The Sechs Klavierstücke, Opus 118 (1893) of Johannes Brahms enjoy great popularity today, though they were largely forgotten as concert repertoire shortly after their composition.  Is this paritally due to the decided lack of sheer technical Lisztian brilliance?  For as the late German pianist/critic Walter Niemann once stated: "The poet speaks - the virtuoso with Brahms has to be silent".  Unlike the Chopin solo piano repertoire, immensely popular with the great pianists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these Klavierstücke seem to have had little representation from the Rubinstein, Horowitz or Leschetitzky camps to name but a few.  Harold C. Schonberg's The Great Pianists:  From Mozart to the Present (1963) makes no mention of these Klavierstücke or of any other Brahms late solo repertoire in discussing the most important pianists and their repertoire.
 These sonorous and somewhat cryptic pieces do not readily convert to today's competition pieces (as do perhaps the Liszt Transcendental Etudes, Beethoven sonatas and just about all of Chopin's pianistic ouevre) but they invite endless study.  And perhaps in an ironic way, this repertoire - as with the other short pieces that form the various other late Klavierstücke - offers the amateur or professional virtual license to choose his/her own path to interpretation.  As I will remark upon later in the course of this paper, many interpretations exist of this collection:  some profoundly different from one another, yet each managing to be wholly convincing in its own poignant way.
 The Klavierstücke Opus 118's forms offer the best entry point to study of this music because of their seeming uniformity as regards the ternary ABA structure and rotating tonal areas.  (PLEASE REFER TO ATTACHED DIAGRAM) Forgoing discussion of the naming of pieces for the moment, we can detect many similarities.  Whatever the titling, the pieces (with the exception of No. 1) are built on a ternary ABA form common to many types of character pieces and even larger symphonic pieces of the later 19th century.1 Also common to each of pieces No. 2 through No. 6, each time the A section capitulates we hear the original key as well as the melodic materials.  One might believe that based on the evidence so far presented, piece No. 1 is a certain type of structure, while Nos. 2 through 6 represent another category.  It is at this juncture that we must compare general knowledge of the types of forms versus how Brahms has presented them.
  Both The New Harvard Dictionary of Music (1986) and The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980) describe the Intermezzo - the most plentiful type of structure here - as little more than a middle movement or lighter section of a larger work, often lyrically conceived for the piano and in ternary form.  The terms "Ballade" and "Romanze" are described in somewhat more detail.  The New Harvard and New Grove Dictionary both note that 19th-century composers were apt to use the two terms interchangeably, that these so-called 'character' pieces were of a lyrical nature and usually modeled on a ternary or rondo-like form.  Though both sources assert that composers such as Chopin - whom scholars believe used the designation "ballade" for the first time in an instrumental composition - apparently intended the ballade as a reference to the 18th-century English or German ballad, it is not immediately clear what the overt references are if any.  Leon Plantinga speculates that the ballade (and by extension, the romanze) may have been a vehicle for evoking associations with an idealized folklike, narrative style of poetry and music.2  
 The truth of the matter is that these rather conventional 19th-century forms were a spring-board into a composer's style:  a veritable musical diary meant for the trying out and recording of personal compositional whims and tastes.  This may account for Brahms striking placement of the intermediary Intermezzo at the beginning and ending of a collection of pieces, as he has done in Op. 117 and 118.  Though the Intermezzo No. 1 is the only piece to depart from the normative ABA structure of the rest of the pieces, it appears that Brahms needed to craft a special form to: a) make the listener feel a sense of happening upon a scene or journey already in play, and b) to quiet the tempestuous force with a bright tierce de Picardie  segue into the tender Intermezzo No. 2.  Thus the introductory Intermezzo triumphs on two counts: it succeeds brilliantly as its own interior picture snapshot between previous assumed action and that ensuing, and its idiosyncratic form (see above) is used to great affect to ignite the cycle.  The final piece of the Klavierstücke, the Intermezzo No. 6 yields even greater clues as to Brahms' predilection for this form.  While this magnificent and episodic piece is in many senses a complete scene on its own and follows a fairly regulated ABA' form, Brahms has deliberately placed the Intermezzo form in the final slot so that an unmistakable tonal connection may be made with the first of the Intermezzos of Opus 119 (discussed further on in more detail as regards key relationships).   
