The winter of 1848-49 saw an especially prolific period in Robert Schumann's compositional life. During two days in February (the 11th and 12th), he produced his Fantasiestücke, followed a few days later by the Adagio and Allegro for horn and piano, and the Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra. With the horn work, the Fantasiestücke are normally enumerated with Schumann's lesser chamber works--the greater chamber works having already been written during a period of intense activity in this genre some seven years earlier. They may be considered to be experimental, with certain oddities immediately apparent. The traditional fast-slow-fast arrangement of movements was abandoned in favor of a relatively slow-medium-fast design. Originally called Soireestücke, these pieces were published during the year in which they were written, with ad lib alternative parts for violin or violoncello.
One of the remarkable musical personalities of the Nineteenth Century must have been Richard Mühlfeld, whose warm, affable nature and consummate artistry rekindled Brahms’ intention to compose chamber music. In 1890, Brahms' G Major string quartet, op. 111 was sent to his publisher, Simrock, with a note saying that “the time has now come for you to say good-bye to any further compositions of mine.” The composer's regard for Mühlfeld can be inferred from the nicknames “Fraülein von Mühlfeld, meine Primadonna” and “Fraülein Nachtigall” that Brahms affectionately awarded the artist. The four monuments to the respect that Brahms held for Mühlfeld are the only four chamber works written after 1890, all involving the clarinet and all masterworks in their own rights. The profound B Minor Quintet (1891), op. 115 universally receives the highest praise among performers and writers. That the A Minor Trio, op. 114 (1891) is overshadowed by the Quintet owes not so much to the trio's lack of inspiration or craftsmanship as to the Quintet's sheer greatness.
The Second Sonata begins in an another sonata allegro design, this time much more mellow in character than the F Minor's opening. However, the stürm and drang of the First Symphony and B Major Trio are recalled in the passionate second movement—similar in form to the third movement of the first sonata, but altogether different in character. The variation form which follows begins with Brahms’ familiar poco forte marking, applied to a three-beat motive in search of a downbeat. Throughout the first four variations, that downbeat is never found within the forte dynamic; the tune finds its home only within the gentler piano dynamic at the end of each section. The final variation, Allegro, becomes an affirmation of the cadential portion of the phrase, this time expressed in a stronger dynamic.