Arion Logo
CSS nov 2016

November 4, 2016

Clarinet trios, featuring Brahms Trio in A Minor, Op. 114


Alexander von Zemlinsky Trio in D minor, Op. 3
Max Bruch Selections from Acht Stücke, Op. 83
Johannes Brahms Trio in A minor, Op. 114


Notes on the Program

Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-­1942)

Trio in D Minor, Op. 3 (1896)

Unlike Brahms or Bruch -- both northern Germans –- Alexander von Zemlinsky was a product of the richly varied ethnic and cultural mix of the Austro–Hungarian Empire. His father, Adolf Semlinski, was the son of Slovakian and Austrian Catholics; his mother was of mixed Sephardic Jewish and Bosnian Muslim parentage; at the time of their marriage they adopted Judaism as the family faith and settled in Vienna. (Around the same time, Adolf changed the spelling of his last name to Zemlinsky and added the ‘von’.)
Zemlinsky’s subsequent professional and personal lives have a similar ‘crossroads’ quality about them. A student of Anton Bruckner, in 1893 he came to the attention of Johannes Brahms who, while critical of certain aspects of Zemlinsky’s work, ultimately recommended the young composer’s Clarinet Trio to his own publisher, Simrock. Around the same time, Zemlinsky began a close friendship with Arnold Schoenberg (they ultimately became brothers in ­law when Schoenberg married Zemlinsky’s sister, Mathilde). As the result of giving him private instruction in counterpoint, Zemlinsky has the distinction of having been Schoenberg’s only formal music teacher. (Both Alban Berg and Anton Webern later studied orchestration with Zemlinsky, and Erich Korngold was his composition student.) It was also by way of teaching that Zemlinsky met and fell in love with Alma Schindler, in 1900. She began by returning his feelings but her family and friends soon persuaded her to break off the relationship. Their reasons for this seem to have been, chiefly, Zemlinsky’s physical appearance (short, homely) and what they saw as an insufficiently distinguished start to his career. Not long afterwards, Alma met Gustav Mahler and married him in 1902. (Readers familiar with Alma’s later romantic and marital career may conclude that Zemlinsky had dodged a bullet but, sadly, his eventual first marriage was not an especially happy one.)
Along with teaching composition and related subjects, Zemlinsky worked for many years as a conductor, first in Vienna, then for over 15 years in Prague, and later in Berlin. Important as an early champion of the works of Mahler and Schoenberg, he was also particularly admired for his interpretations of Mozart (Igor Stravinsky said that attending a Marriage of Figaro directed by Zemlinsky in Prague had been one of the most fulfilling operatic experiences of his life). In addition to eight operas of his own, Zemlinsky wrote several non–dramatic works for voice and orchestra, of which the most significant is his Lyric Symphony (1923), incorporating verses of Rabindranath Tagore sung by soprano and baritone; it gained popularity in its day and inspired Alban Berg’s great Lyric Suite which quotes from Zemlinsky’s work and is dedicated to him.
New Yorkers may be interested to know that Zemlinsky spent the last few years of his life in their city. Upon the rise of Hitler to power in 1933, he left Germany, first returning to Vienna and then, in 1938, making briefly for Prague and finally for New York City. Here he endeavored to continue composing chiefly works aimed at a student market, intended to generate income but his health declined rapidly. He died in Larchmont, NY in 1942, of pneumonia, following a series of strokes.
Though it would be a stretch to call it a staple of the chamber music repertory, Zemlinsky’s early Clarinet Trio has come to be one of his most frequently performed works. The first movement is a large–scale sonata form marked “Mit Schwung und Wärme” (‘with warmth and swing’); the second is a three–part form with a rhapsodic middle section (a little reminiscent of the Adagio of Brahms’s clarinet quintet); a vigorous, dance–like third movement concludes with a return of the first movement’s principal theme.