 Brahms has also coaxed a more dynamic Intermezzo in two further ways.  Within the Intermezzo No. 2, he has crafted an internal intermezzo in the B section:  the f# minor section is effectively split in half by the addition of a sedate F# major interjection.  In addition,  his inspired use of counterpoint, canon and registeral change within the two sections that engulf the F# major interjection endow the music with a vividness impossible to ignore. The Intermezzo No. 4 - as with the A minor and Eb minor Intermezzos - defiantly challenges the notion of intermezzo as lyrical composition.  The F minor piece (marked Allegretto un poco agitato)  implies trouble brewing beneath its rather delicate surface, and its highly syncopated B section is an enigmatic canon.  Furthermore, one senses the composer's own conflicting human emotions and desires in the Eb minor Intermezzo:  a deeply reflective brooding state, mingled with flashes of passion  and perhaps a foretelling of the composer's death.  There is a great distance traveled from the more straightforward emotional realm of the melody-infused A major Intermezzo.
 Brahms' original labeling of the G minor Ballade as a Rhapsodie may reflect that he did not consider this piece to be on such a grand scale as other of his Rhapsodies.  It certainly is a less complex structure than the G minor Ballade of Chopin, herewith briefly outlined:

INTRO A connecting B A B connecting B A Coda 
  material    material (new)

Brahms' formulaic means are much more economical (as are his melodic ideas) and as we shall discover later, the complexity or density in this piece is due to a structure that is based on thematic metamorphosis (typical for a late 19th-century ballade).  The use of refrain is definitely a part of this Ballade, as the bucolic and folk-reminiscent theme invites itself to continue at M. 10 but beginning in Eb major, piano, and in more of a tenuto character.  More significant is a slightly submerged rendering of the principal motif in the dreamy B major (B section).  The time-signature Brahms has chosen is unusual, whereas Chopin's Ballades tend to utilize compound metres of 6/4 or 6/8.
 Brahms' F major Romanze - originally dubbed an Intermezzo -  betrays some striking similarities for one, with the A minor Romanze of Schumann's Symphony No. 4 in D minor (1841, revised 1851).  Both forms have an episodic D major middle section with a treble melody that suggests each of the respective author's internal 'wanderlust'.  Both employ variation technique in this section and most strikingly, use of the sharpened 4th degree (G#).  Also prevalent in both A sections is a harking back to introductory material:  in the Schumann Romanze, the material comes from the beginning of the symphony, while with Brahms, there are melodic motifs from the A major Intermezzo as well as motifs that prefigure the last Intermezzo in Eb minor.  Although both composers use different time-signatures when entering the middle section, the end result is not unlike.  Schumann maintains his 3/4 time but his continuous eighth-note pulsing underneath the triplet-sixteenth melody gives a compound metre feel.  Brahms switches from the compound metre of 6/4 to Alla breve, but the repetitive L.H. rhythm provides a static background for the free-floating tune.
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 An examination of the key relationships between pieces and each piece's inter-relationships offer up a very basic fundamental underlying the entire Opus 118:  the interval of a 2nd informs almost the entire construction of the cycle.  The overall tonalities of the Klavierstücke - A - / A + / G - / F - / F + / Eb - show this at a quick glance.  And what is more, this succession of keys is encapsulated by the top-voice line of the 1st Intermezzo (the Bb and E are ancillary notes in this matter).  The inferences of course, of semitone activity between the pairs of pieces that share relative minor and major keys (such as Nos. 1 and 2, and Nos. 4 and 5), are easy to make and as we shall soon find, will dominate all tonal discussions.
