Brahms’ Piano Intermezzos (Part I)

[anti-rclick]November 18, 2011


Brahms’ piano intermezzos are the hallmarks of the category. Many have studied them individually yet none has attempted to examine them as a collective whole. The proposed thesis will study Brahms’ intermezzos as its core focus to reconstruct the historical development and transformation of solo piano intermezzos and establish the potential genre of keyboard “intermezzo” on its own ground in terms of its musical content, social context and literal association.

One of the main focuses in studying Brahms’ intermezzos is the musical structure. Clements explores the motivic development in Op. 119 No.3 while Ricci adds further concern to its tonal ambiguity [1]. Rink discusses about the motivic material and tonal structure in Op. 118 No. 6. The Schenkerian approach is significant in theoretical analysis of the intermezzos: Maluf discusses the tonal ambiguity of Op.76 No.4 with reference to other intermezzos in the same opus and Opp. 117-119 while Cadwallader focuses on the motivic ambiguity in selected intermezzos from Opp.117-119 [2].

Others gives an alternative viewpoint to the intermezzos. Parmer provides a hermeneutic reading of Intermezzi Op.117 concerning the literature reference. Robinson sees music embodies emotional and dramatic power and illustrates her points with Op. 117 No.2 as an example to how the psychological and emotional drama within the music unfolds with its ternary form, intertwining themes and ambiguous harmony.

Horne traces a possible origin of intermezzos to a saraband tradition. The selected examples are Op.116 No.2, as well as Ballade Op.10 No.3 which was originally named as an intermezzo (“drei balladen und ein intermezzo”) [3].

The Intermezzo is a neglected genre. Or rather, a terminology that is yet to be proved and established as a genre of tradition in the context of piano music. The term “intermezzo” literally means “in the middle”. It was an entr’acte in the first half of the 18th century, a miniature Italian comic opera performed in between acts of opera seria or a spoken play. In the latter half of the 18th century, intermezzo started to be performed on its own, gaining independence from opera seria and merging in opera buffa instead.[4]

Intermezzo was originated from the operatic genre dated back to the 16th and 17th centuries, when it was a kind of popular entertainment in Italy that combined drama, music and dance, among the comic scenes of Seicento opera, also known as intermedio. Intermedio was performed between acts of a play, but its theme, usually pastoral or mythological, was not necessarily related to that of the play. According to Oxford English Dictionary in its entry of “intermezzo”, the first appearance of the term appeared in Thomas Busby’s A Complete Dictionary of Music (1801) collaborated with Arnold. The term was “the name given by the Italians to interludes, or detached dances, introduced between the acts of an opera.”

Since the early 19th century, intermezzo had been applied as a term for independent pieces, often referred to movements or sections within larger music compositions, and was often associated with another term “interlude”, a short instrumental or orchestral interlude that was performed between acts in operatic scores and theatre music of the 19th & 20th centuries. One of the famous examples for orchestral works is the “Intermezzo” in Mascagni’s one-act opera Cavalleria Rusticana, in which the pure orchestral interlude functions as an intermission between the two operatic sections. [5]

In terms of solo instrumental repertoire, the term was mostly applied in the keyboard genre. According to Riemann in his Dictionary of Music published in 1908, “Intermezzo” is “Same as Episode (cf. INTERMEDIO), probably used for the first time by Schumann as the name for a connected series of pianoforte pieces (Op.4) without any reference to the word-meaning. S.[Schumann] perhaps regard them as hors d’oeuvre, intermediate numbers for a concert programme? Heller and Brahms have also made use of the title I.[Intermezzo]” (Riemann, Hugo. Shedlock J.S. (trans.), 370). Another entry of “intermezzo” by Maurice J.E. Brown on the Grove Online suggests that it is “[a] term used since the early 19th century for movements or sections, generally within larger works; also for independent pieces, often for piano solo and predominantly lyrical in character.” [6] , and can be “[s]hort independent pf.[pianoforte] pieces by Brahms , Schumann , etc”.[7] From these two entries, we can see that intermezzo is a title specially attached to Brahms and Schumann, who used the title quite frequently.

(To Be Continued)

Teresa Wong

© Teresa Wing Yin Wong, 2009-2011.
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