Brahms in 1853 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Brahms clarinet quintet is one of the most popular pieces of music in the clarinet repertoire, but the connection between Brahms and the clarinet goes well beyond this one piece of music. Brahms is recognized as one of the greatest composers for the clarinet, and it was the clarinet that lured this great composer out of early retirement.
Brahms wrote for the clarinet in his earlier orchestral pieces, such as the two Serenades and his Symphonies, but his interest in the clarinet was to be expanded once he met a virtuosic clarinetist named Richard Mülfeld. Beginning his musical career as a violinist, Mülfeld soon rose to be the leading clarinet player of his generation. Becoming friends soon after being introduced, Brahms and Mülfeld would discuss the possibilities of the clarinet, with Mülfeld often playing pieces of the repertoire in his own style for Brahms.
Brahms had decided to retire from composing in the late 1880s, however he was so inspired by Mülfeld's playing that he gave up these plans, and composed the Clarinet Quintet (Op. 115) and Trio (Op. 114) in 1891, as well as two Clarinet Sonatas in F minor and E flat (Op. 120) in 1894.
The Clarinet Quintet was premiered by Mülfeld and the Joachim Quartet on December 12th, 1891. It has been considered a pinnacle of music written for clarinet ever since.
Most clarinetists will incorporate at least one of Brahms pieces for clarinet into their repertoire, with many clarinetists choosing to learn all Brahms wrote for the clarinet.