McMaster Music Analysis Colloquium 




Ruth Cumberbatch

During his career as a composer, Johannes Brahms established himself as a `master’ of vocal, choral, symphonic and chamber music.  Near the end of his life, however, Brahms’s interest in more intimate forms rekindled and his output for solo piano increased significantly.  Similar to other Romantic composers like Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn and Franz Schubert, Brahms named his pieces with descriptive titles like `Intermezzo’ and `Capriccio’.  As well, many of these pieces are written in ternary form.  Due to its flexible and accommodating framework, ternary form was an ideal mould in which Brahms could present the inspirations of his mature style.  These piano works, despite their brevity, contain many of the techniques used by Brahms in his larger works.

Brahms’s Intermezzo in A major is one such piece.  Composed in 1893 as part of the Sechs Klavierstücke Op. 118, it contains the chromatic and contrapuntal writing that characterizes much of Brahms’s output.  Of particular interest in this piece is the use of `developing variation’- a compositional technique specifically associated with Brahms.  Arnold Schoenberg used this term to describe the compositional practice of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, and of these composers, he felt that Brahms had most fully developed the technique.  In his essay "Bach" (1950), he describes music that

"produces its material by . . . developing variation.  This means that variation of the features of a basic unit produces all the thematic formulations which provide for fluency, contrasts, variety, logic and unity on the one hand, and character, mood, expression and every needed differentiation on the other hand - thus elaborating the idea of the piece".(1)

Schoenberg argued that "composition begins with the 'gift' of a musical idea, which grows and expands",(2) and in Brahms's compositions, he sees the evolution of themes, melodies and form through reinterpretation of concise motives.

In his book Brahms and the Principle of Developing Variation, Walter Frisch discusses the outward forms created by this compositional process.  He quotes Gustav Jenner, a student of Brahms, who argued that what mattered to Brahms was "the spirit, not the schema"(3)  of established forms.  Frisch then discusses form as an outgrowth of and as dependent upon the reshaping of the initial idea.(4)

Through an analysis of Brahms’s treatment of form, phrase, meter and motive, I will attempt to demonstrate how Brahms uses the technique of variation not only to expand musical structures and ideas, but also to interrupt or subvert normative progressions and figurations. Furthermore, through this analysis, I hope not only to provide a glimpse into Brahms's technique of developmental variation, but also to suggest a variety of ways to experience this piece.

Expansion of Form

Brahms's use of expansion in this Intermezzo is evident even by looking at its basic form.  It appears to be in three-part or ternary form:  section A is comprised of mm. 1-48; section B, mm. 49-76 and section A', mm. 76b-116.  Although the B section is shorter in length than the A, its descending line, indicated in Figure 1, can be interpreted as an expansion of the line of A.

Figure 1.  Background of the form of the entire piece

Section A, however, seems to have its own internal form, a kind of binary form with what I consider to be a coda [i.e. a-b-coda: a{mm.1-16a}-b{mm.16b-38a}-coda{mm. 38b-48}]. Part "a" begins in A major and the first eight measures end on a perfect cadence in E major. Mm. 9-16 basically repeat the material from mm. 1-8 with some variations in harmonies and inner voicing. These variations seem to move the ear away from A major and more decisively to the perfect cadence in E major at m.16.  As an almost exact repetition of mm. 1-8, mm. 9-16 reinforce the identity of the motivic material that will be developed throughout the piece, functioning similarly to an Exposition that is repeated before the beginning of the Development in sonata form.  Furthermore, this repetitive passage quite obviously contributes to the growth or expansion of Section A.(5)

In part "b", beginning at m.16, e is prolonged in the bass until m. 29, when the d in the bass seems to be the most important note until the perfect cadence in m. 38. The coda is a variation of mm. 17-23, being in the key of A major instead of E major. It not only reworks the material from mm. 17-23, but it also contributes to the growth and expansion of the form.

Figure 2a.  Section A expanded

The form of section B also seems to be expanded into three parts: the first, mm. 49-56 introduces a quasi-canonic passage in F-sharp minor (fig. 2b).

