Johannes Brahms, 1833-1897
A Late Walk
When I go up through the mowing field,
The headless aftermath,
Smooth-laid like thatch with the heavy dew,
Half closes the garden path.
And when I come to the garden ground,
The whir of sober birds
Up from the tangle of withered weeds
Is sadder than any words.
A tree beside the wall stands bare,
But a leaf that lingered brown,
Disturbed, I doubt not, by my thought,
Comes softly rattling down.
I end not far from my going forth
By picking the faded blue
Of the last remaining aster flower
To carry again to you.
- Robert Frost
Around 1890, a fifty-seven year old Brahms gave indications that he would retire as a composer. Saddled with a meticulous, self-critical nature and the long standing burden of great expectations established by Schumann even before Brahms made his debut, it is entirely characteristic that he would take stock and ceremoniously quit while he was ahead. With an unquestionably illustrious career and a solid canon of masterworks behind him, Brahms seemed to be finished. He remarked, “I have worked enough; now let the young folks take over.”
Early in 1891, however, Brahms became intoxicated by the clarinet playing of Richard Mühlfeld and was inspired by this fresh muse compose once again. Between 1891 and 1894, Brahms composed a clutch of four final chamber works featuring the clarinet: a trio, a quintet and two sonatas in that order. These are positively magical works. Mellow, melancholy, warmly nostalgic and fleetingly dire, the music perfectly exploits each of these signature characteristics of the colorful clarinet for a composite mood that has often been called “autumnal.” Expressing a distinctive kind of wan, golden light amidst a bluster of falling leaves and the sharply etched chill of bare branches, Brahms literally experienced a late Indian summer as a composer. The trio and the quintet, so closely related musically, are significant works. Not since Mozart had the clarinet been given such a fine chamber setting. Brahms’s quintet, in particular, is an enduring masterwork of major proportions. Curiously, both works are dominated by minor key signatures while, in both cases, the dark, sorrowful exterior is illuminated within by music of tender romance, summer warmth and a relaxed, genial brightness.
The Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in b minor, Op. 115 subtly showcases a chief innovative aspect of Brahms’s art: his masterful use of thematic variation for an uncanny degree of interconnectivity and coherence across the entire four movement work. The first movement’s opening themes supply the essential thematic material for nearly all the music that follows as a few distinctive ideas are transformed, disguised or more literally remembered in an epic of haunting but elusive familiarity. This technique graces many of Brahms’s finest works but this literal kind of backward looking nostalgia is particularly poignant in these last chamber works for clarinet due to the special tone of the instrument and the special context within Brahms’s life.
The first movement is a lengthy sonata of sweeping breadth where the initial theme appears in several closely related variations throughout with vivid contrasts between the powerful string ensemble and the intimate charm of the vulnerable clarinet. But this is anything but a concerto: Brahms handles his textures with great finesse using the clarinet as a deftly blended ensemble partner, a streak of special color, an occasional soloist while easily making way for other soloists to surface in ever fluid mix.
The otherworldly adagio is undeniably the center of the quintet. A languid nocturne softly dreams of a warm summer night with a muted sheen of strings and the clear reedy bell of the clarinet sustaining long, quiet tones. The reverie all too soon gives way by to a much darker mood full of tension, protest, anguish and the resignation of despair. The essence of painful loss is clear as summer turns to autumn, love to loneliness, music into silence and life into death. The clarinet takes center stage here with its full tonal and expressive range pushed to the edge of piercing stridency. The nightmare dissipates, the soothing veils of twilight return and tender nostalgia resumes, an aching quality accentuated by the bruise of stabbing, fleeting anguish.
Two–thirds of the quintet passes within the first two movements. Brahms concludes the work with two much shorter movements that almost bind together into a single continuum. The third movement andantino initially comes as a surprise; instead of a lively scherzo, one finds a moderately paced song, a vintage Brahms melody. This is a framing device that serves to introduce and conclude a lively scherzo nestled within that dances and dazzles with Mendelssohnian fleetness and Brahmsian muscle. If the pause between this and the finale is brief enough, the sensation is of a theme and variations where the scherzo supplies the initial theme. The last movement is a “self-contained” theme and five variations where Brahms continues with his gift for constant ingenious variation as well as his penchant for a kind of cyclic reflection. Eventually, the very first theme from the opening movement returns as if it perfectly dovetails with the music three movements later. In a single gesture, Brahms reveals a powerful kinship between the end and the beginning drawing everything in between into a tighter embrace of interrelationships. Despite all the ample warm light, the sweetly sorrowful nostalgia, the intimately friendly tone of the clarinet and ingenuity (and hope) of constant thematic variation, Brahms ends the quintet with a single, sobering chord: just beyond the Indian summer he feels the dead chill of winter.