Thursday, June 16, 2011

Moving with an Intermezzo; Brahms Op. 117 no. 3

Brahms had a life-long fascination with five-bar phrases. Odd numbered phrase lengths challenge the symmetry of our bodies. They create a cognitive collision between brain and body as the onset of a new phrase forces what was left to become right, and vice versa.

The Brahms Intermezzo Op. 117 no. 3 is a work that develops this physical concept.

Divide each measure into halves as you count (1-and, 2-and, etc) and you will hear the second phrase beginning just after the fifth measure at [0:19]. Imagine a physical oscillation in each measure of the five-bar phrase: left, right, left, right, left... This first phrase is marked to be played without pedal, sotto voce; the sound of whispered truths.

What follows in the second phrase is not a repetition, but an expansion as the physical oscillation that continues from the first phrase is now cast on the right-side: right, left, right, left, right...

It is as if one phrase is driven from the one hemisphere of the brain and the complementary phrase from the other. This oscillation saturates many levels of this work, but is structural to the organization of the entire first section where phrase couples alternate: AA, BB, AA, BB, before breaking down (poco più lento) with a single five-bar A-phrase stretched to the point of snapping.

(The timings of each section: A[0:05] A[0:19], B[0:30] B[0:42], A[0:53] A[1:06], B[1:18] B[1:29], and the final A at [1:41])

It is a delight to hear the color shift instantly from C-sharp minor to A major at the Più mosso ed espressivo. The paired five-bar phrases continue uninterrupted but surface syncopation makes them much more of a challenge to count.

(Timings for the first of each paired section in the Più mosso ed espressivo: [2:00 CC], [2:18 CC], [2:34 DD], [2:52 CC], [3:08 DD] [3:27 CC])

A strange culmination takes place at [4:47]. The music hovers. Two sequences take us away from the expected phrasing. This moment of reckoning is marked by a pause between sequences.

In a wonderful reharmonization [4:16] the opening tune is rephrased in 5+6. The paired B phrases follow as before and the work closes with a più lento that frames the single phrase from [1:41] in a stretched six-phrase.


  1. Thanks so much for this video and your insights! I'm studying it for my Advanced Piano Pedagogy "Viva voce" exam (RCM) in August and this'll be a big help :)

  2. Dear Julia, Happy to hear that it was helpful. Best of luck with your exam!

  3. Have you ever taught this one? If so, what problems and solutions did you/student find?


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