Symposium 102 - Brahms and Schubert Current Season > Symposiums

"Late Works"
Romantic Masterpieces on Period Instruments

Sunday, 29 April 2012 @ 5:00pm
Monday, 30 April 2012 @ 7:00pm


  • Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B Minor, op. 115 (1891)

    Andantino – Presto non assai, ma con sentimento
    Con moto


    Johannes Brahms
  • Quintet for Strings in C Major, D. 956, opus posth. 163 (1828)

    Allegro ma non troppo
    Scherzo: Presto – Trio: Andante sostenuto


    Franz Schubert




Thoughts on the Program

    I am so impressed by creative artists who, when faced by the blank page or empty canvas, are moved by their imaginations to fill it.  A visual artist I know talks about the need to get his paintings out of his head, through a paintbrush, and onto the canvas.  A sense of urgency drives his need to work; there are so many paintings and limited time. 

    The quintets we hear this evening stand as supreme achievements for each composer.  Though they both came at the end of their composers’ lives, they did so under markedly different circumstances.  Brahms’ Quintet for Clarinet and Strings takes on a truly autumnal cast, looking back in time while drawing on a lifetime of experience to say something deeply personal.  Schubert’s life was cut tragically short by disease.  Weeks before his death at the age of 31, he completed his C Major Quintet, a work that sets its sights on the horizon, promising compositions we can only dream of hearing.


    Johannes Brahms
    (b Hamburg, 7 May 1833; d Vienna, 3 April 1897)

    Quintet in B Minor for Clarinet and Strings, op. 115

    Work composed: Summer 1891, in Bad Ischl, Austria

    Work premiered: 12 December 1891.  Singakademie Hall, Berlin.  Richard Mühlfeld, clarinet, and the Joachim Quartet (Joseph Joachim and Heinrich de Ahna, violins; Emanuel Wirth, viola; Robert Hausmann, cello)

    Instrumentation: clarinet, two violins, viola, cello

    This is the first performance of Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet at Helicon.

    In 1890, Brahms wrote to his publisher, “With this note you can take leave of my music, because it is high time to stop.”  Though he had begun sketching new compositions, he confessed to his friend, musicologist, Eusebius Mandyczewski (1856-1929) that “nothing would turn out right.”  Among these were sketches for a Clarinet Quintet in E Minor that he destroyed unfinished.

    In March of 1891, Fritz Steinbach (1855-1916), the conductor of the orchestra in Meiningen, introduced Brahms to the playing of his principal clarinetist, Richard Mühlfeld (1856-1907).  Mühlfeld had begun his career as a violinist, but when he turned to the clarinet, he became influential in the development of the instrument’s design and manufacture.  Brahms and Mühlfeld met to discuss the clarinet and its expressive potential.  During that meeting, Mühlfeld played the Mozart Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, Weber’s Concerto in F Minor, and some pieces by Louis Spohr.  Brahms was captivated by Mühlfeld’s playing.  On 17 March 1891, he wrote to Clara Schumann, “Nobody can play the clarinet more beautifully than Herr Mühlfeld.”  Particularly impressed by the experience of a man producing such sensitive, lyrical music in the soprano range, Brahms affectionately nicknamed Mühlfeld, “meine Primadonna,” “Fräulein Klarinette,” and “the nightingale of the orchestra.”  

    In Mühlfeld’s playing, Brahms found the reason to end his self-imposed retirement.  He went on to compose four chamber works featuring clarinet: the Trio in A Minor for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano, op. 114 (1891), the Quintet in B Minor for Clarinet and Strings, op. 115 (1891), and the two Sonatas for Clarinet and Piano, op. 120 (1894).  Of this late outpouring, the quintet takes pride of place.

    Though the adjective most often associated with Brahms’ Quintet for Clarinet and Strings is “autumnal,” the work proceeds through an impressive range of emotions from joy and rapture to sorrow and nostalgia.  Yet the quintet’s emotional world seems to come to us through the lens of memory.  Pianist and music writer, David Dubal writes, “The Quintet for Clarinet finds Brahms at the summit of his art as a composer of chamber music.  The clarinet’s blending with strings presents an incomparably fragile tonal coloration.  The elegiac beauty of the Quintet gives to the receptive listener the comprehensive wisdom of Brahms in his final and loneliest period.” The work received its premiere in Berlin on 12 December 1891 by Mühlfeld and the Joachim Quartet.  After the performance, the musicians were recalled to the stage for repeated curtain calls, finally being compelled to repeat the Adagio as an encore.

    For this evening’s performance, Eric Hoeprich plays on a contemporary reproduction of Mühlfeld’s boxwood clarinets and the quartet is strung with gut strings.  We believe that use of the instruments Brahms and Mühlfeld knew, draws us closer to their imaginations and their creative processes.


    Franz Schubert
    (b Vienna, 31 Jan 1797; d Vienna, 19 Nov 1828)

    Quintet for Strings in C Major, D. 956, opus posth. 163

    Work Composed: September and perhaps early October 1828, while Schubert lived at his brother’s apartment in the Vienna suburb, Ronsperg.  When it was published in 1853, it was assigned the opus number 163.

    Work premiered: The first documented performance was on 17 November 1850 in Vienna.

    Instrumentation: two violins, viola, and two cellos

    Last performed at Helicon for Symposium 76 on 11 December 2005.

    Franz Schubert’s life was tragically short, yet in the 18 years that comprised his compositional life, he wrote more than one thousand works that included nine symphonies, music for the church and stage, a significant body of chamber music and works for piano, and over 600 songs.  His genius was only recognized by a few during his life, but as the 19th Century progressed, musicians including Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann, and Felix Mendelssohn championed his music.   Nevertheless, most of his music was not published until after 1850 and not widely known until a decade after that.  In this way his musical legacy skipped a generation and is felt most strongly in the music of Richard Wagner, Johannes Brahms, Anton Bruckner, and the young Gustav Mahler.

    Little is known about the genesis of Schubert’s Quintet in C, his last instrumental work and certainly his finest achievement in the genre.  We do know that Schubert never heard the work performed.  It received its premiere twenty-two years after it was written and was published three years after that.  Since that time, it has entered the imagination of the music world not only for its intrinsic qualities, but for the unwritten compositions it portends.

    In 1964, the great 20th-century British composer, Benjamin Britten wrote that “the richest and most productive eighteen months in our musical history is the time when Beethoven had just died, when the other nineteenth-century giants, Wagner, Verdi, and Brahms had not begun; I mean the period in which Franz Schubert wrote his Winterreise, the C Major Symphony, his last three piano sonatas, the C Major Quintet, as well as a dozen other glorious pieces.  The very creation of these works in that space of time seems hardly credible; but the standard of inspiration, of magic, is miraculous and past all explanations.”

    A work so vast as Schubert’s C Major Quintet becomes a personal journey for each listener and musician.  It seems impossible that one work can contain so much.  The special sonorous depth created of the paired cellos; the subtle harmonic shifts that insure a profound emotional complexity—even ambiguity, the sublime melodies one wishes would never end, and the expansive breadth of moods and musical images, create a world where our imagination can explore what seems a lifetime of experiences.

    -- James Roe