Sunday, November 14, 2021

Homecoming, Part 2: Two Bs – The Polonsky-Shifrin-Wiley Trio & Old Brahms

As our 40th Season continues, this Wednesday's 7:30 concert marks our Return to Market Square Church, following the long-delayed renovations (another casualty of the Pandemic). You can read the first of two posts about the program here.

While Wednesday's program with the Trio of clarinetist David Shifrin, cellist Peter Wiley, and pianist Anna Polonsky, opens with two sonatas by Johannes Brahms and concludes with Beethoven's Septet on the second half, I wanted to do them in reverse order here on the blog, starting in the previous post with a youthful work by Beethoven at the beginning of his career (though 29 might seem a bit of a late-bloomer by Mozartean standards) and, in this post, going behind the scenes with two works from the last years of Brahms' career (though his “retirement” from composing at the age of 57 may seem premature to us today), the 2nd Cello Sonata of 1886 and the 2nd Clarinet Sonata of 1894.

Brahms in 1890
Some of us might wonder “How old is Brahms” when we look at those photographs with that massive beard and consider his general curmudgeonly reputation. To answer the question, however, in 1890 Brahms was 57. Now, how many of you want to call him “Old Brahms”?  

But age is as much a state of mind and body as it is of chronology, and especially for a creative mind which, after years of hard work, may find the slightest doubts and insecurities catastrophic, the dreaded Writer's Block or a series of failures which undermine the once youthful confidence.

When we hear the Beethoven Septet, we are at the beginning of this spectrum: it is a long and difficult (and often heartbreaking) road between Beethoven's Op. 20 hit and the Late Quartets of only twenty-five years later. 

For Brahms, these two Clarinet Sonatas, written when he was 61, come 41 years after an exuberant young man with his long blonde hair and deep blue eyes, full of confidence and hope, first landed on the Schumanns' doorstep, a folder full of piano sonatas and string quartets under his arm. Schumann would call them "veiled symphonies" and crown him the Heir to Beethoven. Thus his confidence practically evaporated and for the rest of his life he was beset by doubts about ever being good enough to be Beethoven's heir.

In reading about Brahms' life, we don't have to wait long before we run across the word “autumnal” regarding the works of his last years. There's a certain wistfulness if not outright sadness, the sense of genius spent, about much of this music, or at least a movement within a larger work. Those “intermezzos,” which were never really scherzos before, now take on a more nostalgic shade and the emotion of his slow movements or of certain turns of phrase might bring to mind a sense of a looking back or summing up. 

By comparison, some of this "late" music may strike you at times as “less energetic” (but never “less vital”). It's not a weakening of the creative flow – though that is how many of his closest friends viewed some of these pieces (especially the 4th Symphony and the Double Concerto) – but is it the same kind of awareness, given the once vigorous and vibrant young man striding across the finale of his 1st Symphony, of a body now slowing down, more “moseying” than striding, a mind taking stock of itself?

It's difficult to listen to the opening of his Op.111 String Quintet (written in 1890) and think this man is old. Yet, when he sent it off to his publisher, he wrote, “With this letter you can bid farewell to my music, because it is certainly time to leave off...”

One can imagine what the cellist in that first performance must have thought, having to face this wall of sound from the other four string players. His name was Robert Hausmann and this was not his first encounter premiering a piece of Brahms'. As the cellist in Josef Joachim's famed quartet, based in Berlin, he was quite familiar with Brahms' chamber music. And when Joachim and Brahms, friends from their 20s, had finally reconciled after a bitter estrangement, Brahms composed not another violin concerto for his oldest friend, but a new kind of work in 1887, the Double Concerto with Hausmann's cello as equal partner to Joachim's violin.

Even before that, Brahms had been attracted by Hausmann's “sound.” In 1886, he'd written a new cello sonata for the man who was such an outspoken champion of his often neglected E Minor Cello Sonata from the mid-1860s. Not only would he be chosen for the Double Concerto's premiere, he was also involved in other new works from these years, most notably the Op. 111 String Quintet (1890) and the Clarinet Trio and then the Clarinet Quintet, both from 1891.

Robert Hausmann, Brahms, & Marie Fellinger (c.1889)

Marie Fellinger was a close friend of Brahms and an avid fan of photography. Among Frau Fellinger's photographs are some taken in the family music room with Brahms and the cellist Robert Hausmann. It was here they "tried out" the new 2nd Cello Sonata for some friends and quite likely where they read through Antonín Dvořák's recently completed Cello Concerto shortly after the composer returned from New York City in 1895. While the photograph is quite dark – the heavy draperies, the wallpaper, Frau Fellinger's dress, the ebony Streicher piano, even Hausmann's cello – you can make out the portrait on the prominently-placed easel. It was common to represent someone who couldn't be present or who had "recently departed" by placing their portrait within the frame. In this case, the absent friend is Clara Schumann, her portrait based on a London photograph taken in March, 1887.

