Composer: Johannes Brahms (b. 1833 - d. 1897)
Performance date: 05/07/2016
Venue: Bantry Library
Composition Year: 1892
Recording Engineer: Richard McCullough, RTÉ lyric fm
Paul Lewis -
for my sorrows is the way Brahms described these
exquisite piano pieces which he composed in the summer of 1892. Brahms’ sister
Elise had died in June and several of his friends were also ill or dying. Hans
von Bulow who might have given the first performance was too ill to do so. So
Brahms was in fact in mourning during this summer. No wonder that these short
pieces contain much, much more than might be expected in a lullaby.
Brahms added to the manuscript of the first
intermezzo a quote from Herder’s translation of a Scottish song. This begins Sleep softly my child, sleep softly and well.
Far from being a lullaby the song is about romantic betrayal and the abandonment.
Some commentators have linked all three of these Intermezzi to these gloomy Scottish ballads, but their actual
influence is unclear.
Like many things in Brahms’ life, these Intermezzi played a role in his long
relationship with Clara Schumann, who was also ill at the time. A long-running dispute over the publication
of the music of Clara’s late husband Robert came to a head. On Clara’s
birthday, September 13, Brahms wrote to her in bitter terms implying that their
relationship was over. Clara immediately replied in a soothing and friendly
letter and Brahms responded by presenting her with the manuscripts of both
Op.116 and 117.
The four sets of piano pieces Op.116-119 are
Brahms’ last compositions for solo piano. In most of them (including all three
of these Intermezzi) he abandons the
dynamic, turbulent, extrovert style of much of his early piano work. Instead a
feeling of calm introspection accompanied by a dream-like sense of deep sadness
and regret takes over. These works may seem simple but here is a great composer
with unrivalled knowledge of both the classical tradition and later romantic
composers using all his skills acquired over a life time of study, performance
and composition to create works of astonishing depth and grandeur.
All three are in tertiary form like a minuet and
trio. They begin with a main theme, followed by a middle section in which a new
(or related) material appears. The main theme returns although the second theme
can sometimes re-appear in the coda as well.
This seems simple enough however structural considerations seem
unimportant when compared to the extraordinary emotional power of this music.
Intermezzo in 6/8 time begins with the beautiful lullaby-like theme. The
outer calmness soon changes to reveal darker thoughts as Brahms modulates to E
flat minor for the middle section.
Brahms’ direction to the pianist here is Piu Adagio, sempre ma molto espressivo which seems precisely
appropriate for this dark dream-like sequence. The darkness throughout these
pieces is enhanced by the left hand reaching to the bottom octave of the piano.
In the opening of the second piece there seems to
be no distinction between the theme and the surrounding broken chords. The
middle section is built around a more serious and passionate idea. The final
intermezzo opens with stark minor key octaves. The brighter middle section now
uses broken chords inextricably bound up with the melodic material. The opening
theme returns with more complex harmonies and a syncopated accompaniment
bringing this grand, dark and sensuous music to a quiet and contemplative
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