voice and moving it up to the top voice. The Vivace, Scherzo is a wonderful movement built along the same vigorously rhythmic thematic lines that Dvořák uses in the scherzos for larger ensembles. The rhythm has the feel of the exuberant Bohemian folk dance, the furiant, which Dvořák often uses in his music. In the theme and variations finale, Tema con variazioni, Dvořák utilizes a melody that hovers precariously between major and minor tonalities; each of the variations has a distinct character, encompassing rhythmic, lyric, and dramatic possibilities.

Clarinet Quintet, in B Minor, Op. 115

Johannes Brahms
Born May 7, 1833, in Hamburg; died April 3, 1897, in Vienna

In the 1890s, the fashionable Alpine resort town of Bad Ischl had become Brahms’s second home. There, in 1891, on his 58th birthday, he drew up his will. He subjectively felt old, worried his creative powers were leaving him, and that it was time to prepare for the end. He even feared that perhaps he would write no more. Two months later, however, he sent a new piece to a friend, a trio with clarinet, that he said was “twin to an even greater folly.” The “greater folly” was to be one of his most moving works, this Clarinet Quintet. The clarinet had never had an important place in his music before this final burst of inspiration; nevertheless, his last four pieces of chamber music, the Trio, this Quintet and two Sonatas for Clarinet, all resulted from his admiration for a particular clarinetist. This clarinetist, a man Brahms first met in 1891 and called a “dear nightingale,” was Richard Mühlfeld (1856-1907).

Mühlfeld was trained as a violinist and taught himself to play the clarinet. In 1873, he joined the violin section of the fine orchestra that the Duke of Meiningen maintained at his court, and in 1876, he became its first clarinetist. In March 1891, Brahms went to Meiningen as an honored guest to hear von Bülow conduct some of his works. On one of the programs Mühlfeld played a Weber concerto for clarinet. “The clarinet cannot be played better,” Brahms, known to be sparing of praise, wrote to his close friend, Clara Schumann. In July, when he had completed both the trio and the quintet, he reported to Clara, “I look forward to returning to Meiningen if only for the pleasure of hearing them. You have never heard a clarinet player like the one they have there. He is absolutely the best I know of.” Clara read through the score of the Clarinet Quintet at the piano with her daughter and wrote back that it was a “heavenly work.” When she heard Mühlfeld play it in 1893, she wrote to Brahms, “I am not feeling very well, but I must write you a line after having heard your exquisite Quintet at last. What a magnificent thing it is, and how moving! Words are inadequate to express my feelings. He plays so wonderfully, he must have been born for your music.” 

If Brahms had not encountered Mühlfeld when he did, perhaps some other performer or instrument would have caught his interest and sparked the fire of invention again. There is no way to know, but posterity is grateful to Mühlfeld for these last glorious works, and for the Clarinet Quintet most of all. The music is mellow and warm, even sensuous, but it is also a touching valedictory, introspective and retrospective, a calm, beautiful farewell. The movements of the quintet are interrelated, as had become usual in Brahms’s late chamber music, by patterns, motives, and turns of musical phrase that appear and reappear in the long course of the work. At the very end, in the coda to the finale, the music that opens the work comes back to round out the score with great elegance.

After the gentle melancholy of the Allegro first movement comes a remarkable Adagio in a simple three-part form. It begins with a floating melody in the clarinet, richly but quietly accompanied by the muted strings. A contrasting middle section does not introduce new material but instead turns the first theme into a dark, wild gypsy rhapsody.

The third movement opens as a simple and gentle Andantino with two themes, which Brahms soon transforms into a scherzo-like Presto non assai, ma con sentimento that starts quietly in the strings alone. Despite the apparent great change in tempo, Brahms writes the music so that, although it looks and feels as though it is going by at a great rate, the actual beat is very nearly the same as that of the opening music. The last movement, Con moto, is a masterly, Mozartian set of variations on a theme that seems reminiscent of the first and third movements. As it proceeds, the opening theme from the first movement reappears as part of and in combination with the music that is new here, as though it were itself new.

Program notes © Susan Halpern unless otherwise noted.

Plan Your Festival Visit


Visiting Boulder

The Festival performs in beautiful Boulder, Colorado — a breathtaking location full of nature, culture, cuisine, art, and more.

Learn About Our Educational Programs


Festival Fellows

Meet the Festival Fellows: eight aspiring professional musicians who receive coaching and performance opportunities through the Festival and its guest artists.

Center for Musical Arts

This excellent community music school is also the educational arm of our organization.

Your Gift Makes the Difference

Thank you for helping us to keep the music playing.