Johannes Brahms’ Intermezzo in A, op. 118 no. 2 is surely one of the most beloved short piano pieces from the Romantic period. The second from the set of six Klavierstücke (Piano Pieces), op. 118, the A major Intermezzo can stand alone and as such is a very popular choice among good amateur pianists. Who can resist its passionate tenderness, nostalgic mood and the feeling of yearning it evokes?

Brahms & Clara Schumann

There is a very personal and very touching background story to Brahms’ late piano works. The op. 118 set was written in 1893, towards the end of Brahms life. Along with the others sets of short pieces (op. 116, 117, and 119), these are his final works for the piano. Behind the somewhat bland titles (Intermezzo, Fantasie, Ballade, Romance, Rhapsody, etc.) we find music of great introspection and beauty. Written for Clara Schumann to play in her autumn years these pieces are full of yearning for her and the relationship they might have had. Playing the music without this realisation is to deprive the pianist of this extra dimension. As an aside, for those interested in dated biopics, this short clip from the 1947 movie Song of Love shows the arrival of the 20-year old Brahms to the Schumann household. We can see how smitten Clara (played by Katharine Hepburn) was with Johannes right from the start of their long friendship.

Because the A major Intermezzo shows up often in lessons and classes, I decided to make my own set of resources to help players uncover the treasure trove of beautiful things Brahms presents to us, but which can often go unnoticed. I wanted to create the sort of analysis that serves not only those with a background in theory and harmony but also those who might be put off or intimidated by academic terminology. I came up with an annotated study guide, with an array of footnotes to highlight the various compositional features and practical requirements, as well as two series of videos – walkthroughs of the piece, and a seven-part series on what I call my “fantasy analysis”. The fantasy analysis is a highly personalised approach, based on the biographical background to the work and its content and structure, involving plenty of imagination.

Image from my fantasy analysis of Brahms' Intermezzo in A Major Op. 118 No. 2
A still from my “Fantasy Analysis”

I have noticed players tend to get fixated on the technical aspects of learning a piece, meaning there is a real danger the imagination gets neglected. In performance, the pianist who is only thinking about the notes, the technical issues, pedalling, etc. will not communicate the message of the music at all, leaving an audience flat. Finding a personal artistic meaning is therefore paramount.

What can I tell you about interpretation? I can only recapitulate, perhaps very imperfectly, the method which guides us, in stages to the TRUTH. First one should try to consider the complete emotional content of a work by playing it a great deal various ways before ever trying to play it technically. When I say ‘playing it a great deal’ I mean above all playing it ‘mentally’ as the work would be performed by the greatest of interpreters. The imagination is here required. Having lodged in our mind the impression of perfect beauty given by this mental preparation – an impression continually renewed and revivified by repetition of this performance in the silence of the night, we can go on to the actual technical work….

Dinu Lipatti – The Teacher (The Pianist Magazine, 28 (1983): 23, 25 as cited in Neil Rutman – Stories, Images, and Magic from the Piano Literature: 2.

I’ll leave you with the first video of my fantasy analysis, in the hope that it may encourage you to come up with a narrative of your own.

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