As Brahms neared his 58th birthday, he worried that his creative energies may have been exhausted, and he considered retirement. In 1891, however, he was introduced to Richard Mülfeld, then principal clarinettist with the Meiningen orchestra. Mülfeld’s superb playing deeply impressed Brahms and prompted him to compose four more chamber music works, all featuring the clarinet. Of these works, the clarinet quintet is the best known, and the work is now regarded as one of the finest pieces of chamber music in the literature.
Thematically, the work is tightly integrated, with the genesis of much of the melodic material revealed in the fourth and final movement. Both the second and third movements consist of contrasting sections built on a single motif. The second movement, with its profoundly resonant and deeply felt language, elaborates on an idea extracted from the opening melody, while the third movement offers glimpses of the finale’s main theme.
The five increasingly vigorous variations on a theme in the final movement lead toward an edifying statement of the basis of the work’s opening Allegro melody: the sense of anticipation dissipating as the piece then relaxes into a slow coda. But the ensuing sense of calm is interrupted by one last burst of virtuosity, an occasion perhaps, when Brahms could revel in the talents of Mülfeld that he so admired.