Brahms, Johannes: Op. 114, Trio in A minor for Piano, Clarinet and Cello

Now that Johannes Brahms is one of the central figures of the history of Western art music, it can be a bit hard to imagine how his initial reception may have been ambiguous. But if ever anyone was a musical formalist, Johannes Brahms was one, and many have taken him to task for it (some still do, and, since it is a matter of taste, there’s no reason to squabble over it). Brahms’ career spanned the dramatic era of Wagner, Berlioz, and Liszt. His academic style, while very well-respected, was never as fashionable as the ‘Music of the Future.’ Brahms described his compositional style as ‘thinking logically in music;’ Hugo Wolf described it as ‘brain music.’ A sense of Brahms’ academic disposition stands strongly in the foreground of the Clarinet Trio in A Minor. It was composed alongside the Clarinet Quintet in 1891, inspired (rather famously) by a clarinetist (and violinist and conductor) named Richard Mühlfeld, whom Brahms met at a music festival in Meiningen. The Clarinet Trio does not focus on clarinet sound per se – it has as much to do with the relationships between different modes of minor keys as with the sound of the instrument – and has an unusually high-modern-ish concentration on notes and note relations in the abstract, without the atmospheric facade which might arise from richer instrumentation. The trio is a difficult work, and one of Brahms’ personal favorites.

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