I have always thought of the key of A Major as a bright, sunny and happy key; never before did I imagine that it could be used to evoke tragedy, gentleness and even nostalgia. The Six Pieces for Piano, Op. 118, were some of the most beloved items that Brahms wrote. Completed in 1893 and dedicated to Clara Schumann, the collection was the second last composition to be published during Brahms’ lifetime.
This gorgeous intermezzo of Brahms encompasses all this in its lovely melodies and complex harmonies. Even in the opening two chords, from a tonic A major chord to the subdominant D major chord in the second inversion, the tonic pedal of A gives a question, an invitation rather, in the most demure way possible. This intermezzo is in Ternary form, embedded in a larger structure.
The whole first section is based on a parallel repeated progressive period, with four symmetric four-bar phrases, the first and third ending on an imperfect-cadence in A major (an E major choird), and the second and fourth ending in a perfect cadence in E major. One can almost imagine a tender duet of sorrow and love. The next 8 bars are harmonically unstable, immediately after the E major chord ending the a section, arrives a C major (chromatic mediant) chord which is then followed by a dimished built on a c-sharp which resolves to a Dominant seventh built on E (the leading tone of the diminished going to the seventh of the dominant seventh) which resolves. Then in the fourth measure of the B section, another four bars beginning in F major this time moves up and adds energy. This second four-bar phrase group ends on an E major chord and moves on into three measures of transition to arrive finally back to the A section. This section is the most explicit love scene Brahms ever wrote, less aggressive than his rival Wagner, much more tender and warm.
In the second section, the tenor line (when brought out) gives the listener a sense of security, repeating fragments of the soprano line. The chorale-like section in between has them singing a tune from his German Requiem, the lyrics of which are “I shall comfort you like a mother…” – a deliberate self refernce by Brahms. When the F-sharp minor section repeats, this time it is more quiet, yet much more passionate. Three voices are present instead of two now, and this reaches its intense climax at the c-sharp octave-leap and then tones down in a series of sequences to a half-close, and the first section in A major returns.
For further understanding of this intermezzo perhaps the first of the set in A Minor should be played first. No. 1 ends on a fermata-held A Major chord, which not only establishes the tonal centre for No. 2, but also establishes the mood where the pain of No. 1 can be comforted in No. 2, and where love can be worked through.
Do listen to this beautiful piece (bug me online for it if you want), it’s simply gorgeous and never fails to move me with every listening.
for Andrew. It’s been 3 years, dear friend. Ich vermisse dich.