Bumping into Brahms: A conversation about the Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 2

JM: Oh! Sorry sir, you startled me! I almost bumped into you. But wait, I know you! Are you not Herr Doktor Brahms?

Brahms: Guten Tag? Bitte, kein Doktor.

I am amazed that we have somehow encountered one another here. Might it be because I have played so many of your wonderful song accompaniments and piano pieces recently? Would you possibly be willing to discuss one of your most beloved intermezzos?

Who are you? Why should I discuss my music with you?

Sir, I have loved your music all my life. When I was a youngster, I played many of your shorter piano pieces, the Handel Variations, and both concertos. Your second D minor Capriccio was one of my Juilliard audition pieces. And when my conducting teacher was ten years old, he met you. One of his given names was Johannes, in your honor.

Hmm, yes, I remember him. One moment, please…

I have just spoken to my dearest friend, Clara Schumann, widow of my mentor, Robert. She believes you may be one of her great-grand-students. She says I may talk to you, but must not be gruff or sarcastic, as I sometimes may appear. Well then, what do you want to discuss?

Thank you, sir. Let us explore one of your most frequently played intermezzos, Op. 118, No. 2, in A major. I have a special reason for choosing this. To begin, please tell me how you designed the sound texture of the first sixteen measures. 

Interesting question. But is the notation not perfectly clear? As always, I took great care to make my intentions unmistakable. The texture is rather delicate and somewhat contrapuntal. There is the right-hand melody with its chords, the slurred eighth-note pairs in the middle, and the simple bass line, mostly quarter notes.

Understood. Let us first consider those bass notes in the left hand.

Well, yes. Those bass notes must be heard as a separate line, establishing the two half-cadences on the dominant.

Now to the middle part: How do you want those many pairs of slurred eighth notes to be played?

That is rather subtle. The pianist must lightly lean on the first note, lifting out gently to release the slightly shortened second note, which will not connect to a following note. My idol, Beethoven, strongly insisted on separation of such slurs. Who am I to disagree with him? It may take some careful practice to get this just right. That second eighth should not be very short—just enough! Practice this!

I have noticed that some pianists have had a bit of difficulty understanding this. Perhaps an illustration from singing or wind instrument playing would help.

Ganz gewiss! In my Lullaby, the first words are "Guten Abend, gut' Nacht." Now, you please explain how these words affect the articulation. 

Brahms Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 2, mm. 1-8

With pleasure! In German speech, a word beginning with a vowel starts with a glottal stop, a light closing of the throat that briefly interrupts the air flow, then starts the word with, almost, a tiny explosion. Thus, Abend. The "t" of gut has nearly the same effect, stopping the air flow as the tongue lightly taps the front teeth. Wind players start each new slur with that tongue tap. And an unvoiced consonant like "h" has a similar effect.

Yes. Those examples can help guide pianists to the proper articulation.

Before we go ahead, then, I assume that the light lifting of the second eighth also applies to all of the eighth-note pairs in the right-hand melody of those sixteen measures.

Certainly! Sing "Meine Herz." And may I assume that you and other pianists of your time play these sixteen measures with the delicate texture that I wrote?

I do my best to do so, but many other pianists now may not…

Wait! Are you telling me that players of your day somehow misunderstand my notation?

Some pianists apparently feel uncomfortable if the pedal is not constantly down. That is why I especially wanted to discuss this intermezzo. I have even seen an edition that has added connecting pedal for the entire first sixteen measures, with no break at all until the upbeat to bar 17. Many pianists now play it just that way.

Ach! I promised Clara I would not be rude... Is it not obvious that such pedal smearing destroys the delicate articulation of the eighth-note pairs and obliterates the distinction between them and my independent bass line?

I am sorry I had to tell you that. But there is more. First, let's confirm that pianists who cannot reach the left-hand eleventh in bar two or the tenth in bar three may connect with a brief pedal.


With no pedal to produce a quasi-legato, right-hand fingering must create a real legato, using slides and substitutions. I have fingerings that do that. Would you like to see them?

I don't need them. Show them to your students.

Now let's consider the longer slurs beginning with the upbeat to bar 17. That same edition has added connecting pedal for the next eighteen bars, with only one break. Doesn't that contradict your slurring? Please tell me how you view the effect of a slur.

You tell me.

I will, Herr Brahms, as I have given this much thought. The simple basics are that a slur connects its notes. It may begin with a slight energetic impulse and relax at the end. The last note of the slur may be almost imperceptibly or quite clearly separated from a following note. If that break is almost imperceptible, a new slur may begin with a slight emphasis. In well-marked music like yours, a pianist should articulate just as a violinist or clarinetist would. I hope you agree.

Yes, those are the fundamentals. We need not discuss complexities now. But with that in mind, I want to be sure you understand how slurring differentiates the three elements of those first sixteen measures. Tell me what you have observed. 

