Brahms’ Piano Intermezzos (Part II)

[anti-rclick]November 19, 2011


Like its operatic counterpart, intermezzos in the keyboard literature were quite often found as a section or a movement of a piano sonata as well as a piece of a larger character piece collection. For instance, Schumann’s Kreisleriana Op.16, Carnaval Op.9, etc.

Intermezzos are often found to inherit a ternary ABA’ form, sometimes with a coda to conclude. Yet some argues sonata form might be found. For instance, Jenefer Robinson regarded Intermezzo Op.117 No.2 bears an ABA’ structure while Malcolm McDonald suggested that it “traces a miniature sonata design” (Robinson, Deeper than Reason, 337, 340; McDonald 357). As a matter of fact, there is not a thorough study concerning what the form of intermezzos should be.

The function of intermezzo is also highly ambiguous. The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians gives such a definition for “intermezzo”: “in the 19th and 20th centuries, a middle movement or section of a large work, usually lighter in character than its surroundings; or an independent work of small scale, often a lyrical piece for piano of the general type termed character pieces.”[8] Indeed, in Dussek’s Piano Sonata Op.35 No.3, dated 1797, one can find a very brief movement entitled “Intermezzo” that serves as a connection of lighter nature between the lyrical Adagio movement and the vigorous Finale, resembling its operatic ancestor. Such application of intermezzo can also be found in Brahms’ Piano Sonata Op.5 in F# minor in which the fourth movement “Intermezzo (Rückblick)” acts as an intermission between the Scherzo and the Allegro movements.

The character of an intermezzo is more descriptive. Intermezzo belongs to the category of “character pieces”, or the “miniatures”, the gems of the 19th century. Nicholas Temperley wrote that a character piece is “A piece designed to convey a specific allusion, atmosphere, mood, or scene, such as pastoral serenity, agitation, or rustic ceremony, without the benefit of text, programme, or stage action.”, and that “Few of the titles (other than those of dances) call for any specific musical structure, though character pieces are typically in a single movement, and involve in some way the return of the opening theme after a digression.” [9]

Although characters pieces seem to be of less significance when compared to bigger and more complex compositions like sonatas, Dunsby wrote that “The miniature, above all, the short piano piece, became a significant genre… Brahms learned from his predecessors that the short instrumental piece was among the highest forms of expression. It was as valid to make ‘great music’ in this genre as it was to make it in the Lied.” [10]

Brahms inherited the tradition of writing intermezzos from Schumann and established a style of his own. His writing of intermezzos encompassed his entire career, from a movement contained in a piano sonata in the early period of compositions (Op.5) to an independent character piece that stands on its own in the middle (Op.76) and late periods of his works (Opp.116-9). To understand if a historical convention and development of the stylistic norm existed in the piano intermezzos, we need to investigate the possible constancy/consistency of genre throughout the intermezzos from the earliest intermezzo recorded, the significance of the terminology employed from Schumann to Brahms, to specifically the piano intermezzos of Brahms in their own cause, with the consistency being the similarities among form, structure, melodic and harmonic development, characters, function of the piece itself and among others, in the social and historical contexts of the time the pieces were written.

Teresa Wong



[1] Heather Dubrow, “The Function of Genre”, Genre, 8.
[2] Jim Samson, “Genre”, Grove Music Online.
[3] Jeffery Kallberg, “The Rhetoric of Genre: Chopin’s Nocturne in G Minor”, Chapter 1, Chopin at the Boundaries: Sex, History, and Musical Genre, pp.3-29; “Understanding Genre: a Reinterpretation of the Early Piano Nocturne”, Proceedings of the XIV Congress of the International Musicological Society, Bologna 1987, Vol. 3, 1990, pp. 775-780.
[4] Oxford English Dictionary, “Intermezzo”, 1a, 2nd ed, 1989.
[5] Britannica Book of Music, “Intermezzo”, 409.
[6]Maurice J.E Brown, “Intermezzo (iii).” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, (accessed November 21, 2008).
[7] “Intermezzo.” In The Oxford Dictionary of Music, 2nd ed. rev., edited by Michael Kennedy. Oxford Music Online, (accessed November 21, 2008).
[8] “Intermezzo”, The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Randel, Don Michael ed., 323.
[9] Nicholas Temperley, “Character Pieces”, Grove Music Online.
[10] Jonathan Dunsby, The Multi-piece in Brahms: Fantasien Op.116, 168.
Brahms’s Lieder ohne Worte: The ‘Poetic’ Andantes of the Piano Sonatas,” in Brahms Studies: Analytical and Historical Perspectives, ed. George Bozarth (Oxford, 1990), 345-78.

© Teresa Wing Yin Wong, 2009-2011.

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