 We know that within a movement of a larger work or a smaller piece in a cycle such as the Opus 118, Brahms is partial to secondary tonal relationships a third or a sixth away. For the purposes of this discussion, this information is meaningful in that it allows the composer to highlight and play with certain tones that either become sharpened or flattened in the course of the movement to the secondary area, or allow one note to be heard and experienced in various ways.  The most obvious example occurs in the G minor Ballade; the minor 2nd interval of Bb-B natural-Bb is emphasized most organically through the change of the tonal areas Gminor-B major-G minor.  Similarly, the Intermezzo No. 2's tonal sections of A major - F# minor - A major are placed in such a way as to facilitate the playing with two tonal areas:  A and A#, and C and C#.  The B section with its own mini- Intermezzo displays the A/A# dichotomy; this in turn is symbolic of the relationship of the A minor and A major Intermezzos and thetierce de Picardie  ending of the Intermezzo No. 1 which presage the following piece.  The Intermezzo #2's second relationship of C/C# has consequences for the entire collection of pieces and is in large part responsible for tying at least the first five pieces together.
 With the exception of the Ballade No. 3 and its concentration on a Bb/B natural tonal area and the last Intermezzo (to be dealt with separately below), the tones C and C# function as a mobile frame and reinforcement for the Klavierstücke.  An octave C in the R.H.and low C in the L.H. frame the Intermezzo No. 1 and the C is heard as the resolving note of the plaintive melodic fragment which closes the first section as well as the second section (on both the 1st and 2nd endings).  After the pedal E and arpeggiated figures (R.H.) the surprise ending of A major tonicization now features a C# - especially as the top voice of the R.H.  The same C# (but an octave lower) is heard right away in the top voice of the R.H. and it is this same C# that often articulates each new phrase in the A major Intermezzo.  Before the new motif - a rhythmic variation of the opening theme - is heard in M. 34, the C and C# are heard again in a twice-played out descending motif which flattens the 7th and 3rd degrees of the scale.  C# again picks up the thread at Mm. 48-49 as section B starts, at Mm. 56-57 as the F# major section begins, and the C# drops an octave to begin the last part of the ternary structure:  here, two C#'s, an octave apart, begin a canon.  There is the same activity for C# as we witnessed in the beginning A section and the piece closes with C#, yet in a lower voice. 
 As mentioned earlier, the C focal point of the Ballade drops down a second to Bb and B major only to begin the Intermezzo No. 4 anew, this time as part of an insistent canon between the soprano and tenor voices.  The triplet octaves that begin in M. 17 in the R.H., progress through enharmonic change to arpeggiated triplets in thirds and end at M. 40 do so framed once again by the ubiquitous C.  The canon between soprano and tenor begins anew with C as its starting point and the A section draws to a close on a pedal unison C, heard for four measures. 
 This highly rhythmic interior section , motivically oblique and rather like a musical kaleidescope once again depends on C to act as a defining bookend:  the octave C's of Mm. 48-52 are matched as powerfully by the 8ve basso C first heard in M. 83 and another four repetitions of the dotted quarter-note C's.  Brahms has cleared the airwaves of the rather delicate counterpoint that has characterized this Intermezzo and prepared the listener for the new role of the C tonality as major 3rd.  Ab major launches the B section and the rather jaunty rhythm is perpetuated by the R.H.'s lead on first an offbeat chord, followed by a single offbeat bass note, and so on.  The Ab tonality asserts itself (Mm. 52-60) through a I, IV, II, IV (pedal Bb), V, I, V of IV progression - the Ab acts as pedal from Mm.60-68.  The appearance of Fb in M. 64 (VII°7th of Ab) subtly alerts the listener to the possibility of enharmonic change and sure enough - while the Ab bass pedal continues in the L.H. - the first G# appears with a dim. specified underneath.  E major, the furthest key away from Ab is firmly ensconced in M. 69. (On the face of it, the enharmonic change has been managed through the Ab/G# pedal).  The same progression occurs as above but is cut short after the appearance of the V chord in Mm. 74-75.  Following in M. 76, the G# is lowered (again a dynamic marking occurs, this time pp)  and C major (a relationship of a third away from E) is established at M. 77.  The same progression as was played out in the E tonal area, is heard again and after the dramatically low C of M. 84 is struck, a crescendo  and 3-voiced chords create growing excitement.  A progression of V  of IV (Mm. 85-87), and VII°7th of C is heard amidst a C pedal until M. 92.  Although C major is established from Mm. 77 to 84, it is repeated as a more dramatic variation (fuller chords, multiple dynamic directions, the diminished 7th clashing with the C pedal) and the addition of Ab (°7th) hints at the return to F minor.  Immediately after the upbeat forte  to M. 93, we are again launched into F minor with the VII°7th (E-G-Bb-Db) supported by returning triplet rhythms.  Before the F minor tonicization firmly recurs, the listener is treated to a reminiscence of C tonality as a secondary dominant complete with sixteenth-note arpeggiation occurs in Mm. 96-97.  With the return of F minor, the "C" canon begins once again and C is heard as the topmost note in the tiers de Picardie  ending (F major).
