JAVS Fall 2023

In the Studio

Making a Case for the Original Clarinet Notation, Op. 120 No. 2 Sonata by Brahms by Lawrence Wheeler

Johannes Brahms wrote his two sonatas for clarinet and piano in 1894; they were part of a group of four chamber works inspired by clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld. The transcription for viola was published in 1895. Even though originally written for clarinet, they represent one of the most substantial contributions to the viola sonata of any of the great 19th century composers. In correspondence with violinist Joseph Joachim, we learn some background to the viola version. Brahms to Joachim (14 October 1894): Should you be coming to Frankfurt … please let me know. I would come too, and either invite Mühlfeld or bring a viola part for two clarinet sonatas which I should very much like Frau Schumann to hear. Our cosiness would not be disturbed by these unassuming pieces - but it would be nice!” Joachim replied in return: “I will be in Frankfurt on 9 November … Please write soon whether I may really look forward to it. It is quite splendid that Mühlfeld has inspired you to further chamber music. From the very beginning, Brahms was unsure that the arrangement for viola would be satisfactory. In a May 1997 article in “The Strad,” Michael Freyham writes: The sonatas are just as much a gift for viola players however, and many insist that the radiant warmth of the viola is even more appropriate to the music than the ‘cool, liquid timbre of the clarinet.’ Unfortunately, this opinion was not shared by Brahms, as we learn from his reply to Joachim (17 October 1894): ‘That’s excellent… I hope Mühlfeld will be able to come — for I fear that the two pieces are very clumsy and ungratifying [sehr ungeschickt und unerfreulich] as viola sonatas’. It is a harsh judgement. Was Brahms right? The restricted range of

the viola certainly necessitated all sorts of rewriting of the wide-ranging clarinet line, often with unsatisfactory solutions. While Brahms approved the viola version for publication, perhaps he did not do this by himself. He routinely asked Joachim for input regarding technical and musical matters for the violin, and he asked Joachim to bring his viola to a reading of the clarinet sonatas. But that did not happen, and there is no evidence that Brahms ever heard the sonatas played on the viola. It is also possible the violist from the Joachim String Quartet was asked for input. A story told by Lionel Tertis in his book My Viola and I gives perspective to that possibility: In 1897, a fellow student lent me a Guadagnini viola….and from that moment I became more than ever an enthusiast, resolved that my life’s work should be the establishment of the viola’s rights as a solo instrument. In those days when it was the rarest thing to hear a viola solo, the upper range of the instrument was completely unexplored. Players from the time rarely climbed higher than the second ledger line in the treble clef! To counteract this neglect of the higher registers I resolved to give demonstrations to show the improvement in the quality of those higher tones that could be achieved by persistent practice in them. As a student at the Royal Academy of Music I was able to accomplish this by playing the Mendelssohn and Wieniawski D minor concertos (of course a fifth lower but exactly as written for the violin) at two of the fortnightly students’ concerts there. The morning after my performance of the Mendelssohn, I met Alfred Gibson who was for a time violist of the Joachim Quartet. Evidently he had been present at

Journal of the American Viola Society / Vol. 39, No. 2, Fall 2023


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