Figure 2b. Section B, mm. 49-56

The second section (mm. 57-63) however, is highly disruptive.  Material from the descending line shown in Figure 2b is reworked, but the key is now F-sharp major instead of F-sharp minor and the line descends only to c-sharp (f-sharp, e-sharp, d-sharp, c-sharp) in order to accommodate the strict canon.  This abbreviated line and its repetitions interrupt the feeling of downward progression created by the longer descent of the previous measures.  Furthermore, the left-hand arpeggiations are interrupted by the entrance of the more homophonic texture at m. 57.

The third part of section B, mm. 65-73, is similar to mm. 49-56 except that here the canon begins in the alto and the soprano follows.  Mm. 74-76 provides a transition to A' that moves from VI/A to V/A to I.  The graph below demonstrates how interruption occurs in the descent from 3^.  The music never completes its descent to 1^, but is interrupted by the return of the ascending motion of the opening measures.

Figure 2c.  Transition to A', mm. 74-76

Phrasing, Meter and Register

While expansion and interruption often occurs at the macro-level, or in this case, at the level of the overall form of the piece, both may also occur at the micro-level. Note Brahms's treatment of phrasing(6)  in part "b" of section A. Up until m. 24, the music is divided into four-bar phrases; however, in m. 25, a phrase begins that seems to last for six measures instead of four. The use of chromatic voice leading in this phrase seems to be what delays the ending of this phrase and prolongs it for the extra two measures.  As well, at mm. 43-48, there seems to be another irregular, six-measure phrase that delays the final cadence. The final two measures of this phrase could be described as a "suffix".(7)

As well, the meter of these measures (also that of mm. 16-22) undergoes a shift in accent. While the rhythm still seems to be grouped in triple time, the strong-weak-weak pattern associated with 3/4 time is displaced.  In Figure 3, note how the strong beat falls on beat 3 instead of beat 1.  This displacement of accent, then, disrupts the more normative triple meter that dominates most of the piece.

Figure 3.  Mm. 16-18, Mm. 42-44

In section B, Brahms continues to manipulate rhythm and meter, this time to accommodate the canonic imitation in this section.  Brahms's use of canon "wreaks havoc with the written bar line" and the music is allowed to "override the notated meter."(8) This is especially evident in mm. 57-64, where the phrasing is displaced (Fig. 4) so that we hear this passage as a metrical expansion from 3/4 to 4/4.

Figure 4.  Mm. 57-64

I also found the music in mm. 48-49, 53 and 69 intriguing (Fig. 5). Brahms increasingly expands the upward leap from the c-sharp. This serves as a "a heightening of expression,"(9) and to widen or expand the range of the register.

Figure 5.

Motivic Development - A Section
While Brahms's technique of restructuring and reinterpreting motive contributes significantly to the growth and development of this piece as a whole, the variations of motive also function to interrupt goal-oriented progressions or overturn familiar figurations. In the opening measures, Brahms introduces three motives that he reworks and reshapes throughout the remainder of the piece:

Figure 6a.  Score excerpt, mm.1

Figure 6b.  Breakdown of motivic material in m.1

Motive 1 is immediately expanded in mm. 1-2 with the leap of a seventh up to the high A. In measures 2-4, a new idea is introduced: (Fig. 7). Compare figures 7a, 7b and 7c  and notice how Brahms reworks the idea of figure 7 by gradually adding more chromatic movement in the inner and outer voices.
Figures 7, 7a, 7b, and 7c.

At mm. 16, where part "b" of section A begins, the motivic material seems to be a reworking of the neighboring motions and the "reaching over"(10) or the shift of register that occurs in mm. 1-4 (Fig. 8).

Figure 8.  Graph of mm. 1-4, 16-19

In mm. 24 - 30, motive 1 is expanded in a rising sequential passage (Fig. 9). In mm. 29-30, the leap of a seventh from the b to the high a closely resembles the leap in mm. 1-2.

Figure 9.  Expansion of motive 1

Motive 1 continues to be reworked in mm. 31-38: in the bass, motive 1 appears on the same pitches as in the opening, but here the ds in the bass seems to be functioning harmonically as IV, whereas in the opening, the ds in the treble seem to function as neighbor notes as shown in Figure 6, motive 3. Above the bass is a descending line, a - g-sharp - f-sharp - e - d- c-sharp - b, which could be interpreted as an expansion of motive 2, the a - g-sharp - f-sharp of the opening measures.(11)

Figure 10.  Mm. 30-34

This descent outlines an A major and an A natural minor scale; notice, however, that these scalic progressions do not reach the final a.  Instead, motive 1 returns above the descents, intercepting the ear's attention, not only by appearing in a higher register than usual, but also by appearing in inverted form.

