Composed in 1892, the three Intermezzi for solo piano, Op. 117 are among the final works of Johannes Brahms. Filled with wistful nostalgia, they were written two years after Brahms’ formal retirement at the age of 57. The critic Eduard Hanslick described these brief autumnal works as “monologues” of a “thoroughly personal and subjective character…pensive, graceful, dreamy, resigned, and elegiac.” Brahms once described them as “three lullabies to my sorrow.” Along with their Op. 116-118 companions pieces, they are filled with echos of the famous “Clara Theme” which ran as a motivic thread throughout the music of Robert Schumann. Brahms sent each newly written intermezzo to Clara Schumann, with whom years earlier he had had a relationship “bordering between friendship and love.” After playing the music, Clara noted “In these pieces I at last feel musical life stir once again in my soul.”
There is a visceral sense of the gentle rocking motion of a lullaby in the first Intermezzo, set in E-flat major. The score contains two lines from an old Scottish ballad, Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament: “Balow, my babe, lie still and sleep! It grieves me sore to see thee weep.” An occasionally canonic conversation unfolds amid sensuous, wide-open inner voices. Listen to the way the piece’s middle section descends into dark, murky depths:
The second Intermezzo moves into B-flat minor with fluid, falling arpeggios and restless, irregular phrases. Structurally, it’s a miniature sonata form, with a second theme moving into D-flat. Listen to the way the first theme emerges out of the opening arpeggios and transforms throughout the piece, culminating in the quietly ominous final bars.
The final Intermezzo, in C-sharp minor, is some of Brahms’ most mysterious, haunting and tragic music. The composer once referred to it as “the lullaby of all my grief.” It begins with solemn, wandering voices in octaves. In the middle section, there is a fleeting quote from the second movement of Brahms’ First Violin Sonata. A ghostly transition back to the first theme feels briefly suspended in time. This music may have been an unacknowledged setting of another lamenting Scottish love ballad which begins, “Oh woe! Oh woe, deep in the valley…”
Keith Jarrett: “Prayer”
You can hear echoes of Brahms’ Intermezzo in E-flat Major, Op. 117, No. 1 in the Prayer track from Keith Jarrett’s 1975 jazz album, Death and the Flower. The rocking lullaby line opens the door to a vibrant improvisation in which Jarrett is joined by the bassist, Charlie Haden: