This afternoon Christina Mok, Concertmaster of the Monterey Symphony, returned to Noontime Concerts with the same Monterey Symphony Chamber Players that joined her last week, violinist Tina Minn, violist Chad Kaltinger, cellist Drew Ford, and clarinetist Steve Sanchez. This week, however, the ensemble performed only one composition, the Opus 115 clarinet quintet in B minor by Johannes Brahms. This composition has one of the more interesting back-stories in the history of music; but, however familiar it may be, it bears repeating.
In 1890, at the age of 57, Brahms made the decision that he would retire from composing. It didn’t last because Richard Mühlfeld, clarinetist with the Meiningen orchestra, made such a deep impression that Brahms could not resist providing him with new pieces to play. Yes, the noun was plural. By 1894 Brahms had completed four pieces for Mühlfeld, the Opus 114 clarinet trio, Opus 115, and the two Opus 120 sonatas. By this time, composing more pieces was a bit like eating potato chips; and Brahms would also create a healthy number of new pieces for piano, the Vier ernste Gesänge (four serious songs, settings of Biblical texts) for bass and piano (Opus 121), and eleven chorale preludes for organ (Opus 122).
It is important to bear this “track record” in mind, because it is too easy to fall into the illusion that Opus 115 is some kind of “twilight” composition. Mind you, Brahms may have encouraged that illusion. Even without listening, one can look at the final system of the score and see signs of the final exhalation of a dying man:
However, even if Brahms still had plenty of music in him left to write, there are any number of musical examples to reinforce that the dominant rhetoric of Opus 115 is melancholia. The way in which those final measures above recall the very opening of the composition followed by the “gasping” gestures of the last five measures make a strong case that Brahms had landed on one of the most effective musical renditions of Sehnsucht, that untranslatable German noun that often ends up in English as “longing,” on his side of Gustav Mahler.
All this goes to show that Brahms was as concerned about expressive rhetoric as he was with the grammatical constraints of both harmony and counterpoint and the overall logic of structure. Taking this tripartite foundation as a baseline, it is important to note that Mok and her colleagues clearly comprehended all three of these “dimensions of musical thinking” and brought forth a performance that fired on all cylinders. In doing so they reminded one of how well the nineteenth century had been framed by giants of chamber music, with Ludwig van Beethoven at one end and Brahms at the other. Furthermore, if there is cause for melancholy, it would be in the difficulty of finding any chamber music from the twentieth century that would show as much command of logic, grammar, and rhetoric as Opus 115 had done.
(Anyone wishing to rise to the challenge implicit in that last sentence should feel free to do so through a comment. I have a few contenders of my own, but I also have some refutation arguments. The claim is not an attack on the twentieth century but simply an observation that, after the nineteenth century played itself out, composers moved on to other interests in priorities.)