Figure 11.  Mm. 34-36

The music in the first measures of the coda (mm. 38-41) closely resembles that of mm. 17-22. Also, note the descending line {a - g-sharp - f-sharp - e - d- c-sharp - b - a} in mm. 38-48, first in the tenor, then in the bass. These descending lines are reminiscent of the descending line at mm. 30-32. The last measures contain motive 1, heard this time in the alto voice and the A section ends on a perfect cadence in A major.

Figure 12. Graph of the Coda, mm. 38-49

It seems, then, that the coda functions not only to reinforce A major tonality, but also to extend and reinterpret the motivic material introduced in both parts of the A section.

Motivic Development - B Section

In the B section, contrast is provided through a change of mode - from A major to the relative minor. In general, the texture of the B section is more diatonic than A. The exception would be mm. 61-64 where the inner voices move chromatically. As well, there is a change in contour: while the music in section A seems to rise, that of section B descends. Brahms also seems to exploit different compositional techniques in this section using canonic imitation and two-against-three rhythm.
One could argue, however, that there are also important similarities between the A and the B sections. In both sections Brahms uses sequential treatment, for example mm. 24-29 in A, and mm. 66-68 in B. As well, the left hand in both sections very often contains a lot of arpeggiation, and, as I demonstrated earlier, there are occurrences of metric displacement in both sections. Finally, motivic material from A reappears in section B, albeit somewhat transformed. For example, the Schenkerian graph in the figure below could be interpreted as an outgrowth or expansion of motive 3.

Figure 13a. Motive 3, Graph of section B

As well, compare the descending line at mm. 49-52 (Fig. 13) and the descending line at mm. 30-32 (Fig. 10).

Figure 13.  Mm. 49-52

Brahms reworks the material shown in Fig. 10 using the minor mode instead of the major and also by presenting the descending lines in free canonic imitation. Furthermore, Brahms does not allow the music to descend all at once as it does in mm. 30-32.  Instead, he decorates some of the notes with a four-note figure in eighth notes; this interrupts the descent of the line, and delays the arrival of a perfect cadence in F-sharp minor which eventually occurs in mm. 72-73. The passage that follows (mm. 73-76), is a kind of transition to A', and seems to be a reworking of the four-note decorations from mm. 50 and 51 (Fig. 14).

Figure 14.

The Return of A

One might expect that Brahms would continue his expansive strategies in the return of A; however, this section is actually shorter than the original A section. A' begins similarly to the A section, but at m.78 the contour of the music changes: when the music leaps up to the high a, it stays up there and descends, instead of dropping an octave and ascending as it did in m.2. This reversal of direction, combined with a shortened part "a" (8 measures instead of 16),(12) seems to usher the music towards part "b" and the A major coda; both reappear in A' exactly as they appeared in the original A section.

Figure 15.  Mm. 77-84


At the outset of this paper, I stated my hope that this analysis would suggest ways to experience the Intermezzo, whether as a performative or an aural experience, or both.  For a pianist or piano teacher, studying and playing the graphs in this analysis could be instructive in locating, listening for and communicating imitative passages or similar rhetorical material.

Some pianists may be inclined to value and communicate the expansive techniques that Brahms employs, whereas others may identify more with the interruptive moments in this piece and construct their performance accordingly.  For example, one of my favorite parts of this piece is at mm. 30-36 where motive 1 appears in the bass against a descending line in the top voice.   The music could have ended here but motive 1 returns again in the top voice, inverted.  To me, this inverted figure functions as a momentary reversal or as a disruption of the music's direction.  When playing these measures, I like to participate in this disruptive moment, sometimes by lingering on the G-sharp appoggiatura of measure 34, or sometimes by a change of colour (through dynamics or use of the una corda pedal).  For another pianist, these measures may seem to function in delaying closure, and she might prefer to make more of the calando in mm. 33-34.

