THREE INTERMEZZI FOR PIANO, OP. 117
Of the twenty short piano pieces Brahms published as
Opp. 116-119, fourteen are titled
“Intermezzo.” He abandoned the term “Capriccio” after Op. 116. While an introspective,
gentle piece may be implied by “Intermezzo,” it was also used for
pieces such as Op. 118, No. 6, whose
middle section is very passionate. Perhaps he considered the
term generic enough to suit his needs. At any rate, the
smallest of the four sets, the second, is the only one to use that
term exclusively, even in its collective title. The triptych
is notable for the distinct character of the lullaby that
permeates all three. None of them ever gets very loud, and
despite a somewhat agitated melancholy in parts of Nos. 2 and 3
(and even the middle section of No. 1), that character is always
present. A tantalizing utterance of Brahms about “cradle
songs of my sorrows” has often been associated with the set, but
it has never really been clear whether this refers to the set as a
whole, to No. 1 in particular, or (as is most likely) to No.
3. No. 1 is explicitly prefaced with poetic lines about a
sleeping child (similar to the “poetic” preface of the slow
movement in the F-minor sonata, Op. 5,
at the other end of his solo piano output). Herder’s text
for the whole poem fits the beautiful melody perfectly. The
wordless “setting” of a Scottish ballad recalls the “Edward”
Ballade, Op. 10, No. 1. The piece
is among the most popular of the late miniatures, both because of
this highly memorable tune and because it is relatively easy to
play. Nonetheless, it requires great sensitivity in
projecting the melody out from the middle of the texture, where it
often lies, in the voicing of the dark middle section, and in the
subtle canon toward the end of the reprise. No. 2 has a
slightly more complex form that does not really fit the usual
A-B-A model seen in these pieces. The perpetual flowing
lines of the main theme, while somewhat gloomy, are strangely
subdued. The underlying tensions in No. 3, which always seem
ready to burst through, never really do, giving the piece an air
of resigned, even hopeless tragedy, a “cradle song of
sorrow.” Its slightly extended form is similar to that of Op. 118, No. 6, where the passion does
break through. All three pieces rely heavily on the upbeat,
particularly No. 2. The narrow range of keys, B-flat to
E-flat, with C-sharp at the near-midpoint between them, is similar
to that seen in Op. 119, where the range is from B to E.
Recording: Martin Jones, pianist [NI 1788]
SCORE FROM IMSLP (First Edition from Brahms-Institut Lübeck)
ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (from Breitkopf & Härtel
Individually, with English headings (lower scan quality):
in E-flat major
in B-flat minor
in C-sharp minor
No. 1: Andante moderato
- Più Adagio - Un poco più Andante (Ternary form). E-FLAT
MAJOR, 6/8 time.
The piece is headed by the following poetic lines, the
opening of a translation by Herder of the Scottish “Lady Anne
Schlaf sanft mein Kind, schlaf sanft und schön!
Mich dauert’s sehr, dich weinen sehn.
(Sleep softly, my child, sleep softly and well!
It breaks my heart to see you weep.)
A Section--Andante moderato, E-flat major
0:00 [m. 1]--The
melody, after the initial upbeat, is placed below a repeated
E-flat that continues to ring above and often below it. It
is not concealed, however, and the eminently singable tune reaches
a gentle cadence, complete with a delicate grace note, in its
first phrase, just as the upper bell-like note moves for the first
time. The left hand emphasizes the continual E-flat
harmony with steady chords and regular bass notes.
0:20 [m. 5]--The melody
itself becomes more active in the second phrase, and the harmony
also begins to move. The melody is still concealed below the
upper line, but this upper line now moves steadily instead of
remaining static. Halfway through the phrase, the shape of
the melody moves to bass octaves, the music builds slightly, and
the right hand chords introduce mild syncopation. This all
settles down in a descending bridge to the return of the opening
gesture that includes a dramatic rolled chord.
0:40 [m. 9]--The opening
of the melody returns again for the third phrase. Its first
three bars are the same as the first phrase, but the upbeat to the
last bar deviates with an emphasis on the harmony of B-flat, the
“dominant” key. This is undermined, however, by the upper
voice, which persists on the top E-flat. This last bar is
somewhat tense, begging for the resolution coming in the next
0:58 [m. 13]--The melody’s
fourth and last phrase is again similar to the first one, but here
it is the first half that is varied. The opening is shifted
up an octave. The left hand chords, as well as the bell-like
upper voice, introduce a “hemiola,” cross rhythm, making the first
bar sound like 3/4 meter. The second bar restores the meter
in the right hand, but the “upper” voice moves to the middle with
a graceful turn, and the melody is briefly on top. The left
hand retains the “hemiola” motion in this bar. The last two
bars, including the cadence, are almost as in the first phrase,
but the left hand and the bell-like upper voice continue the
“hemiola” that disrupts the meter. They become slower and
softer as the cadence, finally restoring the 6/8 motion, brings
the lullaby to a complete close.
