The Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet in b minor, Op. 115 by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) is certainly one of the greatest chamber music masterpieces ever composed. Since its premiere, this quintet has been beloved by musicians, audiences, and music lovers around the world.
To fully understand the Brahms Quintet’s place in music history, it is important to note the lineage of chamber works for clarinet and string instruments. Classical composer Carl Stamitz (1745-1801) likely composed the first chamber works for clarinet and strings. His innovative and melodious quartets for clarinet, violin, viola, and cello were probably composed in the early 1770s. The genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) took this instrumental timbre to universal acclaim when he composed his monumental Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet in A Major, K. 581 in 1789. It was the clarinetist Anton Stadler (1752-1812) who inspired Mozart to compose this treasured chamber music gem. By adding a second violin part (to complete the string quartet), and utilizing the clarinet in A, Mozart changed the course of history for the clarinet.
In 1815, Carl Maria von Weber composed his Grand Quintet in B-flat Major, Op. 34 for clarinet and string quartet. His inspiration was Heinrich Baermann (1784-1847), who history recognizes as the greatest clarinet virtuoso of his time. While Mozart's Quintet is a true chamber music collaboration, Weber composed more of a concerto for clarinet with string quartet accompaniment.
During the 1880s, while in his mid-fifties, Brahms retired from composing, believing he had exhausted his creative output. It was from hearing the performances of clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld (1856-1907) in the Meiningen Court Orchestra that inspired Brahms to compose again. He believed Mühlfeld to be the finest wind player he had ever heard. In 1891, Brahms composed the Trio in A minor for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano, Op. 114, for Mühlfeld, cellist Robert Hausmann (1852-1909), and himself on piano.
There was a confluence of events that led to the composition of the Brahms Quintet. Brahms had a deep respect for and friendship with the virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), having dedicated his sublime Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 77, to Joachim in 1878. Brahms, Joachim, and Hausmann shared significant history together, having collaborated in the premiere of Brahms' Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, Op. 102, in 1887, Brahms’ last composition for orchestra. Hausmann was also a longtime member of the famed Joachim String Quartet. It is also known that Brahms was familiar with the Mozart Quintet. So, perhaps his knowledge of Mozart’s Quintet and close musical relationships with Mühlfeld, Joachim, and Hausmann, made it inevitable that he would compose a quintet for Mühlfeld and the Joachim String Quartet.
Brahms composed his quintet in 1891 and, like Mozart, wrote for the clarinet in A. Brahms' four-movement masterwork has some of the most exquisitely beautiful musical lines and colors of any chamber work ever composed. Brahms was in the twilight of his career and at the height of his creative powers. The Quintet’s public premiere took place on December 12, 1891 in Berlin.
Listening to or performing this music takes you on an incredible journey; a journey of great beauty, deep introspection, yearning, and melancholy. The writing for the clarinet is absolute perfection, and the ensemble writing highlights every glorious color of the instrumental combination. The Quintet features dark tonal hues, lush textures, and singing vocal lines, contrasting with the virtuosic "Hungarian" section of the second movement, and an occasional optimistic moment in the brilliant variations of the fourth movement.
So, do yourself a favor and take 40 minutes from your frenetic schedule to sit back and listen to this magnificent music for the ages. I promise you a richly rewarding experience! There are many great recordings of the Quintet. My own personal favorite is performed by clarinetist Karl Leister and the Amadeus String Quartet.