Technical Command and Musical Knowledge

These days I have been giving this simple guidance to my students. Whenever they get stuck in their practice, they must ask themselves, “is it technical or musical?”

Technical Command means two things : 1. appropriate application of technique, and 2. sufficient command of the technique applied.

For TC 1, you must find which technical application you need to execute that certain passage, is it more of a forearm rotation or an upperarm rotation? Is it the palm grip or knuckle issue? Or are your fingers not close enough on the keys before execution? Etc etc. Or for TC 2, you have the right technical application but you have trouble in making it happen with solid control, then how are you going to fix it? Is it just about slow practice that magnifies the movement? Or is it a preparation problem, meaning you don’t prepare your hand position early enough prior to the execution of the pattern in question?

Musical Knowledge on the other hand, includes : 1. harmonic and structural analysis of the music (form, sections, phrasing, tonality, key changes, chord progression, notes: chord tones and non-chord tones, and relationships between notes i.e. intervals etc) , 2. historical background of the music (genre, the composer, and the period – other genres, philosophy, aesthetics, and other arts e.g. literature), and 3. interpretation resulted from the understanding of both 1 and 2.

I would point out MK 1 is what most need for the basic interpretation for MK 3. Without 1 there is no basis and knowledge as to where one’s performance interpretation and discretion arises from. How do you know what to do with that particular phrase or chord or note in terms of emphasis, articulation and dynamics? What do you feel and how do you present it and what is the difference when there is a minor 6th but not minor 3rd, or even, and augmented 5th? Of course, now I am pointing out a very small detail here, but always, especially when you have little experience in analyzing the music, start with something big. You start with bigger sections, then find out where each phrase starts and ends, and also the repeated /similar patterns in terms of melody and rhythm. Look for the chords especially some special sounding ones, and the cadences which define the keys and key changes. Where are the secondary dominants? The pedal points?

Let me discuss further in the next post. I think there is already a lot to digest for now. Always one step at a time.

Until then,

Teresa Wong

An Analysis of Schumann’s Intermezzi Op.4

[anti-rclick]September 12, 2011
Note: Comparison charts and music examples are omitted here in this post.

Schumann’s Intermezzi Op.4
, at first glance, seem to be no more than one of the composer’s earlier piano cycles, following the path of ABEGG Variations Op.1 and Papillons Op.2. This paper will explore in depth the meaning of such collection to reveal its significance in a larger context of the potential genre, the intermezzo.

Terminology of Intermezzo

“Intermezzo” literally means “in the middle”. Works of such title do not form an established tradition or a genre per se in keyboard literature like sonata or variation. In fact, the application of such term changes through history. In the 17th and 18th centuries, an intermezzo was an operatic intermezzo, a miniature Italian comic opera played in between acts of an opera seria or opera buffa. In the 19th century however, an intermezzo was mainly an instrumental interlude in a larger orchestral work or operatic production.
– Wendy Doniger, Splitting the Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 65.

In terms of solo instrumental repertoire, the term was primarily applied to the keyboard genre. Brown writes that “intermezzo” 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”, and can be “[s]hort independent pf.[pianoforte] pieces by Brahms, Schumann, etc.” From this entry, we can see that intermezzo is a terminology specially attached to Brahms and Schumann, who used it quite frequently. In The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the definition for “intermezzo” is as follows: “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.”

Keyboard Intermezzos in Classical Era

The application of an intermezzo as a transitional movement in keyboard literature can be found in one of the earliest examples, Dussek’s Piano Sonata in C minor, Op.35 No.3. Written in 1797, the sonata has a very brief movement named “Intermezzo”. Marked initially as “Presto” in the key of C minor, the movement lasts for only fifteen measures, with writing that has little connection motivically or harmonically to the prior movements. Due to its brevity, the movement itself does not develop into anything significant, but rather acts as a passage “which is in fact no more than a prelude.” It ends in a quasi-recitative style, with the last two measures in “Adagio” coming to rest on the dominant chord. Such an unfinished gesture signifies that this Intermezzo simply acts as an intermediate link between the expressive Andante and the vivid Finale and cannot be performed independently.

