Born Hamburg, May 7, 1833; died Vienna, April 3, 1897
Three Intermezzi, Op. 117
Composed in 1892; 16 minutes
The solo piano was Brahms’s chosen medium both for his first published compositions and his next-to-last works. In between, he periodically returned to the piano while exploring the other genres that more firmly established his reputation: lieder, chamber music, symphony and concerto. His shorter works for piano fall easily, then, into three distinct periods: the early works, the middle period collections of Op. 76 and Op. 79 (written in 1879–80), and the final flowering of piano works composed and published as Opp. 116-119 in 1892–93.
While the early- and middle-period compositions demonstrate Brahms’s youthful fire and energy, the later works are primarily reflective and introspective. The composer’s dear friend Clara Schumann was the first to see them in manuscript, and it is sometimes suggested that Brahms wrote them in a technically less-demanding style so Clara could play them with greater ease. But by this time Clara’s public performing career was essentially over, and arthritis severely curtailed even her private playing. These works seem, rather, to be simply a manifestation of the essence of Brahms’s late style. Each of the lyric miniatures shows a spiritual concentration, a distillation of technique so vivid that every note, every sound, makes its point without superfluous effect or showmanship.
Brahms referred to his Three Intermezzi, Op. 117, as “three lullabies to my sorrows,” and the score includes a epigraph drawn from Herder’s translation of a Scottish folk poem, “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 hurts my heart to see you weeping.
The presence of this poetic fragment has inspired a century of speculation regarding possible programmatic connections between the poem and Brahms’s music. But whether the folk-like song heard in an inner voice of the first intermezzo is a quotation, a pastiche or simply a heartfelt creation of the composer, it still captures a universal feeling of wistful melancholy and nostalgia, independent of any alleged literary connection.
The second intermezzo is nominally in the key of B-flat minor but quickly veers toward the relative major (D-flat), the key of its chorale-like central section. A “black-note” key such as this would in earlier decades have been used for a virtuosic display of piano pyrotechnics. This intermezzo’s gentle arpeggios are, then, a fading echo of the fieriness of Brahms’s younger style and perhaps an allusion to Clara Schumann’s once-vaunted piano technique.
Similarly, the darkness and textural austerity of the third intermezzo’s opening seem to suggest a diminishment of sorts. But the lively central section vividly recalls the passion and elegance of Brahms’s earlier piano works before lapsing back into a reprise of the forlorn opening theme.
© 2013 Luke Howard
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