Monday, January 14, 2013

The Schumann Trio Plays Some Brahms, Too

We often wonder what inspired a composer to write a particular piece. We know a stormy passage across the Baltic Sea on a rickety ship prompted Wagner’s equally stormy overture to the opera, “The Flying Dutchman,” an opera about a ghostly ship and its strange crew and captain. Did Beethoven really write the “Moonlight Sonata” because he was in love with the woman he dedicated it to? Was Mozart’s “Kegelstatt” Trio – for clarinet, viola and piano – really written while he was playing a kind of lawn-bowling game?

And, for that matter, what prompted Johannes Brahms, who’d announced his retirement from composing, to make a come-back with a number of works for clarinet – like the A Minor Trio we’re going to hear the Schumann Trio play on Tuesday night’s concert with Market Square Concerts at 8pm at Whitaker Center?

(You can read about some other works on the program in earlier posts: here, for Schumann's "Fairy Tales" and here for a work by Rebecca Clarke.)

As I’d said before, chamber music is often music played by friends for friends. It can also be written for friends.

While the bowling game (“skittles” or “kegelstatt”) might’ve been behind Mozart’s little trio, the whole occasion of the piece concerned a dinner party which ended up with some music-making: Anton Stadler, a leading clarinetist in Vienna (though not as famous as his brother, Johann), was a guest, as was Mozart who loved to play the viola in chamber music ensembles, and the host’s daughter was one of Mozart’s more able piano students. Not only does the whole work exude this relaxed, “un-buttoned” atmosphere of friends enjoying each other’s company after dinner, it wasn’t long until Mozart – who wrote great woodwind parts in his piano concertos and operas because of the great players in Vienna (as opposed to more provincial Salzburg) – wrote Stadler two more works: the Clarinet Quintet K.581 and the Clarinet Concerto, K.622, both masterpieces and both major works for any clarinetist’s repertoire.

Just as Mozart’s cousin Carl Maria von Weber wrote his two concertos and a clarinet quintet for clarinetist Heinrich Bärmann (you can read more of the story behind these works, here), and Ludwig Spohr, one of the most famous violinists and a very popular composer in his day, wrote four clarinet concertos for Johann Simon Hermstedt, it was a clarinetist whom Johannes Brahms heard playing these works that brought him out of retirement.

With his great beard and fussily grumpy personality, we think of Brahms as an old man though at the time he told his publisher in 1890, after his Op.111 String Quintet, that he was going to stop composing, now, he was only 57 years old. This G Major String Quintet hardly sounds like a farewell piece by an old man with its exuberant opening and youthful energy, the finale one of the liveliest of the gypsy finales Brahms ever composed. When a close friend heard the piece in a read-through, he cried out “Brahms in the Prater!”, thinking of the famous amusement park in Vienna where Brahms liked to hang out with his friends. Brahms shouted back “You’ve got it! And all the pretty girls there, too, eh?”

Why Brahms felt the need to “retire” is another matter, but the fact that he even thought that – much less made an official announcement that this would be his last piece – is striking.

So how did Brahms handle his retirement?

In March the next year – 1891, Brahms a few months shy of 58 – the composer went to Meinigen, a small city-state that was now part of the German Empire, where the local count had maintained a fine orchestra, one Brahms often used to “try out” his new symphonies before taking them to Vienna. It was meant to be a good time, a holiday – honorary dinners with Brahms decked out in formal attire wearing all his medals and listening to the orchestra play his recent 4th Symphony, played so well, he asked them to play it again.

Critic Eduard Hanslick, Johannes Brahms & Richard Mühlfeld
He also heard their principal clarinetist, a fellow named Richard Mühlfeld who arrived in Meinigen almost 20 years earlier as a violinist and for some reason, learned to play the clarinet, succeeding in three years’ time to become the orchestra’s principal clarinetist in addition to being the orchestra’s assistant conductor. In the 1880s, he also became the principal clarinetist at Wagner’s opera house in Bayreuth but remained for the duration of his playing career in Meinigen.

Now, Brahms listened to him play the quintet by Mozart and concertos by Weber and Spohr. They quickly became friends and Brahms sat around listening to him play for hours at a time. This wasn’t just a sense of discovering a talented musician – something that had drawn him to his life-long friend and collaborator Joseph Joachim (for whom he wrote the Violin Concerto) or Robert Haussmann, the cellist in Joachim’s quartet, for whom he wrote the 2nd Cello Sonata but also the Double Concerto with Joachim (not until after he’d heard Dvořák’s Cello Concerto did he consider maybe writing a cello concerto of his own for Haussmann, but by then, it was too late, he felt). With Mühlfeld, it was the epiphany of also discovering an instrument.