Here is Brahms' pre-retirement Cello Sonata No. 2 in F Major, Op.99, in an exuberant performance with Jacqueline du Pre and Daniel Barenboim (as much as I would've loved to include the live performance video, the sound quality was poor, so in this case, we at least have the score...)

After the first run-through of the Double Concerto with the composer at the piano, playing it with Joachim and Hausmann for Clara Schumann, Brahms remarked “Now I know what has been missing from my life these past few years: the sound of Joachim's violin.”

With that sound back in his ear, Brahms began sketching a new violin concerto, but the public reaction to both the 4th Symphony and now the Double Concerto stifled him and so he destroyed it, along with sketches for not one but TWO additional symphonies, even a second Double Concerto – all consigned to the flames because of his insecurities. (The Op.111 Quintet, incidentally, is assumed to be created out of the ashes of one of those Fifth Symphonies.)

Even Clara Schumann, Brahms most loyal critic, didn't think the Double Concerto had much of a future. His good friend of thirty years, Theodor Billroth, a famous surgeon, had called it “sterile.” Brahms, feeling terribly old-fashioned, was beginning to think perhaps he'd written himself out.

After he had decided to retire from composing at the age of 57, Brahms was coaxed back to writing again by the sound of another musician who had captured his imagination: clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld for whom he wrote a trio and a quintet, both in 1891, and a few years later, created two clarinet sonatas for him as well.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

So, how did Brahms meet Mühlfeld?

In 1894, front row: Brahms (2nd from right) & Mühlfeld (far right); Hausmann (behind Brahms)

In March of 1891, Brahms was a few months shy of 58, and he'd gone to Meinigen in Germany where the local count had maintained a fine orchestra, one Brahms often used for “trying out” his new symphonies before taking them to the Viennese public. 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.

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 Joachim or, more recently, to Hausmann. 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.

Some reacted to this new trio which, by comparison to the Op.111 Quintet, sounds like a more austere affair, calling it 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.

Brahms wrote to his old friend Clara Schumann, racked with pain and at times barely able 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.

The sonatas, then, were both composed in 1894, premiered in Vienna the following January by Mühlfeld and Brahms, and then published in June.

The opening of this second of the clarinet sonatas may certainly sound “autumnal,” but perhaps, given the circumstances, it's more of an Indian Summer? And what can be more wistful than this final set of variations (one of Brahms' most beloved forms) with which to say, again, farewell? At least, right up to the very end with its final, joyful, valedictory wave? There would be only two more pieces – the Four Serious Songs (Op.121) and a set of chorale preludes for the organ (Op.122) but these, yes, would be his last works.

In this performance, it's Karl Leister and David Levine.

As with Beethoven's Septet and the Trio arrangement, Brahms arranged these clarinet sonatas for viola and piano because, simply put, there weren't that many clarinetists out there to buy the scores, so violists everywhere have been eternally grateful to have something dropped in their laps out of an economic necessity. While they happen to sound as natural for the viola as they do for the clarinet, people can surmise they were originally for the viola, but that's historically not the case (nice try, though).

If you want to hear our guests performing Brahms' Clarinet Trio in A Minor from this collection of masterpieces inspired by Mühlfeld's sound, here they are in a performance recorded in 2019.

Brahms in 1897
One more image of Brahms, taken from a private read-through of these sonatas at the home of Clara Schumann before the premiere in 1895.

Clara's teenaged grandson Ferdinand was in awe of finally meeting the famous family friend. He thought Brahms was shorter and stouter than his photos – Brahms had just sent one to Clara taken with Johann Strauss the previous September, Strauss looking youthful and chipper beside Brahms looking considerably older though he was actually eight years younger than the Waltz King. Ferdinand was also fascinated by Brahms' mustache, gray on one side “and fiery red on the other.” 

Daughter Eugenie was astonished how “full of life the house seemed as soon as Brahms set foot in it,” no doubt recalling the Old Days when the 20-something Brahms had been a daily part of their family life. He regaled them with jokes and stories about an operation that Billroth had described to him, or telling them about Dvořák's new pieces, or how Joachim, who'd sleep like a log when they were touring together, was a terrible card player. They read through the clarinet sonatas with Mühlfeld, Clara turning pages, smiling. 

But one day, during this visit, he angrily complained “I have no friends! If anyone tells you he is my friend, don't believe him!” “But,” Eugenie countered, “friends are the best gift in the world. Why should you resent them?” 

He only stared back at her “with wide haunted eyes and said nothing.”

– Dick Strawser


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