Friday, January 15, 2016

Clarinet Quintets

No. 213 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


A new year begins on our Friday Blog and Podcast with two new offerings for January, a sort of mini-series of music in an intimate setting – music for a few players.

On Tuesday, we began a look at the music Johannes Brahms wrote for the clarinet, with a his two clarinet sonatas and his clarinet trio. Today, we complete the set with his clarinet quintet – that is clarinet with string quartet.

One of the earliest and most influential works for this combination of instruments is Mozart's Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, K. 581, written for the clarinetist Anton Stadler in 1789. Although a few compositions for this ensemble were produced over the following years, including the Op. 34 clarinet quintet by Carl Maria von Weber, a composer famous for his solo clarinet compositions, it was not until Johannes Brahms composed his Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115 for Richard Mühlfeld that the clarinet quintet began to receive considerable attention from composers.

In a past podcast we provided a performance of Mozart’s quintet, which was famously part of the final episode of the long-time serial M*A*S*H. The Mozart quintet is often paired with Weber’s quartet – as was the case on the disc I used for today’s performance by the all-Canadian group formed of clarinetist James Campbell and the Orford String Quartet.

Brahms modeled his quintet after Mozart's. The piece is known for its autumnal mood. The performance is a vintage CBC aircheck recording featuring musicians of the Toronto Symphony.

British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor possessed both prodigious talent and refined musical taste; it is worth observing that his composition teacher at the Royal College of Music, Charles Villiers Stanford regarded him as one of his two most brilliant students, the other being Coleridge-Taylor’s friend William Yeates Hurlstone, who died at the age of thirty in 1906. Stanford’s assessment of Coleridge-Taylor’s abilities represents no mean accolade when one considers that he also taught, among many others, Arthur Bliss, Frank Bridge, Gustav Holst, Herbert Howells, John Ireland, E J Moeran and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Coleridge-Taylor’s Clarinet Quintet came about after Stanford’s comment to the effect that after Brahms produced his Clarinet Quintet no one would be able to compose another that did not show Brahms’ influence. Coleridge-Taylor took this as a challenge and Stanford, on examining the result, remarked, ‘you’ve done it, me boy!’. Stanford showed the piece to Brahms’ friend Joseph Joachim who shortly thereafter played it with colleagues in Berlin.

In the character of the thematic material and in the ways in which it is developed, the influence of Dvorák is unmistakable. Coleridge-Taylor freely acknowledged his favourite composer to be Dvorák, who was in turn a devotee of Schubert, whose inexhaustible spontaneity Coleridge-Taylor almost matched. The influence of both these composers is apparent in the quintet; it is a work of remarkable subtlety and sophistication, rhythmically exuberant and complex, and uses the ensemble in an integrated way that demonstrates the composer’s utter mastery of the genre.

Coleridge-Taylor’s Clarinet Quintet This is music of deep sensibility that deserves to be part of this trio of like-minded works.

I think you will love this music too