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]
IMSLP (First Edition from Brahms-Institut
SCORE FROM IMSLP (from Breitkopf &
Härtel Sämtliche Werke):
original German heading
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 Bothwell’s
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.)
0:00 [m. 1]--The
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,
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
2:01 [m. 51]--Second phrase, as
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
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
2:48 [m. 66]--First phrase of
second subsection (a’), as at
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
3:05 [m. 76]--Re-transition.
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
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
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
4:35 (runoff until 4:50)--END OF PIECE
END OF SET