This was the introduction I gave for my piano recital of the complete Brahms Intermezzi (the first time all of them have been presented together on a single program, as far as I know).
Brahms Intermezzo Talk
Tonight I am playing piano music that has largely been ignored in recital programming. The journey through these pieces will open a new conception of sound for the piano and an intimate emotional energy unique in the classical literature. Brahms, like other Romantic Era composers, gave general poetic titles to his piano pieces: Fantasy, Capriccio, Romance, etc. But as he continued his interest in short piano pieces, he increasingly used the title Intermezzo, or “Interlude,” for his most intimate and soul-searching works.
The Brahms piano intermezzi adhere to the conventional song form of Romantic piano music—three part ABA form where we hear one section of music, followed by a contrasting section, and conclude with a return of the first section. The intermezzi are written on a handful of pages, filled with some of the most complex, intimate, and heart wrenching articulations in Western music. Yet within the piano repertoire they are somewhat hidden; most of them are not well known and are published within collections of pieces with other titles. Further, they are usually slow in tempo and don’t show off virtuoso technique like, say, the warhorses of Chopin, Liszt, or Rachmaninoff. Most of them are explicitly not crowd pleasers.
And Brahms probably never intended to have the intermezzi played collectively. Yet since I first learned them as a teenager, I thought performing them together would reveal an intimate and emotional energy that is unique in classical music. Now older with more experience, I go beyond that assertion to state that the intermezzi reveal a side of Brahms even Brahms lovers don’t know—daring experimentation, discoveries of new rhythmic orders, an orchestral treatment of the piano very different from the salon music of Chopin and Liszt, and a density of thought that might be considered musical haiku.
The high treble colors and wide registral spacing in his early Intermezzo in B minor op. 10 #3 suggest the worlds of Debussy and Ravel that were to come later. The arpeggios of his late Intermezzo in B minor op. 119 #1 open the gate to the harmonies of modernism—those of Schoenberg and jazz. In his Intermezzo in A major op. 118 #2 he develops and varies three notes in just a few pages as deeply as Beethoven in his late string quartets. The rhythmic phrasing in the Intermezzo in E minor op. 116#5 borrows ideas from the Middle Ages to create a modern pulse that confuses our intuitions between consonance and dissonance. And even beyond that, the harmonic and textural complexity and just the general resonance of the Intermezzo in E Flat minor, op. 118#6 point to a bold new direction for the sound of the piano itself, where it begins to sound like an orchestra rather than a single instrument.
I believe too that there is a secret to Brahms using the title “Intermezzo.” The word means “interlude” but also means “in the middle.” Brahms loved things that were in the “middle.” He loved codes, things hidden. We know he loved the viola, the clarinet, and the alto voice. In each of the intermezzi, we begin to notice a distinctive quality to the piano writing where significant melodies appear “in the middle” with music above and below them. This “sandwich” texture provides both a distinctive sound quality to these pieces, but also a hidden message, a message Brahms left that there is more in these pieces than first meets the ear! Even in the opening themes, Brahms often presents two melodies at once, where we first notice the top melody, but then later realize the primary melody was underneath. The middle section of each intermezzo reveals a secret development of ideas in the first section. The different intermezzi of each opus actually develop the same musical ideas—a recurring three note motive, a rocking back and forth motive, etc.—ideas that continually recur and grow through all the intermezzi. And so on. All of us who have spent years enjoying this music know that sense of discovery to be true. I hope this recital opens this marvelous experience for many others.