(Music Example 1: Dussek’s Piano Sonata Op.35 No.3, third movement, “Intermezzo”)

Keyboard Intermezzos in Romantic Era

The use of intermezzo as a movement in a larger work of multi-movement or multi-piece could still be found in the 19th century Romantic keyboard repertoire. On the other hand, one could also find an abundant amount of independent piano intermezzos. Schumann has shown both uses of intermezzos in his composition. The following table shows his works that are entitled “intermezzo” with the use of piano:

Title/ Year of composition /About Intermezzo

Intermezzi, Op.4 / 1833/ A collection of all six intermezzos

Carnaval, Op.9 /1834–5, 1837 /No.17, Intermezzo: Paganini

Kreisleriana, Op.16/ 1838 /“Intermezzo I” and Intermezzo II” in the second piece of the collection

Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op.26/ 1839–40 /No.4, Intermezzo, Published separately in December, 1839

Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op.54/ 1846 /Second movement, Intermezzo: Andante grazioso

Sonata ‘F.A.E.’ for Violin and Piano in A minor, woo27/ 1853 /Second movement, Intermezzo

Schumann in Kreisleriana Op.16, like Dussek in his piano sonata, continues the tradition of using the intermezzos as transitional passages. In the second piece of Kreisleriana, the two intermezzos are two separate sections that act as interludes to connect the main section, repeated with variations thrice. The materials in two intermezzos are completely different. The first intermezzo, marked as “molto vivace” and in 2/4 time, is quite brief and can been seen as having a binary form. The second intermezzo is however more substantial in length and uses a ternary form, with the opening section repeat almost exactly the same in the closing section.

Intermezzi Op.4

According to Hugo Riemann in his Dictionary of Music, Schumann might be the first to use the term “without any reference to the word-meaning”. Intermezzi Op.4, written in 1832, were originally entitled Pièces Phantastiques . Although in his letter to Töpken Schumann referred to the intermezzos as “longer Papillons” (April 5, 1833), he made it clear that the former were distinct from the latter. In his diary, Schumann wrote, “The Intermezzi, should be something-each note shall be weighed and balanced.” Another entry of his diary read, “My whole heart is in you, dear fifth intermezzo, it was born of unspeakable love.” In light of such words, it would be inappropriate to consider why Schumann would select a meaningless title for the work that represents a new stage of his much mature compositional style.

Intermezzi Op.4 and Other Early Piano Cycles

To understand what the term “intermezzo” meant to Schumann is a daunting task. First of all, it seems confusing whether Schumann was concerned about showing any distinction between Intermezzi Op.4 and the other early piano cycles. Indeed, the idiomatic writing in the Intermezzi recalls much resonance of the early piano cycles: Papillons Op.2 and ABEGG Variations Op.1. Both sets of variations possess vivid dance characters, with all variations in triple meter (3/4, 3/8, or 9/8) except one in duple meter (6/8 in the Finale of the ABEGG, but still a dance-like meter), with the Papillons showing us some taste of Schumann’s adventurous attempt with the metrical dissonance. Even the materials entitled differently in draft appear to be inter-exchangeable: the first sixteen measures of a composition originally entitled as “Intermezzo” in Schumann’s sketchbook were eventually used in the Papillons. With more sophisticated and advanced treatment on meter, tonality and form, the Intermezzi could simply serve as an interlude for Schumann to sharpen his compositional skills in preparation for larger and more significant works.

It is also uncertain to what extent Schumann was familiar with the comic intermezzo tradition. Nevertheless, Herald Krebs sees Schumann’s dramatic use of meter in the Intermezzi as evocation of an operatic comic aura:

If we look up the term “intermezzo” in any reputable musical dictionary, we find that “nineteenth-century piano piece” is the most recent of its various meanings. In the seventeenth century, an intermezzo (or intermedio) was a musicodramatic entertainment involving masks and dancing that took place between the acts of a larger production, and in the eighteenth century, Intermezzi were comical plays. Whereas it is not certain that Schumann was familiar with these early meanings of the term, his Intermezzi op.4 have, with respect to metrical structure, something of the atmosphere of a theatrical spectacle featuring a colorful array of metrical “characters”. The main dramatis personae are introduced early in the cycle and subsequently undergo a variety of adventures, alone or in interaction with other characters.

With his main focus on the “metrical dissonance” in the Intermezzi, Krebs sees the kaleidoscopic metric devices as dramatic characters appearing in a theatrical play, if not a comic intermezzo. With simply analysis, the Intermezzi embody some dramatic nuance of the operatic genre under the more advanced and sophisticated treatment shell of early keyboard variations. Nonetheless, to further understand if there is more to the title than a generic one, we need to look into more details the context of the Intermezzi, and to start with, the structure of the pieces.

Form of Intermezzi Op.4

Piano intermezzos are generally found to be in ternary form, and the Intermezzi are of no exception.

