- Martin Mull
Nevertheless, I’m going to try here. I feel too strongly about this piece of music to let these thoughts go to the grave with me. I came to love this piece so much I chose to orchestrate it for a class, and I’d like to talk both about the original piece, for solo piano, and my orchestrated version. Let’s dive in (continued after score):
Let’s start with a letter dating from 1893 to the love of his life, Clara Schumann. Tragically, he never married her, but every artist needs a muse, and we can all be thankful she fulfilled this role in his life so well:
"I am tempted to copy out a small piano piece for you, because I would like to know how you agree with it. It is teeming with dissonances! These may [well] be correct and [can] be explained—but maybe they won’t please your palate, and now I wished, they would be less correct, but more appetizing and agreeable to your taste. The little piece is exceptionally melancholic and ‘to be played very slowly’ is not an understatement. Every bar and every note must sound like a ritard[ando], as if one wanted to suck melancholy out of each and every one, lustily and with pleasure out of these very dissonances! Good Lord, this description will [surely] awaken your desire!"
To me, the overall mood is certainly melancholy, but it still maintains an air of nobility throughout. After a lethargic but introspective beginning, signs of hope and subdued passion arise in the middle section at measure 17. This middle section is arguably written in a waltz rhythm, though the slow tempo makes this less obvious.
Harmonically, the modulation to the relative major after a half-cadence on the dominant feels like a moment of sudden light. An analogous modulation occurs in the next Intermezzo, op. 119 no. 2 at the second part of the middle section at 52-54:
Even the A section has grace in its sadness, moving with stalwart resolve through Brahms’s characteristic circle progressions to a well-placed end. At the risk of being corny, this is a piece that has inspired me in times of sadness or mental exhaustion. Keep in mind the context of the period of his life when this was composed. Brahms had come out of retirement in 1891 to write his Clarinet Trio op. 114 and the Clarinet Quintet op. 115 at the inspiration of his friend Richard Mühlfeld. Old, tired, and semi-retired, he was in a position to look back on his life, sit back and take it easy. The courage, grace and nobility in the face of lethargy and exhaustion are something I can take away from this piece every time. Conversely, thinking about this piece too much makes me feel lethargic. That’s just me though. I’m sure there are people who would feel differently or simply feel nothing strongly at all, and those are legitimate responses too.
Ask any classical music nerd, and he will tell you that Brahms is famous for his wild manipulations of rhythmic patterns. For such a serious-looking guy, he sure was playful when it came to writing funky rhythms:
I find the retransition back to the A section at 43-46 to be one of the most elegantly written I’ve ever heard. The first sign of the transition is the upwards arpeggio in the bass in 41-42. This is the longest string of sixteenth notes in one direction in the entire piece, and also the longest sustained chord, as this half-diminished harmony is arpeggiated over two measures. It feels like putting on the brakes. Next, at 43, the direction of the sixteenth-note figures reverses, going downwards, except now in a hemiola pattern consisting of groups of three notes. The harmonic rhythm momentarily accelerates. At 45, we get back to the original downward six-note figure from the beginning, and the harmonic rhythm is cut in half, but as one can see on paper, this transition is seamless both visually and aurally. When we actually reach the literal recapitulation at 46, the only fundamental difference introduced is a new chord and the last note of the measure moving upwards to act as an appogiatura rather than a leading tone. One more tool that helps the retransition unify sections before and after so smoothly is the fact that it is a circle progression, just as at the end of the A section both times. As simple as a circle progression is, when Brahms uses them, it triggers a feeling of something quintessential to his music. I’m reminded of powerful tutti sections of his Piano Quintet, op. 34. The particular flavor of this one, also a distinguishing feature to me in much of Brahms’ music is that of a very learned man’s ruminations, a feeling of heady, 19th-century Wissenschaft.