Max Bruch (1838-1920)

Selections from Acht Stücke, Op. 83 (1909)

In common with Zemlinsky, Max Bruch enjoyed a successful career as a conductor and teacher a series of appointments in Mannheim, Koblenz and Liverpool culminated in twenty years of teaching composition at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik. Unlike Zemlinsky, Bruch was the author of a handful of enduring concert hall ‘warhorses’ that are still very much a part of the classical music repertoire today: his G Minor Concerto and Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra, and the Kol Nidrei for cello. (So ubiquitously successful was this last–mentioned work that it resulted in all of his music being banned by the Nazis, despite the fact that he was born and raised a Lutheran, with no known Jewish heritage.)
Bruch composed chamber music throughout his long life sets of string quartets and quintets, a piano trio, a septet, an octet and several smaller­scale works but only the Acht Stücke, Op. 83 are performed with any regularity nowadays. Originally scored for clarinet, viola and piano (but published, from the start, with alternate versions for cello or violin), they were conceived with the composer’s son in mind: Max Felix Bruch was a talented young clarinetist, for whom his father also wrote a double concerto for clarinet and viola.
Composed in 1909 the same year as Stravinsky’s Firebird and Schoenberg’s atonal Erwartung the Acht Stücke are written in a musical language essentially identical to that of Bruch’s first Violin Concerto of the 1860s. Their straightforward forms allow for an emphasis on uncluttered melodic expressivity. The individual pieces are free–standing, not part of a larger, multi–movement structure or scheme; indeed, Bruch expressly counselled against performing all eight at once together, or in any particular order.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Trio in A Minor, Op. 114 (1891)

At age 57, with the completion of his monumental second string quintet (G Major, Op. 111) in 1890, Brahms felt that he had reached the end of his career as a composer. In the spirit of ‘winding up his affairs’, he announced his retirement in a letter to his publisher which also laid out the provisions of his will. Not long thereafter he attended a set of concerts by the Meiningen Court Orchestra, an ensemble with which he had a decade­long association by way of his friend and colleague, Hans von Bülow, who had been appointed Court Music Director at Meiningen in 1880. (Somewhat ironically, the orchestra had previously served as a showcase for the music of the ‘New German School’: Liszt, Wagner and their followers. Wagner hired the orchestra to perform at the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876.) Bülow had moved on by 1885 but Brahms maintained his relationship with the orchestra and its subsequent directors (including, briefly, a youthful Richard Strauss), appearing as soloist and conducting the premiere of his Fourth Symphony himself.
The concerts that Brahms attended in 1890 featured the playing of the ensemble’s principal clarinetist, Richard Mühlfeld, performing (amongst other things) the Mozart Clarinet Quintet and Karl Maria von Weber’s Clarinet Concerto. (Interestingly, Mühlfeld had originally joined the Meiningen orchestra as a violinist, switching to
clarinet after three years there.) Brahms was profoundly moved by Mühlfeld’s playing; the two struck up a friendship (Brahms referring to the younger Mühlfeld as his ‘dear nightingale’ and ‘Fräulein Klarinette’) that developed into the last important creative association of Brahms’s life. The first fruits of this friendship were the clarinet trio, Opus 114, and clarinet quintet, Opus 115, both completed in the summer of 1891 at Bad Ischl. (The two clarinet sonatas, Op. 120, would follow in 1894.)
The clarinet trio is often treated as a kind of poor step­sister in relation to the quintet. They are properly understood as two aspects of the same pervasive melancholy of Brahms’s final years. Where the quintet is richly expansive in the manner beloved by Brahms enthusiasts, the trio is lean, spare, tautly constructed, deeply introspective indeed, positively introverted. Certain compositional challenges arise out of the combining of three very different types of instruments, and the close intertwining of the musical lines can be said to exacerbate rather than alleviate some of these challenges, but much of the expressive impact of the piece results from exactly this densely interwoven quality.
The first movement, Allegro, is a sonata form modified in several small but significant ways, notable for beginning with the cello alone and for exploring the entire range of the A clarinet. The second movement, an Adagio in ‘sonatina’ form (essentially, sonata form without development), is a remarkable emotional and expressive journey in 54 short measures. Next is an Andantino grazioso in a ternary form similar to a Minuet & Trio that could perhaps best be called ‘Waltz/Ländler’. The restless, rousing final Allegro shows Brahms at the top of his compositional form in the manipulation of his materials.

Program Notes © Robert La Rue, 2016