In all these six intermezzos, one can find a basic ternary form, with a rather conventional tonality with either relative major-minor or tonic-dominant modulation among the three main sections. The oddest gesture is the opening motive, usually of one to two measures’ length, that serves as the start to a new piece as well as a connection to next section in the piece. Such opening gesture, sometimes marked as “Alternativo”, acts as an interlude within some of the intermezzos.

Intermezzi: a genre of literature reference and expression of romantic ideology

The explanation of form and structure does not suffice to reveal the possible definition of “intermezzo” as a genre. Another aspect concerning the reconstruction of a genre is musical character and expression. Intermezzo belongs to the larger category of “character piece”, which 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.” Although no explicit quotations can been found in the Intermezzi, there are in fact many literary and musical references. According to Erika Reimann, the relationship between Schumann’s early piano cycles and Jean Paul’s novels is close and significant: not only does “…Schumann’s use of the term[intermezzo] raise[s] distinctly Jean-Paulian associations”, the Intermezzi also resemble Jean Paul’s “digressive narrative style” and his treatment of satiric interludes. Functioning like a Jean Paul’s “Comic Appendix” (“Komischer Anhang”) to a larger composition such as Titan, the independent collection of six intermezzos stands as “ ‘interludes’ to a phantom large work”. The Intermezzi recall the sound of the Papillons, the Carnaval Op.9 (in the fifth Intermezzo), as well as the ABEGG Variation (in the sixth Intermezzo). It is a reflection of Bach’s dance suite tradition (English Suite No.2), and Schubert’s melodic and harmonic device (Impromptu Op.90). In a nutshell, Reimann’s reading points to the fact that the Intermezzi are more than a collection with generic titles. More importantly, her parallel comparison between the works of Jean Paul and Schumann indicates that an establishment of new genre in the Romantic music, so that a new romantic genre, in contrast to a classical genre, is to create a new musical form by re-defining various existing forms with new ideology and expression associated with literature reference and dramatic expression, all inspired by romanticism and humanism.

Schumman’s Intermezzi Op.4 and Goethe’s Faust, “Intermezzo”

As Reimann emphasizes the correlation between Jean Paul and Schumann, one cannot neglect but find a particular bond between the composer and Goethe as well. An inscription- “Meine Ruh’ is hin”- found over middle section of the second intermezzo, is quoted again at the end of the same piece. Such inscription is quoted from the scene of Gretchen spinning at the wheel from Goethe’s Faust.

With odd coincidence, Goethe’s Faust includes a scene (Scene II, Act V) called the “Intermezzo”, also known as the “Walpurgis Night’s Dream”. The intermezzo is a dream sequence that narrates the Witches’ Sabbath of the “Walpurgis Night” and the golden wedding festival of Oberon arid Titania, which events are with no immediate relevance but is oddly added in the middle of the Faust story. As its function remains unclear on the surface, it acts as a satiric interlude to the overall legend, its nature of neutrality and irrelevance provides an irony to reflect on both the human world of Faust and the demonic domain of Mephistopheles. As “a play within a play within a play”, this scene recalls the same function of the “Alternativo” section in the individual intermezzos, the second intermezzo in the whole opus, and the opus in the larger context of other keyboard works.

Schumman’s Intermezzi Op.4 and Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade

Faust, as a classic German legend, is popular in Romantic music literature, beloved by composers who were eager to express its powerful drama in musical forms of the same vein, ranging from opera (Faust by Gounod) and symphony (the Faust Symphony by Liszt), to massive orchestral works with voices and choruses (the Damnation of Faust by Berlioz and Symphony No.8 (Part II) by Mahler. In terms of works of smaller scales, it would be the famous lieder Gretchen am Spinnrade by Schubert.
With closer examination and more detailed comparison, the similarities between Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade and Schumann’s second Intermezzo are striking. Written in 1814, almost twenty years earlier than the composition of Intermezzi, Gretchen am Spinnrade depicts vividly the spinning wheel scene of Gretchen adapted from Goethe’s Faust. Gretchen am Spinnrade starts with the text “Meine ruh’ ist hin”, same as the inscription found on Schumann’s second Intermezzo. The ingenious sixteenth-note rhythmic figuration recurring in piano accompaniment of the lieder as the spinning of the wheel can be found similar to the eighth-note arpeggiated pattern in the beginning of the second Intermezzo.

