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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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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