He had not seriously considered the clarinet before, outside of its role in the orchestra. Suddenly hearing how Mühlfeld handled the instrument’s three different layers of sound, the registers that can sometimes be problematic in less proficient hands, he delighted in the nuances of sound Mühlfeld made, showing Brahms the clarinet could sing like a fine mezzo (and Brahms always enjoyed a fine singer’s voice) or how it could be shaded like an exceptionally played viola. He dubbed Mühlfeld “Fräulein Klarinette” for having seduced him with this mellifluous voice (as there had been so many fräuleins in Brahms' life before).

The net result of this initial flirtation was the Trio in A Minor, written that summer for clarinet, cello and piano while Brahms was vacationing at Bad Ischl, a fashionable spa-town east of Salzburg popular with the Austrian Imperial Court. In 1880, he spent a not very pleasant summer there between the weather and an ear infection that worried him he might be going deaf, despite writing two new piano trios: the C Major and one in E-flat that never made it to the publisher and was no doubt subsequently burned on the altar of his ever-present insecurities. During 1889’s visit, he revised his Op. 8 Piano Trio to the version we usually hear today.

Some react to this new trio which, by comparison to the Op.111 Quintet, sounds like a more austere affair, as a cello sonata with clarinet obbligato: perhaps, since he was just trying his fling with Fräulein Klarinette, he was still more aware of Herr Hausmann’s cello. This changed, however, with the work he immediately wrote next, finishing up this fruitful summer of his so-called retirement with the Quintet in B Minor for Clarinet and Strings which is all about the clarinet and makes one wish he had gone on to write a concerto for the instrument as well as, eventually, two sonatas.

Brahms described the quintet as “a far greater folly” than the recently completed trio, though it would become one of his chamber music masterpieces. The trio, for some reason, has not caught on nearly as much and, frankly, I see it less on clarinetists’ programs than you’d think, given the choice of repertoire.

It's interesting, considering the nature of this program with the Schumann Trio, that the two works scheduled to open and close the evening are both late works by two composers who lives are inextricably intertwined: Robert Schumann, unaware the end was near, writing a work only a couple of weeks after he and his wife met Brahms, then just 20 years old; and a work by his protegee, written thirty-eight years later, having come back from a self-imposed retirement.

Brahms wrote to his old friend Clara Schumann, Robert's widow, racked with pain and barely able, at times, to walk, inviting her to come to Berlin to hear the first public performances of both the Trio and the Quintet:

"To listen to the clarinet player would mark a red-letter day in your life. ...You would revel, and I hope that my music would not interfere with your pleasure."

Unfortunately, Clara was unable to make the performance, but it would seem to have been a suitable rounding-out any artist interested in the on-going breath of one's artistic existence would have basked in, nostalgic for the past but pleasant in the presence of friends.

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This time, with the Schumann Trio which consists of a clarinetist, a violist and a pianist, we’ll hear the Trio in a slightly different format than originally intended.

Because there were not that many clarinetists out there – whether they could play such music, or not – Brahms’ publishers, no doubt delighted he was writing again at all, balked at the idea of so much time and effort spent on a piece that may not sell that well. In those days, much of a composer’s income (and certainly a publisher’s) came from the amateur market, people who would snap up the latest pieces of chamber music to play them at home with their friends. So Brahms agreed to making “viola versions” of these works, despite the importance of the clarinet’s very sound behind their inception.

So, the A Minor Trio is available for Viola, Cello and Piano, the B Minor Quintet as a string quartet with a prominent added viola part, and the two sonatas have gone on to become major works in any serious-minded viola player’s repertoire.

And the viola, incidentally, tunes its strings like a cello only an octave higher, so presumably it can play a cello part but in a different octave. Violists, habitually lacking in repertoire and not shy about purloining anything suitable (I once heard a friend play a recital which included a set of songs by Fauré, set in a mezzo’s range, which sounded wonderful as “songs without words”), could consider adapting this particular trio for their given combination. There is something lost in the compression of the registers, the viola’s being so similar to the clarinet, but there is also something poignant in their being two sides of not quite similar coins.

Again, finding reasonably good performances on You-Tube can amount to a carp-shoot (seizing the day), but here is the original version with cello, to give you an idea of the piece with which Brahms came out of retirement, even if only briefly.

Clarinetist Paul Meyer, cellist Jing Zhao and pianist Eric LeSage in this performance recorded in a museum in Denmark:

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- Dick Strawser

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