Johannes Brahms, Intermezzi Op. 117

“Three lullabies for my sorrows.” That’s how Johannes Brahms (German pianist composer who lived from 1833-1897; read more about him here) described his op. 117. Written in the summer of 1892, op. 117 consists of three piano pieces categorized as – and named – Intermezzi (Brahms titled many of his pieces Intermezzo, which is defined as a short piece for a solo instrument).The unique thing about this particular set is that Intermezzi op. 117 is an exploration in the character of the lullaby. Each of the three pieces is fairly slow and quiet, and even though agitation and melancholy are prevalent in all three, the lullaby idea is always present. 

The first Intermezzo (0:05-5:45 in the video above) is a lullaby structured in the form of an ABA’ song. It’s prefaced by lines from the Scottish lullaby “Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament“: 

Sleep softly, my child, sleep softly and well!

It breaks my heart to see you weep.

The A section is defined by a beautiful melody placed over an E-flat pedal point in the bass, and the harmonies develop underneath the bell-like theme. The B section transitions to minor and is much darker in nature. The lullaby is transformed into a cry, and it remains this way until the return of the A section. This time, however, the harmonies are much more full as the song finishes.

Intermezzo no. 2 in op. 117 (5:48-10:40) is a combination and expansion of two themes: the first is a melody created by rising and falling steps supported by 32nd notes, and the second is harmonized by block chords instead of flowing arpeggios. The themes interweave and develop throughout the work, passing through new keys and ideas as the arpeggios act as the support system.

The final Intermezzo (10:45-the end) opens solemnly with the melody in octave unison. The theme expands and grows as harmonies and rhythms are slowly added underneath. The middle section, however, is gorgeous with flowing arpeggios and a syncopated melody. This section is much more agitated than the melancholy A section, but it’s still subdued despite the melodic leaps. It’s believed that this particular piece is an unacknowledged setting of another Scottish poem, a love-lament beginning “Oh woe! Oh woe, deep in the valley …”. 

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