Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) was a German composer and
pianist of the Romantic period. Born in Hamburg into a
Lutheran family, Brahms spent much of his professional
life in Vienna, Austria. His reputation and status as a
composer are such that he is sometimes grouped with
Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven as one
of the "Three Bs" of music, a comment originally made
by the nineteenth-century conductor Hans von Bülow.
Until 1865, a significant percentage of Brahms'
published work was for piano solo. After this time, he
concentrated on vocal music, not publishing a major
work for piano until the Eight Piano Pieces, Op. 76, of
1878 and the Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79, of 1879. Brahms
would take another break from the piano until the
composition of Opp. 116-119 in the early 1890s. Thus,
works for piano open and close his career as a
composer. Although the late piano works are brief, they
are among the most complex, dense, and reflective works
composed for the instrument.
A month before publication, the Fantasias, Op. 116,
encompassed five rather than seven pieces, and Brahms
suggested to his publisher that the five be printed in
one volume. In the end, Brahms added two pieces to the
set, which was published in two volumes. Despite the
division, aspects of the works themselves create some
coherence for the whole. The first and last pieces are
Capriccios in D minor and Nos. 4, 5, and 6 are in E
major (No. 5 begins in minor but ends in major).
Furthermore, there exist thematic links, the most
obvious of which occurs in the opening measures of the
third and seventh pieces and at the return of the first
theme in the fifteenth measure of No. 4.
The Fantasias, Op. 116, do not require the technical
facility necessary to perform many of Brahms' earlier
works, but an incisive musicality is paramount for a
proper understanding of these musical miniatures.
Composed mostly in the summer of 1892, the pieces were
published that year by Simrock in Berlin. Nos. 1-3 were
first performed at a concert of January 30, 1893; No. 7
received its premiere on February 18 of the same year.
Contrary to his usual practice, Brahms gave the set a
descriptive rather than a generic title.
A fiery work in D minor, the first Capriccio is marked
Presto, and requires a technique that is nearly
Lisztian. The A minor Intermezzo obscures its triple
meter in its outer sections, while the central episode
shifts to a clearly articulated 3/8. The third piece, a
Capriccio in G minor, returns to the fiery atmosphere
of the first piece. Set in the Neapolitan E flat major,
the central section falls into a trio format, its
quarter-note triplets creating a sense of rhythmic
The format of No. 4, an Intermezzo, is unusual, and is
in part the result of Brahms' predilection for
developing variation. The first half of the piece
alternates between two themes (A and B), which return
in varied forms. After the diminutive third variation
of A, a new idea (C) begins on the dominant. The
ensuing variation of A returns to the tonic, but what
seems to be a typical ternary construction is thwarted
by a return of "C," now on the tonic, sandwiched in the
middle of the "reprise," which does not behave at all
like the first half of the piece. Symmetry is the
salient feature of the fifth piece, an Intermezzo. In
the opening measures, the material is vertically
symmetrical. The motive, at first a half-step, moves
upward in the uppermost voice and downward in the
lowest, a process reversed on the next beat. The
chords, too, are vertically symmetrical, with the
narrowest intervals at the outermost extremes. The
sixth piece, again marked Intermezzo, brings to mind
some of the characteristics of a courtly minuet, while
the initial charge of the final D minor Capriccio halts
at its more fluid central section before the return of
the opening, which ends on D major
Although originally composed for solo piano, I created
this Interpretation of the Intermezzo in A Minor (Op.
116 No. 2) for Violin & Piano.