Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in F Minor, Op. 120, No. 1 - Brahms - beautiful performance!

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Johannes Brahms
David Deveau, Richard Stoltzman
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

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The Clarinet Sonatas, Op. 120, Nos. 1 and 2 are a pair of works written for clarinet and piano by the Romantic composer Johannes Brahms. They were written in 1894 and are dedicated to the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld. The sonatas stem from a period late in Brahms’s life where he “discovered” the beauty of the sound and tonal colour of the clarinet. The form of the clarinet sonata was largely undeveloped until after the completion of these sonatas, after which the combination of clarinet and piano was more readily used in composers’ new works. These were the last chamber pieces Brahms wrote before his death and are considered two of the great masterpieces in the clarinet repertoire. Brahms also produced a frequently performed transcription of these works for viola with alterations to better suit the instrument.


By 1890, Brahms vowed to retire from composing, but his promise was short lived. In January 1891 he made a trip to Meiningen for an arts festival and was captivated by performances of the Carl Maria von Weber Clarinet Concerto No. 1 and the Mozart Clarinet Quintet. The solo clarinetist was Richard Mühlfeld, and Brahms began a fond friendship with the man whom he so admired. The beautiful tone of “Fräulein Klarinette” (as Brahms would nickname Mühlfeld) inspired him to begin composing again less than a year after he retired. The fruits of their friendship were four remarkable additions to the still modest clarinet repertoire of that time, including the trio in a minor for clarinet, cello and piano Op 114 (1891), the b minor quintet for clarinet and strings, Op. 115 (1891), and two clarinet sonatas. In July of 1894, at his Bad Ischl retreat, Brahms completed the sonatas. He wrote to Mühlfeld on August 26th, inviting him to Bad Ischl, to perform them, stating cryptically that "it would be splendid if you brought your Bb clarinet." As Muhlfeld had other commitments that summer, he delayed responding, but went to Vienna in September to meet Brahms and to acquaint himself with the two sonatas. They were first performed (by Brahms and Mühlfeld) privately for Georg II, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen (Duke Georg) and his family in September of that year. Brahms and Muhlfeld then performed them for Clara Schumann in November 1894, before their public premieres on January 7, 1895. Brahms’ experience in writing his Clarinet Quintet three years earlier led him to compose the sonatas for clarinet and piano because he preferred the sound over that of clarinet with strings. It is interesting to note that the keys of the sonatas—F minor and E-flat major—correspond to the keys of the two clarinet concertos which Weber composed more than eighty years earlier.


1. Allegro appassionato in F minor, in 3/4 time
2. Andante un poco Adagio in A-flat major, in 2/4 time
3. Allegretto grazioso in A-flat major, in 3/4 time
4. Vivace in F major, alla breve
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Classical music piece performed by: Richard Stoltzman, clarinet and David Deveau, piano
Licensed by: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston
Music license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Portrait by courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France

Classical music piece ID: HDCM0693

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