1:19 [m. 17]--The
transition to the B
section places the opening lullaby gesture in stark octaves that
are changed to the minor key. In the second bar, the octaves
remain in the bass while the right hand introduces harmonies,
along with a vestige of the steady E-flat on top. The
octaves move to the right hand in the third bar, the harmonies to
the left. The last bar of the transition is a descent in
octaves (with added thirds) against left hand octaves that again
disturb the meter with a “hemiola.” These descending chords
slow greatly for the entry of the darker middle section.
B Section--Più Adagio,
1:42 [m. 21]--The middle
section is in the home minor key, the very dark E-flat
minor. The left hand has ascending four-note arpeggios, two
in each bar. The right hand motion enters off the beat, with
two-note harmonies on the off-beats alternating with lower single
notes on the beats. This creates another metric
displacement, but the left-hand arpeggios keep the meter
clear. The first four of these groups alternate between the
middle and higher registers. The music is very quiet, marked
pianissimo sempre ma molto
2:03 [m. 25]--Another set
of the same gestures begins, but now dissonant chromatic notes are
introduced, and the second bar suddenly emerges into a dark
reminiscence, in octaves, of the lullaby’s opening figure in
B-flat minor. This sequence happens a second time, but the
harmonies in the third bar are more dissonant than those in the
first, and the lullaby gesture is darkly extended to lead again
into the middle section’s opening figures in E-flat minor.
2:28 [m. 29]--This third
phrase is similar in shape to the first, but after the first bar,
the harmonies are richer and notes from the major key, along with
other chromatic notes that suggest A-flat minor, are introduced.
2:49 [m. 33]--In another
parallel, this phrase is similar to that at 2:03 [m. 25].
The harmonies are altered, however, so that the reminiscence of
the lullaby phrase is at home in E-flat minor rather than B-flat
minor. The second sequence appears to follow the pattern,
but now the lullaby gesture is stretched out with longer notes in
yet another “hemiola.” The lullaby notes themselves are now
in an implied 3/4 motion in the bass, then in the top voices, but
the harmonies around them retain the 6/8 grouping. The
hemiola stretches the gesture out to two bars, creating a phrase
of five bars, the first disruption of the regular four-bar phrases
in the piece. The minor key is retained to the end, leading
right into the return of the main lullaby.
A’ Section--Un poco più
Andante, E-flat major
3:20 [m. 38]--The lullaby
returns, but instead of being buried beneath the ringing bell
notes, it is played in full, moving harmony. It is split
between the hands, with the accompanying harmonies being played
first below it, in the left hand, then high above it in the
right. The note E-flat remains constant, as before.
The right hand chords are even more bell-like than the steady
notes in the first presentation. Other than this spatial
reorganization and enrichment of the harmony, it is just like the
opening phrase, and reaches the same gentle cadence with the grace
3:36 [m. 42]--The second
phrase begins as at 0:20 [m. 5], but in the second bar, the melody
suddenly breaks into a flowing embellishment below the ringing
notes. This faster motion continues to the end of the
phrase, including the motion of the lullaby to the bass octaves
and the descending bridge to the third phrase.
3:55 [m. 46]--This third
phrase is essentially as at 0:40 [m. 9], but the harmony at the
end is subtly changed to emphasize the more colorful G minor
instead of B-flat.
4:14 [m. 50]--The first
two bars of this phrase are the most artful in the piece.
Instead of the “hemiola” from 0:58 [m. 13], Brahms introduces an
even more sophisticated variation. The melody moves up an
octave, as before, but it is now more decorated and gently
syncopated. Then, surprisingly, a middle voice is introduced,
exactly an octave below, entering two eighth-note beats
behind. It is an exact imitation of the upper voice, a canon, including all the
decorations and syncopation. Both voices are above rich
rolled chords in the left hand, which also takes the last notes of
the imitating voice. After the canon is completely finished,
the last two bars are as they were before, but a sudden halt
prevents the full closure.
