English Blog

Johannes Brahms Op. 117: Soul Searching…

December 5, 2021

Yesterday my student played Brahms’ Op. 117 No. 2 at her lesson. It lit my longing heart. As you may have known, Brahms’ late works have been deep treasures for me for many years. Brahms composed his Op. 117 during the summer of 1892 while vacationing in Bad Ischl. He sent a copy of Op. 117 to his longtime musical inspiration and soul mate, Clara Schumann. She replied, “in these pieces I at last feel musical life stir once again in my soul”. Brahms’ late works may not be the most holiday wish music, but it hears my longing quest.

The first intermezzo (E flat major) is one of the most tender pieces of music I have ever known. The opening melody takes us to an angelic world. It becomes timeless. Our mind flows over eternal images. The tranquility is interrupted in the minor-key middle section. Here, the soul is searching for an answer. Poignancy hovers. Then, the opening theme returns with the melody split between two hands. At the end, reminiscence is expressed with sighing motifs.

The second intermezzo (B flat minor) starts with descending chordal passages. Where are we going? Our mind wonders. These arpeggiated passages are like waves, big and small. Melancholy hovers. Contrast to the first intermezzo, the middle section releases our sorrow. It is a chorale. The music constantly asks us, but there are unanswered questions. Gradually the chordal passages return more and more, and we are back in grief. At the end, Brahms combines chorale with arpeggiated phrases, and the music ends still.

The last intermezzo (C sharp minor) in Op. 117 begins with a haunting unison melody in three octaves. It is heartbreakingly beautiful. The melody moves with small intervals and it creates intimacy. My heart always trembles when I play the “sempre sotto voce” passage in m. 21. The dreamy and imaginative middle section is no longer monologue. We feel a gentle breeze on our cheeks. Is it spring time? A warm light fades and the opening melody returns. Here, we are back to monologue.

Do you feel Brahms’ outcrying emotion? Brahms quoted the Scottish song at the beginning of the first intermezzo “Sleep soft my child, sleep soft and lovely. I feel sadness when you weep”. Op. 117 is full of Brahms’ tender soul.