Recording: Martin Jones, pianist [NI 1788]

Published 1892

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.

ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (First Edition from Brahms-Institut Lübeck)
ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (from Breitkopf & Härtel Sämtliche Werke):
Complete, with original German heading
Individually, with English headings (lower scan quality):
No. 1 in E-flat major
No. 2 in B-flat minor
No. 3 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 Bothwell’s Lament”:

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 main lullaby 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 “subdominant” 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 phrase.
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, E-flat minor
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 sempre ma molto espressivo.
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 note.
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 time
A Section
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 octaves.
A’ Section
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 section.
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.  The opening 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.
A” Section
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.]