Johannes Brahms’ three Op. 117 Intermezzos are a mix of serene, autumnal beauty, solitary introspection, and underlying sadness. Brahms wrote these solo piano works in the summer of 1892 with his longtime friend, Clara Schumann in mind. He described them as “lullabies of my sorrow.” The score is inscribed by a quotation from a Scottish poem from Johann Gottfried Herder’s Volkslieder:
Sleep softly my child, sleep softly and well !
It hurts my heart to see you weeping.
Here is the first of the Op. 117 Intermezzos from a newly-released album by Russian pianist Arcadi Volodos. (The recording includes two other late Brahms works: the Op. 76 Capriccios and Intermezzos and the Six Piano Pieces, Op. 118). It opens in E-flat major with the gentle rocking motion of a lullaby. In Brahms’ piano music we often get a visceral sense of the breadth and range of the keyboard, especially in the sensuous interval of the sixth. As the melody enters in the low register around the 30 second mark, it suggests bigness and gentleness, simultaneously. The middle section sinks into E-flat minor and increasingly dark and mysterious territory. Then, suddenly, the clouds subside and we find ourselves back home.
Ultimately, words fail to convey the experience you may have with this music, so plug in your best headphones and take a moment to listen:
Photograph by Ali Schafler