In 1853, composer Robert Schumann announced a promising young talent to
readers of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, the leading musical journal
of the day. "Sooner or later," Schumann imagined, "someone would and must
appear, fated to give us the ideal expression of the times, one who would not
gain his mastery by gradual stages, but rather would spring fully armed like
Minerva from the head of Jove." His prophecy proved true: he had discovered
Beethoven's heir. "His name is Johannes Brahms, from Hamburg," Schumann
declared. "He carries all the marks of one who has received a call" and would
take up the symphonic mantle from Beethoven.
At the time, Brahms (1833-1897)
was just five years past his solo debut as a pianist, which he made in 1858,
playing works by Bach and Beethoven.
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Brahms’s music often seems somehow nostalgic, even
regressive. Eschewing the excesses of his Romantic contemporaries Liszt and
Wagner, he sought refuge in the corseted Classical structures of Haydn and
Mozart. When he realized that concert organizers had started to privilege the
music of dead rather than living composers on their programs, Brahms began
emulating the dead. He embraced such archaic musical genres as the motet and serenade,
created a set of variations on a theme by Haydn, and rejected the fire and
brimstone of grand opera for instrumental miniatures. The idea was to enter the
pantheon of past masters even while still very much alive.
Critics of a Romantic mindset have been carried away by this
idea, however, asserting that Brahms was nostalgic to the point of being
melancholic, a condition defined by musicologist Reinhold Brinkmann as an
“individual, albeit historically mediated state of mind and spirit.” Maybe this is true, or maybe Brahms consciously chose to
manufacture this autumnal mood. Art is, after all, artificial.
His Clarinet Quintet in B Minor of 1891, a late,
post-retirement work dedicated to clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, is haunted from
start to finish by the genial ghost of Mozart, whose own clarinet quintet from
a century before was its obvious model. The four movements mimic Mozart’s
formal structures while enriching his syntax. Had Mozart lived past the time of
Wagner, Brahms seems to suggest, his music would have sounded like this. The
most beautiful move in this meltingly beautiful composition comes in the
agitated finale with the gradual reappearance of the main theme from the
second-movement Adagio, followed by the main theme of the first-movement Allegro.
The themes fade in, fade out, and then fade in again, as though unable or
unwilling to say goodbye. Also significant is the narrow tonal range of the
score: The second movement modulates from B major to B minor to B-flat minor
and then to B major again. The palette is extremely refined, limited to shades
of a single hue rather than distinctly different colors. It is as though Brahms
wanted to inflect his musical materials instead of dramatizing them.
With this and his other late clarinet pieces, Brahms signed
off and put down his quill. But in one respect, his Clarinet Quintet is less
about the past than the future. The technique used to manipulate musical motifs—the
thematic fragments that generate the forms—has much more in common with 20th-
rather than 18th- or 19th-century composition. This technique is called
“developing variation,” and it involves using musical themes less as stable
melodies than repositories of motivic ideas to be explored throughout a movement
or even an entire piece. For modern composers seeking a means to hold their
works together outside of the major and minor key system, developing variation
was crucial. The technique was codified by the arch-modernist composer Arnold
Schoenberg in an essay called “Brahms the Progressive,” which generously portrays
Brahms as a harbinger, not an anachronism.
Jeremy Geffen introduces Brahms's Clarinet Quintet in B Minor
The Guarneri Quartet and David Shifrin, clarinet, perform the third movement of Brahms Quintet for Clarinet in B Minor.
Busch Quartet | Reginald Kell, Clarinet | EMI Classics
See Ensemble ACJW perform Brahms's Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. at Carnegie Hall on April 18.
View a full list of events that are part of A Golden Age of Music >