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Three Intermezzos for piano, Op. 117

April 2, 2023: BORIS BERMAN, PIANO

In the four sets of piano pieces that appeared in 1892–93, opp. 116–119, Brahms took up the writing of “miniatures” that he had begun with the Ballades, op. 10, and the Piano Pieces, op. 76. The later pieces, particularly the Intermezzos, which make up fourteen of the twenty pieces in these four sets, tend generally toward the introspective. No precise chronology can be determined for these pieces, yet the structural economy and tendency toward harmonic and textural “impressionism” all point to Brahms’s late style.

Brahms used the label “intermezzo” for a wide range of expressive styles, but all three of the Opus 117 pieces can be considered lullabies. If the sweet lilt of the famous first Intermezzo were not suggestion enough, Brahms headed the piece with two lines of the Scottish ballad Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament in Herder’s translation:

Schlaf sanft, mein Kind, schlaf sanft und schön!
Mich dauert’s sehr, dich weinen sehn.
(Sleep softly, my child, sleep softly and well!
It grieves me so to see you weep.)

The piece presents its tender melody “cradled” in an inner voice in the right hand. Brahms employs ternary form here as in most of his Intermezzos and, true to type, he varied the return of the opening, this time with gently leaping chords and later a rippling “inner-voice” accompaniment pattern. The darker central section in the tonic minor sets up the special radiance of the reprise.

The second Intermezzo, as beloved as the first, maintains a delicate arpeggiated texture in its first section, which seems only to be hinting at a melody. The melody becomes more explicit in the second section, which in the manner of a sonata form is presented in a secondary key area. After a short development of sorts, an altered and still developmental “reprise,” and a coda based on the “second theme,” we realize that Brahms has treated us to a full miniature sonata form.

Brahms’s first biographer Max Kalbeck was the first to point out that the third Intermezzo may also have been inspired by another Herder translation of a Scottish poem, O weh! O weh, hinab ins Thal’ (O woe! o woe, down into the valley), which Brahms had copied out alongside Schlaf sanft in one of his notebooks. The somber murmuring in bare octaves reminds us of similar Brahms themes, such as the opening of the finale of his Third Symphony. This Intermezzo is also in ternary form with a major-key central section that delicately ranges the entire keyboard. Again the return to the opening is varied; here the main melody appears in an inner voice.

In a letter to a friend Brahms referred to the Intermezzos as “three lullabies to my sorrows.” And when his publisher hoped the first might be another smash hit as a song—just as the famous Lullaby, op. 49, no. 4, had been—Brahms warned him that it would have to be entitled “Lullaby of an Unfortunate Mother,” or “of a disconsolate bachelor,” or with illustrations by Max Klinger entitled “Sing Lullabies of My Sorrow.” The air of sadness in many of Brahms’s late works gives them that quality that commentators so often call “autumnal,” but if they are tinged with regret they also show the mastery and poetry that Brahms could only have gained through years of experience.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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