4:35 [m. 54]--The final
cadence is greatly extended, serving as a coda. Two
syncopated gestures that cross bar lines, the first one accented,
re-introduce the bell-like upper E-flats and some inner chromatic
motion, and are followed by a repetition of the cadence
gesture. Even this is drawn out, delaying the resolution to
the downbeat of the next bar, creating a sense of great
anticipation and release when it finally comes. Two closing
E-flat-major chords, the first very low and the second two octaves
higher, neither with the keynote E-flat on top, extend this coda
to a full four-bar phrase.
5:10--END OF PIECE [57 mm.]
No. 2: Andante non
troppo e con molto espressione (Ternary form with elements of
sonata form). B-FLAT MINOR, 3/8 time.
0:00 [m. 1]--Theme 1. The melody begins on
an extended upbeat. The gentle but melancholy tune is
decorated with flowing, arching arpeggios passed between the hands
and punctuated by bass notes. The pattern of the melody
changes slightly halfway through the phrase, introducing more
downward motion. The phrase breaks into an arpeggio that
sweeps downward, then back upward on a more biting “diminished”
harmony. The sweep back up extends the phrase by a bar and
leads into the next phrase.
0:20 [m. 10]--The second
phrase emerges out of the arpeggio and begins like the first one,
but it reaches slightly higher and becomes more chromatic and
dissonant in the descending” second half. The harmony moves
to the related key of F minor. The phrase closes with a
descending arpeggio in that key that leads into the transition.
0:35 [m. 18]--The
transition begins like an extension of the phrase, but it quickly
makes a wide harmonic detour as it quiets down, leading to G-flat
minor (notated as such, with double flats) in the last bridging
arpeggio, which slows down for the more subdued and warm second
theme or middle section in the related major key of D-flat.
0:46 [m. 23]--Theme 2
(D-flat major). Like the first theme, it begins with an
extended upbeat. This time, the upbeat sounds like it leans
very longingly into the bar. Upon examination, the shape of
the melody is extremely similar to that of Theme 1, but instead of
being decorated with flowing arpeggios, it is harmonized in block
chords. As the exceedingly warm tune continues, some of
these chords are beautifully rolled. The left hand has
mildly syncopated arpeggios.
0:57 [m. 27]--Halfway
through the phrase, the melody becomes more flowing and
expressive, with an achingly insistent, chromatic middle voice
that is played by both hands in octaves. The rich middle
register of the piano is exploited. It slows down to a
half-close that briefly suggests a return of B-flat minor.
1:07 [m. 31]--As in Theme
1, the second phrase begins like the first one. As in Theme
1, harmonic deviations quickly occur. They lead to the
related key of G-flat major.
1:18 [m. 35]-- The
flowing section of the phrase with the doubled chromatic middle
voice leads the melody back to a rich and full close in D-flat
major, whose resolution is slightly delayed with a sense of
longing. This rest is short-lived, however, as the
re-transition follows directly.
1:30 [m. 39]--The
re-transition, which is extended enough to almost serve as a small
development section, begins with the upbeat notes of the main
theme in stark octaves moving back to B-flat minor. Here,
the connection between Theme 1 and Theme 2 is especially
clear. The flowing arpeggios that decorated Theme 1
gradually enter and then take over. They become highly
chromatic and unstable, culminating in a dissonant arpeggio of a
“diminished” character, but with several passing notes. This
arpeggio makes two full sweeps down and back up again before
breaking into harmonized two-note figures that are suggestive of
the theme’s opening and are also highly dissonant, favoring the
colorful “diminished seventh” chord.
1:52 [m. 49]--The right
hand breaks into a descending scale line with many chromatic
notes, whose line alternates with lower notes played by the
thumb. The left hand plays more arching arpeggios. The
sense of rhythm and meter is disrupted, as the right hand line
begins just after the downbeat. Finally, what sounds like
the opening gesture of the theme is isolated before the disguised
return of the theme itself.
1:57 [m. 52]--Theme
1. Its return is disguised both by the nebulous
re-transition and also by the introduction of chromatic notes that
suggest the key of E-flat minor or even the dark and austere
Phrygian mode. After the first two melodic gestures, the
theme is brought back to its original form and its first phrase is
completed as before with the sweeping downward arpeggio that turns
back up. This time, a high descending scale figure is added
in the right hand above the upward turn of the arpeggio.
2:17 [m. 61]--The second
phrase of the theme begins as expected, but it is greatly
expanded, growing in excitement and volume as it journeys through
wide-ranging and colorful harmonies. These culminate in two
huge descents that are similar to those that normally close the
phrases of the main theme. The first of these seems to veer
toward the distant E major, but the second shifts the harmony to
arrive on the “dominant” chord of the home key, B-flat
minor. This second descent becomes slower and quieter,
finally coming to a full stop on that “dominant” chord.