 As with the first three Intermezzi, some form of C acts as prelude to the F major Romanze.  At the end of each eight-measure phrase comprising the A section is a haemiolaic device which highlights the C/C# polarity once more.  As hope quietly begins to fade with the waning of the delightful and whimsical middle section, C natural is first introduced in M. 40 as a whole note (V7  of IV).  The three measures in 6/4 that serve as connecting material to the Tempo 1 section revolve around the resolution of C# to C natural and the autumnal chorale tune is heard once again.
 Though there is ample reason to support the notion of C as tonal "idée fixe", the startling change in Intermezzo No. 6 to six flats and a secondary tonal area of Gb (III) ends the C tonal domination as structural device.  However, any audio recording of this funereal Intermezzo that is followed by the first Intermezzo in B minor of Opus 119, should serve to re-orient the listener.  For it is certain that when the first eerie note of the Eb minor Intermezzo has been intoned, Brahms' concern is already with providing a link to the next piece.  This is a potent metaphor for the composer's link to another world (death, perhaps?).  In this way, the last Intermezzo truly has meaning as an interior composition, linking as it does with the F# first note of Opus 119.
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 Brahms' great economy of melodic material throughout these pieces works on various levels.  A more obvious device of his is to reuse a theme in its original intervallic configuration, though to disguise it by its placement in a remote key area or texture.  This formal technique is easier to identify within the context of one piece as the listener naturally expects to hear prime melodic material again.  This is so in the Ballade No. 3 - we recognize the original allegro energico  motif at M. 52 as a refrain but it is anchored in a legato and tonally remote D# minor setting.
 Based on the same idea of melodic recognition but with modal alterations is the tune of the Intermezzo No.2's F# major section (M. 57).  At a glance, it is instantly recognizable as the intervallically altered cousin of the F# minor tune at M. 49.  It involves repeated listenings however, to detect a connection - perhaps due to the various changes in texture, key and accompanying figuration.  Another type of motif that functions on a multi-harmonic level is that of the Intermezzo No. 1 at Mm. 9-10.  A skillful pianist will emphasize this line (F-D-B-C) as it occurs here in C major and again (unaltered) this time in A minor at Mm. 28-30. 
 The above mentioned melodic device brings out the ambiguity of the 1st Intermezzo's tonality and points to a salient feature inherent in the entire Opus 118.  Many of the melodic references and allusions are only audible after several listenings.  It is this facet that imparts to these Klavierstücke, a dreamy, mystical and psychologically charged quality.  Brahms creates the most subconscious level of unified melodic links by amassing a stockpile of short motifs configured with all manner of intervals of a 2nd and/or 3rd.  Allow me to recall the Romanze No. 5.  The contour of the inner voices' line which begins the Romanze (A-G-A-F) prefigures the principal tune of the following Intermezzo in Eb minor.  This same inner melody  - always reinforced at the octave, and with the addition of the following E and F - is an inverted reference to M. 17 of the A major Intermezzo No. 2.  Similarly, it may be construed as alluding to the auxiliary-note motifs in the Ballade No. 3 (see especially, the alto voice in the last eight measures).  Five measures later at M. 6 in the Romanze, the same octave voices are reminiscent of the poignant motif which begins the A major Intermezzo.  This sophisticated device is audible only in the very finest recordings:  pianists such as Radu Lupu and Sviatoslav Richter balance the octave inner voices and ensure that they are felt rather than heard above the surrounding counterpoint.