There is such a wealth of ideas and so many variations of motive in this piece that surely a performer could bring out something new with each performance.  As well, I would hope that this analysis would inform the listener's experience of a performance, perhaps promoting the recognition of recurring motives and criticism of the way that these motives are presented in performance.

The other purpose of this analysis was to interrogate Brahms’s use of variation as a
compositional technique.  In this Intermezzo, the reshaping of phrase, motive, meter and form
can be interpreted as an agent of expansion and growth in developing the identity of the piece.
And yet, some variations seem to interrupt or divert this quest for identity.  Certainly, considering both of these aspects of Brahms’s technique of developing variation reveals much about his compositional approach, and furthermore enhances the experience of this music.

1. Quote taken from Walter Frisch, Brahms and the Principle of Developing Variation, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984, p. 2. Frisch draws a comparison between Brahms's developmental technique "in which concise thematic material is continuously reinterpreted" and the technique of "literal sequence (used by composers like Liszt and Wagner) whereby themes are not 'developed'- not pulled apart and reshaped - but are repeated more or less exactly at different pitch levels"(27).

2.  Ibid., p. 33

3.  Ibid., p. 34

4.  In her article "Paradigm Dissonances: Music Theory, Cultural Studies, Feminist Criticism"
[Perspectives of New Music 32/1 (Winter 1994)], Susan McClary investigates the cultural history of the developing variation and suggests that this technique is closely linked to the "principal agenda of both political theory and the arts during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:  namely, the formation of the autonomous, self-generated masculine subject". She compares this to the Bildungsroman in literature -- the "novel of development - in which a young, relatively unformed male proceeds through a series of experiences that serve to consolidate his mature identity . . . all events in the Bildungsroman appear to contribute directly, organically to the developing variation of the emergent subject" (p.76).

While a cultural study of this Intermezzo is beyond the scope of this essay, I think that it would be worthwhile to study how the social and political climate may have informed Brahms's choice of compositional techniques - many of which are evident in this Intermezzo.
5. Compare Levy and Levarie's comment on the function of repetition in their book Musical Morphology: A Discourse and a Dictionary (Ernst Levy and Siegmund Levarie, Kent State University Press, 1983):

In the case of immediate repetition, the contribution to growth [or expansion] is obvious.  A chain of such repetitions produces, as the case may be, strophes and variation sets. . . .  The morphological gain seems greater; for paired with proportion, symmetry or number, periodic recurrence can be made to serve as limitation as well.

Regarding the matter of "proportion", it is interesting to note that A (48 measures in length) is twice the length of B (24 measures).  Perhaps the repetition of the material of mm. 1-8 that occurs in mm. 9-16 facilitates this proportional ratio.

This quote was taken from Nicholas Greco's discussion of Brahms's Intermezzo in E major, Op. 116, No. 6.  His analysis is also part of the McMaster Music Analysis Colloquium, 1999.  Return to the home page to locate his paper.

6. William Rothstein problematizes the concept of phrasing in tonal music in chapter 1 of his
book Phrase Rhythm in Tonal Music (New York: Schirmer Books, 1989). He suggests these
definitions: "the portion of music that must be performed . . . in a single breath" and "a directed
motion in time from one tonal entity (harmonic or melodic) to another" (p. 4,5).  The latter definition would be more suited to this analysis.

7. William Rothstein, Phrase Rhythm in Tonal Music, p. 71.

8. Walter Frisch, Brahms and the Principle of Developing Variation, p. 7 & 8. Frisch also cites Brahms's A-minor String Quartet op. 51 No.2, Piano Quintet Op.34 and Third Symphony as pieces where displacement of meter occurs.

9. This term was suggested to me by Dr. William Renwick.

10. "Reaching over " refers to the transfer of inner voice tones to a higher position. Allen
Cadwallader, David Gagne, Analysis of Tonal Music: A Schenkerian Approach, New York:
Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 149.

11. I am grateful to Dr. Renwick for pointing out this connection to me.

12. Part "a" in A' is eight measures shorter because there is no repetition of the first eight measures as occurs at the outset of this piece.  While the repetition of mm. 1-8 may have been necessary in the original A section to better define an 'identity' for the piece, repeating these measures in A' would not be necessary, because, at this point, identity has been established.

© Copyright 1999 by Ruth Cumberbatch.