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of the "Three Bs" of music, a comment originally made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.
Occasionally unsure what title, if any, he should give
a piece, Brahms came to use the term intermezzo as a
rubric under which he could file anything that was not
especially whimsical or fiery. The Three Intermezzi,
Op. 117, do not require the technical facility
necessary to perform many of his earlier works, but an
incisive musicality is paramount for a proper
understanding of these musical miniatures. The fact
that they are all marked Andante also presents a
problem for the performer, who must probe the details
of each work and stress the contrasting elements. All
three Intermezzi of Op. 117 were written in the summer
of 1892, the year of their publication. This is one of
the rare cases in which Brahms gave a specific title
for an entire set of pieces. Two of the three
Intermezzi received their first performances shortly
after they were written: No. 1 on February 18, 1893,
and No. 2 on January 30 of the same year.
Prefaced by lines from Herder's translation of Lady
Anne Bothwell's Lament, a Scottish lullaby, the first
Intermezzo is in E flat major and cast in ABA' form.
The central section, on E flat minor, obscures the 6/8
meter before returning to the major mode for the
modified reprise of the first section.
A sonata-form movement in B flat minor, the second
Intermezzo provides an excellent example of thematic
transformation. The first theme, traced by the
uppermost thirty-second notes in the arpeggios of the
first two measures, becomes the second theme, played in
the top notes of block chords 30 measures later.
Because the rhythmic movement from note to note is
changed and the textures of the two passages are very
dissimilar, it takes a perceptive pianist to locate and
bring out the transformed melody. Brahms chooses the
relative major, D flat, for the second theme while the
development section is built around the fluid arpeggios
of the first theme. In the recapitulation, the second
theme, truncated and transformed, vacillates between
the tonic major and minor.
Brahms once referred to the third Intermezzo of Op. 117
as "the lullaby of all my grief." In C sharp minor, the
piece is in ternary form (ABA'), with a central section
on A major. Section A consists of two ideas, the first
stated in parallel octaves. The entire complex is
repeated, although the melodies are accompanied
differently and some segments appear in a higher
register. The move to A major for the B section creates
a sense of relaxation as the leaping theme, again with
right-hand octaves, provides a stark contrast to the
linear, opening idea. A brief transition leads to the
return of section A, re-harmonized and in a form more
akin to its second half than to the beginning.
Although originally composed for solo piano, I created
this Transcription of the "Intermezzo" in Bb Minor (Op.
117 No. 2) for Concert (Pedal) Harp.