 Finally, Brahms most artful device tickles the ear so maddeningly that when aural recognition occurs after repeated listenings, it is as if a sonic boomerang has hit its target.  I am referring to Brahms clever transformation of a motif by a change in rhythmic accentuation and inversion of the same intervals.  The finest example of this procedure in all of the Opus 118 Klavierstücke occurs in the F major Romanze and is directly related to the passionate theme of the A major Intermezzo's middle section:





 A few of my favorite recordings of this collection of late Brahms' pieces reflect the fact that I am a pushover for an artist who can lay the interpretative groundrules and follow them to the letter.  Wilhelm Kempff is one such artist and his 1964 recording ensures that haemiolaic motivs and significant motifs - even if buried in dense counterpoint - will receive extra special attention.  This highly personal and idiosyncratic interpretation is rather dry for some:  the tender A major Intermezzo concludes in a brief 4:30 minutes but the individual sections are heard more clearly than most other renditions and Kempff brings off the pp  at the 2nd repeat of the Intermezzo's poignant melody (M. 8).  Again, he delineates the sections of the Ballade by taking a slower tempo, bringing out the bass and creating great excitement in the transition to the recapitulation of the principal theme.  Kempff's ploy to minimize the effect of the accents until Mm. 5-6 of the F minor Intermezzo - perhaps a chance to become familiar with the strange new ideas - quickly helped me discover the close imitations and canons that crowd this piece.
 Ivan Moravec's lone recording of the A major Intermezzo (1974) deserves mention here, even if it is minus the remaining Klavierstücke.  Moravec's interpretation captures the autumnal feeling of the late works.  There is no meanness of sound anywhere:  in the repeat of the F# minor section, Moravec demonstrates a sure and powerful left hand by emphasizing the melody inherent and eerily forecasts the F# melody.
 Sviatoslav Richter recorded Nos. 1, 3 and 6 of the Opus 118 set in 1973.  I prefer his Intermezzo No. 1 to just about any other pianist's and this is because he brings about all the potential signposts for A minor, long before it is established as the prime tonality.  By accentuating the inner whole notes in the R.H. (E-C-A) in Mm. 1-5 and linking this with a clearly bifurcated F-D-B-C line (Mm. 8-10 and again in Mm. 28-32), he creates some order in this difficult and rather formless Intermezzo.  In the Ballade, Richter's contrasts in tempo and dynamics create the illusion of a journey or epic.  He carefully sets up the "defining moment" of semitone motif (D-Eb-D) wherever it occurs.   In the Eb minor Intermezzo, Richter evokes a traumhaft  zone, especially as he begins the episodic variation on the theme at M. 21. 
 My favorite version of the Opus 118 Klavierstücke is the Radu Lupu recording of the 1970's.  He unashamedly renders the barest counterpoint, the purest essence (for example, only the outer notes are discerned at the fermata  of M. 76, Intermezzo No. 2 and the inner voice melody at the close of this same piece.)  Lupu's performance is of an elemental nature.  It has nothing in common with the intellectual eccentricities of Kempff, the brilliant, tempestuous flash of Hélène Grimaud (the extreme agitato  of the F minor Intermezzo, as just one example), or Robert Silverman's Rachmaninoff-tinged interpretation.  Lupu truly inhabits Brahms' sphere:  when the middle section of the Eb minor Intermezzo is begun we feel the curtain of uncertainty lift as the composer's acceptance of his fate is manifest.
1 Debussy's "L'aprés midi d'un faune" of 1894, a symphonic programmatic work quite different from a Brahms piano work, has this in common:  a continuous structure built thematically and tonally on the ABA form.  (The key areas are respectively, E major-Db major-E major).
2  Leon Plantinga.  Romantic Music.  Pp. 199-200.


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