The circle progression (evident in the bass) starting at 58 brings this piece to a close, just as it did at the shorter circle progression at 12 and 13 at the end of the first A section. The circular motion is longer in this case, however. lasting three measures at a time instead of two. It is also less complex and less interrupted, as the only interruption occurs at 61, after which the circle progression resumes from where it left off.
For a composer who claimed to have retired two years before writing this piece, Brahms sure is a showoff at the end in one particular way. Notice how this circle progression begins a minor third lower than it did in the first A section - not the same or in the subdominant, as traditionally expected! Miraculously, he lands squarely on B minor simply by continuing the circle progression in a regular pattern from here. It’s pure genius of the best kind, the kind that you don’t notice but is there all along under the surface. The little extra neighbor tones sprinkled in through the whole recapitulation hint at this. It’s like Brahms is tweaking the surface and seeing how much he can get away with before it causes a bigger pattern to change. It would be strange if he introduced all the little chromatic notes at 47 (which he needs to convert the rhythmic to faster triplets to fit in) and it didn’t lead anywhere.
The melodic content of this intermezzo is easily memorable, but what stands out is the economy of building blocks with which he manages to build an entire piece. The major motives are the descending 16th notes, the descending sequences at 12, the ascending sequences of approximately one measure each at 17, and the major sixth followed by the descending whole step at 24 and 35-42. The net result of these small motives that are manipulated into a complete piece, together with the slow tempo and short overall length is that the piece feels incredibly compact. I might go so far as to say that it feels strongest in the elemental level, smaller than even the melodies. The high points in the middle section might feel like watching a succesful 3-point shot if you didn’t know the rules of basketball - you can tell it’s an important place and an emotional moment, even if you don’t understand the significance from a theoretical or large-scale point of view. To me, this part of the piece feels like learning to experience emotions as you grow and realize the significance of something that was formerly off your radar - how to really care about someone else’s life experiences that are different from your own. I would go so far as to say that for me, learning to appreciate any unfamiliar style of music can do the same thing. I get that many listeners will probably not have this reaction to this piece, but that’s what’s so great about this music - it speaks to my needs in one way, and to another listener’s in another.
Finally, the harmonic language - I must admit that my first exposure to this piece was in my theory placement exam at Juilliard, back in 2013. Before classes started, they sat us down in Paul Hall and gave us an extensive theory examination. This piece was the subject of my exam. The first question was to give a harmonic analysis of the piece, and I admit that coming from my simple undergrad theory classes, I was flummoxed! How do you assign a roman numeral to a descending sequence of thirds that spans six notes under a slur? You could hear it as a B minor 7th chord on top of an E minor chord, an E minor 13th chord, or anything in between.
It’s strange - I personally hear it as a B minor chord, arpeggiated downward. The arpeggio just keeps going, but I still hear it as B minor, defined by the top of the chord, not the bottom. This breaks all the theory rules, and the Juilliard Theory faculty weren’t feeling this was an exception. Upwards, sure - adding 7ths, 9ths, etc on top of a chord doesn’t change the function of the chord by convention. But adding notes downwards goes against the laws of nature by contradicting the natural pattern of the harmonic overtone series, where the more dissonant overtones only occur naturally above the fundamental, not below.
I can’t think of many other examples in all the music I know where this occurs. However, I can at least say that here, the diminuendos that Brahms writes over the first three eighth notes of each measure at the beginning suggest the first three notes of each measure, B minor at the beginning, to be the loudest and thus the most important. Also, the placement of these triads at the beginning of each measure on a ‘strong’ beat lends them additional strength. Additionally, given the slow tempo and interpreting Brahms’ instruction to ‘suck melancholy out of each and every one’ to mean to allow a natural diminuendo on every note, which would allow us to hear the first three notes as one chord and the next three as another. This would occur naturally on piano, but in my orchestration, this argument would not apply, as each of the notes of the figure is sustained throughout the measure on string or woodwind instruments. One last argument in support of my idea is by analogy to 43, where due to the hemiola we are naturally expected to hear 43-44 as four groups of three notes. 43 contains all the same notes as the beginning except for the high A, and here it makes perfect sense to hear it as B minor plus E minor, so why not at the beginning?