(Music Example 2: Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade, mm.1-4

Music example 3: Schumann’s Intermezzi Op.4, No.2, mm.1-5)

While the perpetuated arpeggiation figure in the piano accompanying part remains with a rather stagnant manner in the same register in Gretchen am Spinnrade, the arpeggios in the Intermezzo sweep in two voices in unison from rather low registers up to top register in only eight measures. But as Schubert depicts the slowing down of the wheel with less movement in the arpeggios, Schumann changes the tempo marking to evoke a similar effect.

(Music example 4: Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade, mm.65-80

Music example 5: Schumann’s Intermezzi Op.4 No.2, mm. 94-105)

While Schubert pauses the arpeggiation movement with dramatic climax at the word “Kuss” with a pause, Schumann winds down the tempo and stops at a rest at the closing of “meine Ruh’ ist hin” section after, only to pick up the tempo at “Tempo primo”, the varied repetition of the first section started by the wheel-like arpeggiation motive again.

Apart from the piano writing, both Schubert and Schumann recall the words “meine Ruh’ ist hin” in similar fashion. In Gretchen am Spinnrade, the word phrase appears at the beginning and is repeated again at the very end of the song. In the second Intermezzo, the same word phrase is written on top of the middle section, and it comes back at the end of the piece as well. Such inscription is accompanied by a three-note motive that recalls the start of the lieder.

(Music example 6: Schumann’s Intermezzi Op.4 No.2, mm.63-68

Music example 7: Schumann’s Intermezzi Op.4 No.2, mm.193-200

Music example 8: Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade, mm. 1-4)

Such comparison among the works of Goethe, Schubert and Schumann not only reveals the complexity of the Intermezzi, it also echoes Reimann’s argument – the “web of allusion” the piano cycle is among the sea of Romantic literature and music.


From this study, we can see that the Intermezzi Op.4 is more than merely an early piano cycle of Schumann. Traced from the link of operatic genre, the connection might be weak. However, the use of intermezzo can be seen in earlier keyboard sonata as a transitional movement resembling the function of comic intermezzo. The use of meter as dramatic character in the Intermezzi also brings forth the comic essence in the operatic parallel. In the essence of romanticism, the collection shows the composer’s search for a new genre, which is more than just a musical form but at times mixture of various forms. Built on the basis of ternary form, the structure of the six intermezzos can been viewed as a combination of variation or rondo form. Moreover, the reference to contemporary literature is strong and crucial to the understanding of such new genre. The association with Goethe’s Faust reveals that the title “intermezzo” may more likely be borrowed from literature tradition traced back to Shakespeare rather than operatic genre. Finally, the reference with other music compositions- whether they be as traditional as Bach’s, or as contemporary as Schubert’s or Schumann’s own works- shows that the Intermezzi establish a new tradition while stands amid all other great works. However, this study only places focus on one collection of keyboard intermezzos in the entire genre. Further study and investigation- of the other intermezzos by Schumann, and to an even larger extent, those by Brahms- is crucial for a more solid argument and background to a potential genre of keyboard intermezzos.


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—. Robert Schumann: Herald of a “New Poetic Age”. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

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Robinson, Jenefer. Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and Its Role in Literature, Music, and Art. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005.
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Teresa Wong



This course is designed to drastically change the way students play the piano forever for the better.

In this ten-week course, we will explore the association between human body anatomy and piano performance, followed by body weight/weight transfer and various piano techniques, learning technique and technical foundation (scales, arpeggios, tone and dynamic). Students also learn to use pedaling and practice skills effectively.

This course uses the exercises in Miss Teresa Wong's "Technique Transformation Piano Exercise Book".


This course provides a blueprint for you as a new teacher of any musical instruments/genres, to start your own teaching career/studio. Throughout the whole 10-week course, you will learn from scratch on everything you need to know to get started, from building your own music blog and social media channels, to how to set your studio policy and fee, and of course, how to recruit new students and retain current ones!


This is a 10-week comprehensive course designed to help students who are preparing for ABRSM Grade 8 music exam (ALL INSTRUMENTS), or someone who just wants to learn how to properly and effectively recognize musical elements.

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Towards the end of the course, students can measure their progress through two mock tests.

piano pedagogy course

This course is specially designed for piano teachers. Whether you are new to piano teaching, or you are a seasoned piano teacher, this course will equip you with knowledge and information necessary for any piano teacher to start thinking differently and teaching more effectively, creatively and systematically.

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This course provides a blueprint for you as a new teacher of any musical instruments/genres, to start your own teaching career/studio. Throughout the whole 10-week course, you will learn from scratch on everything you need to know to get started, from building your own music blog and social media channels, to how to set your studio policy and fee, and of course, how to recruit new students and retain current ones!