The inspiration for the two Op. 120 clarinet sonatas arose when Brahms heard the artistry of Richard Muehlfeld, first clarinetist of the Meiningen Orchestra. Calling him "the greatest master of his instrument," Muehlfeld's playing so enchanted Brahms that he composed some chamber music for him, comprising a trio, a quintet, and these two sonatas.

Sensing the potential for increased profits with these sonatas, Brahms' publisher, Simrock, asked the composer to set them for viola. Shortly following the printing of the successful viola version, Simrock once again persuaded Brahms to recast the sonatas, this time for violin. With only minor changes to the original clarinet part (some added double stops and transpositions of the very lowest clarinet notes), the composer gave his approval for publication of the violin version.

Heated controversy raged over the clarinet vs. the viola version, with clarinetists excoriating violists for supposedly stealing away their prize, and violists reassuring themselves that Brahms really wanted to improve on his original work - with neither camp ever admitting the legitimacy of the sonatas as recast for violin. I believe that each version is itself a thing of beauty, and hope that you will resist the impulse to make comparisons amongst the three. Just remember, Brahms himself created them all.

Notes by Alan Grishman