2:42 [m. 73]--Theme
2. Marked “Più Adagio,” Theme 2 begins in the home major
key, B-flat. Its first gesture is interrupted by an ominous
half-step figure in the bass and a gently descending right-hand
line. The second gesture is harmonically altered, veering
back toward minor. The ominous half-step and descending
right-hand line follow again.
2:55 [m. 77]--The
connection between Themes 1 and 2 is made explicit here as the
minor key returns unambiguously. A coda grows out of the
gesture that is common to both. It proceeds with much
chromaticism and half-step motion. The ominous half-step
figure in the bass becomes more insistent, not moving from its
location on the “dominant” note F. There are two similar
patterns resembling the main aspects of both themes and
incorporating five statements of the bass half-step.
3:15 [m. 82]--The music
settles onto the familiar descent of the cadence, which is now
very dark. Its resolution is delayed over a long arpeggio on
the chord of B-flat minor that reaches from the depths of the
keyboard up to a high B-flat octave with bass harmony underneath.
3:46--END OF PIECE [85 mm.]
No. 3: Andante con moto (Expanded ternary form--AA’BA”--with
rounded binary form in the B section). C-SHARP MINOR, 2/4
0:00 [m. 1]--The main
theme, a melancholy lullaby, is played in very hushed
octaves. It flows smoothly, beginning with an upbeat, but
has a rather stark and austere effect. Harmony is added to
the half-close at the end of the phrase, which is extended to five
bars, the length of almost all the phrases in the piece.
0:11 [m. 6]--The melody is
repeated, now with an active, leaping bass line, but it retains
its stark and rather bare character. In the last part of the
phrase, notes are altered, and there is now a complete motion to
G-sharp minor rather than a half-close.
0:20 [m. 11]--The
contrasting phrase is again in octaves. It is also five
measures, with harmony added at the end. The opening
gestures have a distinct rocking motion, and the line has a
certain urgency. Despite a hint at returning to the main
key, it remains in G-sharp minor.
0:29 [m. 16]--This
contrasting phrase is repeated as was the first one, and also with
an active bass line, whose motion now matches the urgency of the
melody itself with syncopation. Toward the end, the line
subtly reverses direction and leads the harmony back to the home
key of C-sharp minor, closing the main A section. The cadence is marked by
pulsating off-beat harmonies above the notes of the melody in
0:39 [m. 21]--The section
begins in overlap with the concluding cadence of the A section. The opening
melody is now moved to an inner voice, with harmonies of thirds
and sixths placed above and around it. The left hand plays
rising arpeggios, then broken tenths. The melodic and
harmonic direction are as in the first phrase of the first A section. Despite the
new harmonies and richer texture, it is still very hushed.
0:48 [m. 26]--This phrase
corresponds to 0:11 [m. 6]. As there, the harmony moves to
G-sharp minor. The right hand is similar to the preceding
phrase at 0:39 [m. 21], but the left hand is even more flowing and
active, especially in the first two measures.
0:58 [m. 31]--The
contrasting phrase is as at 0:20 [m. 11] with no changes other
than a marking of pianissimo
instead of piano.
1:07 [m. 36]--Contrasting
phrase with syncopated bass line, as at 0:29 [m. 16]. The
voicing is subtly changed at the cadence, placing the melody on
top and the off-beat harmonies below them. There is also a
slowing to the cadence itself, which sounds more decisive than at
the end of the first A
1:18 [m. 41]--A closing
phrase is added, rounding off the entire double A section. It is marked
“Poco più lento,” and is based on the main lullaby phrase.
The gestures are lengthened, and the phrase lingers on the more
expressive aspects of the melody. Although there is full
harmony, much of the phrase is stated in octaves. A
reiterated low bass C-sharp confirms that key. This closing
phrase, already slower than what has gone before, slows even more
to a complete, full cadence in C-sharp minor and a significant
pause before the highly contrasting middle section in A major.
B Section--Più moto ed
espressivo, A major
1:42 [m. 46]--Part 1 (a). The phrases here
also begin with upbeats, but they are very fast and introduce
strong syncopation that persists throughout, as they begin
four-note groups and obscure the bar line. The music is
faster, brighter, and more agitated, but still quiet. The
syncopated notes alternate between single notes and octaves.
The second of three octaves is reached with a very high
leap. Downward-arching groups of four notes begin with each
syncopated note, and they span the keyboard. The pattern is
interrupted by a smooth cadence figure with an arching arpeggio on
a “diminished seventh” that completes the five-measure phrase.