I think a middle road could be taken at measures 2 and 44. 44 suggests A major and then D major, so I think it’s entirely reasonable to hear measure 2 the same way.
I played my orchestrated recording of this piece for my dad, and he said it sounded impressionist. I was doubtful of this assessment at first, and thought it was just my orchestration, but in retrospect I think this is the farthest Brahms ever went in that direction. In 1892, impressionism in the style of Debussy was beyond the boundaries Brahms would cross by that point in his life, but it is remarkable how far he went in that direction, even in comparison with the other op. 119 pieces, which can feel worlds apart. Brahms is not a composer known for dreamy harmonic ambiguity, but that’s how the first and last sections of this piece are written to make us feel. Even the contrasting middle section with the waltz rhythm and more clear harmonies is still far from square or predictable.
Being the diligent DMA scholar I’m supposed to be, I googled ‘Brahms Intermezzo op. 119 no. 1’ and a website by someone named Kelly Dean Hansen that got cited on the wikipedia page showed up arguing the same thing, so at least my dad and I have one source to back up our intuition here.
Out of all of Brahms’ piano works, I’d argue this is the most concise, in the sense that it says the most in the smallest number of notes and the least amount of time. Only one other piano piece I’m aware of by him occupies less than three pages, as this does, and none is as boiled down to the point of this piece. It contains relatively few notes in a slow tempo, and the piece is build by variation on a sparse economy of short motives. Despite the difficulty of saying so much in so little material and time, and the lack of pretense in this piece, Brahms’ genius is still present at full strength, and he fills the piece with content and meaning worthy of any of the serious intermezzi from op. 118. Clara Schumann went as far as to describe this piece as a ‘gray pearl’, a compliment which I’m sure Brahms was glad to hear. It’s also one of the shortest pieces he wrote, at 3 minutes, which is a very important reason why I chose it to orchestrate, given the time restraints of the reading session to which my recording here is indebted.
I find this piece to be a graceful expression of good public speaking, and indeed of any type of mature self-expression. I’m not going to guess until the end of this post what it means to be a mature adult, but for now I will venture to say that it’s not about impressing everyone with how articulate or clever you are, or how big your vocabulary is, though of course those are good things. I admit I’d feel frustrated as a composer if someone told me I had to write a piece this constrained. Frankly, at least the notes could be played by any pianist with any sort of technique at all (even I could probably play it, which is saying a lot). Nevertheless, Brahms’ thoughts and feelings come through more clearly to me in this piece than almost anywhere else, and he wrote a lot of very memorable piano music.
Perhaps the impending realization that the time remaining in one’s life is finite is another thing that can encourage a mature man or woman to think of their audience and express what needs to be said in a consise and compelling manner. I’m thinking of how Brahms must have felt writing this piece and the next opus number, his swan song, the sonatas for clarinet or viola and piano, op. 120. I also remember my lessons on his op. 120 no. 2 with my coach Sylvia Rosenberg in New York City, and the compelling directness with which she boiled down her accumulated decades of wisdom for me and my pianist. For me, it was excellent teaching. The simple technical tools, phrasing, ways of creating dynamic contrast, enforcement of observing the composer’s markings, and her overall imperative to ‘say something!’ no matter what will stick with me for the rest of my life.
Real maturity is to think before speaking, get over yourself, and say something meaningful in a simple way that is clear, understandable, and emotionally compelling to the listener. This can and should make use of all the tools one has, but only insofar as they are a means to an end - a virtuosic focus on one’s strengths themselves is never the end goal. I am happy to conclude that in this way, Brahms grew in wisdom with age even through these pieces from the sunset of his life. To me, this piece still serves as a powerful inspiration for me to grow in the same way.