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Edward Klorman on Brahms’ Clarinet Sonatas

The following post is by Edward Klorman.

The two sonatas of Brahms’s op. 120 enjoy a central position in the viola repertoire. As these two pieces were originally conceived for clarinet—and later transcribed for viola—every violist must come to terms with the differences between the two versions and make his or her own decisions about which text to follow in performance.

To that end, I wish to recommend an excellent article by the American/German violist James Creitz entitled The Brahms Sonatas, Op. 120 for Viola and Their Textual Challenges. Creitz’s article provides a detailed account of the circumstances that led to the creation of the published viola version, which Brahms created at Simrock’s urging in accordance with the longstanding tradition of issuing clarinet works in alternate versions for violin or viola. [If you haven’t seen the Creitz article, I recommend you read it now, before finishing this blog post.]

That the viola version was created for an amateur market may explain some of the choices Brahms made particularly with respect to register, and may invite some modern violists to consider restoring the original clarinet versions. As Creitz notes, the considerable haste with which Brahms prepared the viola version is evident from the original manuscript of the viola part, written out by copyist William Kupfer, on which Brahms quickly wrote out the minor corrections and alterations that now appear in Urtext editions of the viola version. This manuscript, which is in the collection of the Brahms Archive in Hamburg, can be viewed at this link Brahms op 120 viola part (Brahms Archiv), and is worth serious study by all violists.

But while violists continue to fiercely debate which version is “best” or most “authentic,” it’s likely Brahms’s wouldn’t have taken sides in this conflict; he more likely would have encouraged players to find their own way. This is borne out in a number of anecdotes recounted in the volume Performing Brahms: Early Evidence of Performance Style, edited by Bernard D. Sherman and Michael Musgrave. I’ll quote just two examples:

* When the violist Alwin von Beckerath wrote to Brahms to ask the proper metronome marking for the finale to his Second String Quartet (and to settle a dispute with Becherath’s first violinist), Brahms’s provided this sarcastic reply: “In your case … I can quite easily start you on a subscription for metronome markings You pay me a tidy sum and each week I deliver to you—different numbers; for with normal people, they cannot remain valid for more than a week! Incidentally, you are right, and the first violin as well!” (letter to Alwin von Beckerath, January 1884, quoted in Performing Brahms, 21).

* Shortly before the premiere of his Third Quartet, Brahms wrote the following to Joseph Joachim: “In the difficult passages, particularly in the first movement, would you alter a few notes for me? To me, fingerings [written in the players’ parts] are always just evidence that something is rotten in the violin scoring. But a few open strings here and there, they delight my eye and calm my spirit” (letter to Joseph Joachim, 18 October 1876, quoted in Performing Brahms, 26).

While I wouldn’t encourage anyone to “alter a few notes” in Brahms’s scores today, this latter anecdote does reveal his deep concern that his music be idiomatic and playable, a consideration that surely figured into his arrangement of the op. 120 sonatas for domestic use by amateur violists. In the former story, Brahms’s refusal to provide a metronome marking—a common thread throughout his correspondence—betrays his value on a certain flexibility, freedom, and personal touch in performance over a doggedly literal adherence to a single “correct” performance.

Fanny Davies wrote that Brahms told performers “Do it how you like, but do it beautifully” (“Machen Sie es wie Sie wollen, machen Sie es nur schön”; quoted in Performing Brahms, 176). May this wise words continue to inspire beautiful performances of Brahms’s music for centuries to come!


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