With Brahms’s birthday coming up on the 7th of May, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share some personal thoughts on a selection of his late piano works. Written in his autumnal years, these works are among the most beloved in the piano repertoire and are a treasure trove of musical delights.

Although Brahms had announced his retirement in 1890, he was still incredibly productive thereafter, writing four sets of piano pieces (Op. 116 – Op. 119) between 1892 and 1893. Despite their generic, non-descript titles, these works evoke rich imagery and convey an incredible depth of emotion.

Vivid Imagery & Narrative

Other than the reference to a Scottish poem in Op. 117 No. 1, the works do not have any prescribed programme. However, with their vivid imagery, this gives the pianist the opportunity to use their imagination to construct their own personal narrative and to share something personal and meaningful.

For example, if we take the opening of the Intermezzo in E (Op. 116 No. 6), some form of processional scene might come to mind. My image is that of a funeral procession, perhaps playing out alongside the opening credits of a movie. Although there is a sense of loss, the feeling is one of a later stage of the grieving process where the initial pain has dulled, leaving warm memories of someone special and comfort in knowing that they are now at peace.

One of the most famous of the four sets, the Intermezzo in A Major (Op. 118 No. 2) for me depicts a slow waltz, maybe two elderly people dancing together and reminiscing on times gone by. Op. 117 No. 2 may also conjure up a similar image, but the feeling is one of sadness and regret as opposed to the warmth and tenderness of Op. 118 No. 2. Here’s the great Radu Lupu, who sadly passed away recently, playing the Intermezzo in A Major:

Lastly, the image that comes to mind when I listen to the Intermezzo in B minor (Op. 119 No. 1) is that of raindrops striking a window and then slowly running down it. A person is lying in bed watching them and contemplating. There’s an air of resignation and sadness and I can’t help but feel that they are aware that their end is imminent.

Photo by Markus Spiske

A Wealth of Emotions

Although narratives and imagery vary from person to person, the emotions that are conveyed  are universally identifiable. The works ultimately combine the full range of human emotions, from sadness, regret and anguish through to passion, warmth and tenderness. These culminate ultimately in a sense of resignation and acceptance.

For example, the middle section of Op. 116 No. 6 clearly depicts some manner of pain and grief, perhaps someone sobbing?

Brahms's Late Piano Works - Op. 116 No. 6

Then this beautiful moment in bars 34 – 37 of Op. 118 No. 2 is brimming with affection and nostalgia:

Brahms's Late Piano Works - Op. 118 No. 2

A Parting Gift to Humanity

These works deal with the human experience in a direct and visceral way. As a result, mortality is a pervasive theme throughout. At the time of writing, Brahms had lost several friends and was likely aware that his time was coming to an end. There is a feeling of resignation in many of them, but the overarching feeling is that of profound acceptance and peace.

Our modern lives provide infinite opportunities to distract us from reality or to create the illusion that we can escape fate. But suffering and death are intrinsic parts of our existence. I see these works as a timeless, parting gift from Brahms in that they offer us a more fulfilling approach to dealing with the difficult realities of being human. They encourage us to accept life as it is, the joys and the sorrows. Doing so gives us the opportunity to reflect on and experience to the full the moments of happiness, intimacy and warmth which make life worth living.

Further resources

The following is a listing of resources featured in this article on the Practising the Piano Online Academy (they are all available with an annual subscription or in some instances as as separate products for once-off purchase – click here to find out more about the Online Academy or click here to subscribe):

  • Intermezzo in E Major (Op. 116 No. 6)Click here for video walk-through
  • Intermezzo in E-Flat Major (Op. 117 No. 1)Click here for a video on voicing the melody in the inner notes in this work
  • Intermezzo in A Major (Op. 118 No. 2)Click here for fantasy analysis videos or click here for walk-through and annotated study edition
  • Intermezzo in B Minor (Op. 119 No. 1)Click here for video walk-through