1:48 [m. 51]--The second
five-measure phrase begins like the first, but introduces subtle
changes after the first syncopated single note and octave.
These changes cause the cadence figure to end on the harmony of
the “dominant” key, leading back to A major for the repeat.
1:55 [m. 46]--Part 1 (a) repeated. First
phrase, as at 1:42.
2:01 [m. 51]--Second
phrase, as at 1:48.
2:08 [m. 56]--Part
2. First subsection (b).
The same basic phrase pattern is followed, with the syncopated
notes and octaves, high leaps, and the downward-arching
groups. The harmony moves farther afield. In this
first phrase, it goes toward the “relative” minor key of F-sharp
(which is also related to C-sharp minor, the key of the main A sections). The third
octave is replaced by another single note, and the cadence figure
includes a middle voice that maintains the syncopation. It
also swells in volume to the piece’s first forte.
2:14 [m. 61]--As in Part
1, the second phrase begins like the first one, then
deviates. This time, the syncopated notes and octaves are
cut off after two alternations, and the cadence figure is extended
by a bar. The phrase moves back toward A major and ends with
“diminished seventh” harmony, swelling again to forte and then receding.
2:21 [m. 66]--Second
subsection (a’). The
first phrase of the return is very similar to that at 1:42 and
1:55 [m. 46], except for a subtle broadening of the arpeggio under
the end of the cadence gesture.
2:27 [m. 71]--The second
phrase is again highly similar to that at 1:48 and 2:01 [m. 51],
but there are even more changes to the harmony, more strongly
emphasizing the “dominant” key, and preparing for the greater
finality in the coming repeat. This time, in the first
ending, it leads to the repetition of all of Part 2, the same spot
to which the corresponding phrase at 2:01 led.
2:34 [m. 56]--Part 2
repeated. First phrase of first subsection (b), as at 2:08.
2:42 [m. 61]--Second
phrase, as at 2:14.
2:48 [m. 66]--First phrase
of second subsection (a’),
as at 2:21.
2:54 [m. 71]--Second
phrase, as at 2:27. The ending is changed (marked with a
“second ending”) to slow down and reach a full close in A major,
concluding the rounded binary form.
3:05 [m. 76]--Re-transition.
tempo returns, as does the home key of C-sharp minor. Two
three-bar units return to the material of the A section. They both
slow down at the end and reach a pause. These three-bar
units are the first disruptions of the five-bar patterns in the
whole piece. The first passage emphasizes the “dominant”
harmony on G-sharp, then suggests the “subdominant” harmony on
F-sharp. The second three-bar passage is set one step higher
and places much emphasis on the note A-sharp and its
harmonies. At the pause, the C-sharp-minor chord is in the
left hand, although the dissonant A-sharp persists.
3:22 [m. 82]--The first
phrase has the same melody as before, but the harmony under the
first bar incorporates the lingering rogue A-sharp (foreign
to the key) from the end of the re-transition. The
right-hand harmony is also more active in the second bar.
The left-hand figures in the first three bars are new, using only
three notes but spanning much wider. The right hand from the
third bar and the left hand from the fourth bar match the A’ phrase at 0:39 [m. 21].
3:32 [m. 87]--The second
phrase closely resembles that at 0:48 [m. 26], except for the left
hand harmony in the first two bars, which replaces the previous
flowing lines with downward-arching figures. As the phrase
approaches its end, however, there is an unexpected rise in
intensity, to the third and last forte of the piece. Then, in a brilliant
variation, an extra bar is added (m. 91), stretching the phrase to
six measures, breaking the phrase pattern of the entire piece, and
making the arrival on G-sharp minor much more emphatic.
3:44 [m. 93]--The
contrasting phrase is as at 0:20 [m. 11] and 0:58 [m. 31].
3:53 [m. 98]--The
contrasting phrase with syncopated bass is as at 1:07 [m. 36].
4:04 [m. 103]--The closing
phrase is similar to the one at 1:18 [m. 41], but is enriched and
varied in several ways. It is marked “Più lento,”
eliminating the “Poco,” suggesting that it is slower than
before. The left-hand arpeggios add another note for fuller
harmony. The very low bass notes do not reiterate
C-sharp. The right-hand harmony also has subtle alterations
that emphasize the “dominant” key. The motion in the third
bar is delayed and then extended into the fourth bar. The
final cadence is placed at the same point, however. The last
chord is extended by one bar, but this is almost symbolic.
The cadence is essentially the same as it was before.
4:35 (runoff until 4:50)--END OF
PIECE [108 mm.]
END OF SET
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