Brahms, Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 2, mm. 17-20

Well, the melody usually has three slurs in four bars, the middle part has three slurs every bar, and the bass line is not slurred.

Yes. And I want these separate parts played each with its own articulation.

Of course. Do you also agree that lack of a slur, as in your bassline, is an articulation direction as specific as a slur?

Of course.

Then let us pursue the phrasing and pedaling going ahead. Beginning with the upbeat to bar 17, you have notated slurs in a pattern of 1 + 1 + 2 measures. That construction is nearly always used in the A major section. Why is that?

That can be a very satisfying way to construct a balanced phrase.

Then should not pianists make a slight break after each slur in bars 17-24? I have imagined a song text: "I love you, I love you, I'll always adore you."

Or "Ich lieb' dich, ich lieb' dich, auf immer und ewig." Of course, that punctuation must be there.

Then how should one pedal this phrase?

Well, pedal here would not destroy the texture as it does in the first sixteen measures, but is it really necessary at the start? The internal eighth notes are not just harmonic filler, they are counterpoint and they continue the constant eighth-note pulse of the A major section.

And the texture changes again in bar 25, does it not?

Obviously. The melody has a five-measure slur, and the eighth notes in the middle voice are slurred measure by measure. The low E is a separate voice. Make sure this is clear! The left hand must not simply run everything together. Imagine this passage as a clarinet melody accompanied by a contrabass on the low E and a cello on the eighth notes. That would be quite lovely.

Well then, where might you begin to pedal?

By bar 29 and 30 or possibly a bit sooner. But in bars 31-34, only on the downbeat; the pedal must not blur the three-note slurs in the low bass or connect them to one another, and the right-hand upbeat chords do not connect in either direction. These four measures must be distinctly separated one from another. Only the tied A is held. 

Brahms, Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 2, mm. 31-32

I see that this low bass four-fold repetition of the initial three-note motif is the only time that all three are slurred together. Why is that?

Breaking the slur here would have held back the momentum. The music may push forward a bit, especially in the first two measures, then relax.

In the next four measures, I find it delightful that the seemingly mechanical process of inverting the opening intervals of the melody is at least as eloquent as at the beginning.

Hmmph! Do you not realize that I am quite capable of such things?

Of course. And such things are beautiful.

Let us proceed. We may be running out of time.

Then I will begin to summarize. In the next phrase, beginning with the upbeat to bar 39, the musical elements punctuate simultaneously. The un poco animato should be quite noticeable. Pedal in the last six or seven measures is appropriate. How should one pedal the F# minor and F# major sections?

Well, before we discuss pedal, have you not noticed that in the first F# minor section there is a simple illustration of much of what we have been discussing?

Please explain, sir.

The right-hand melody slurs are long: four, one, and three measures. The left-hand triplets are slurred by one bar or just one or two quarters. The slurs above the bass clef are for the quarter notes that begin as my little canon, which continues as slurred staccatos. So again, three elements here—melody, canon, and triplets—do not articulate in unison. The melody is a nearly continuous legato, the other voices are not. This must be very clear. The left-hand triplet slurs are not haphazard. 

Brahms, Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 2, mm. 49-52

Then do you want light separation between the triplet slurs?

This is subtler than it may appear. Let's bring back our little ensemble, clarinet playing the melody, bassoon or viola the canon, and cello the triplets, changing bow direction with each slur, and lightly emphasizing that bow change. Again, quite lovely.

Yes, indeed.

Then, as to pedal, light pedal in the F# minor part is acceptable, but it must retain the articulation of the slurred staccato notes. In the F# major, the right hand and left hand have simultaneous four-measure slurs. Connecting pedal, of course, with a brief comma before the fermata chord. This is the only place in the entire intermezzo that requires continuous connecting pedal.

Elsewhere, study my notation and use your ear! It does not serve my music well to smear it with unthinking automatic pedaling. It creates just one texture throughout, even though I have written several distinct textures. They must not all sound the same. 

Brahms, Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 2, mm. 57-60

Yes. There are at last three distinct textures in the A major section and another three in the F# minor/major part.

That is correct.

I see also that the return of the A major section is a much enhanced variant of bars 9-16. Your comment?

Yes. There are two more bass notes, and the texture is richer. The rinforzando must be rather strongly emphasized, and the next bars, when the melody rises to high B, very eloquent. The following right-hand eighth-note slurs are richly expressive.

And a final thought. A weakness of the piano is that it doesn't breathe or punctuate on its own, and may tempt pianists just to run on and on with the same texture, while ignoring articulation signs. It is a pianist's responsibility to overcome this, to present music as a great actor would recite a poem by Goethe or Schiller, or a Scottish ballad. All pianists must be deeply aware of this, playing the music, not just the notes!

Thank you very much, sir. I am profoundly honored to have had this opportunity to discuss these matters with you. I will do my best to play your music as you wish it to be heard. May we possibly meet again?

Perhaps. But it's all in the notation. Auf Wiedersehen. I will report our conversation to Clara. 

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