Tag: Brahms

The Importance of What is Not Heard

Brahms: Intermezzo: Op 116 No. 4 in E Major

Often in a well constructed piece, the meaning of something lies in how it stands out in contrast, or in relief, to something else.  Much of this has to do with memory, and what the listener may expect to hear at a certain time.

An example:

In the recapitulation of the Classical sonata movement, the second theme comes back in the in the tonic, not as we remember it, in the Exposition, in the dominant (or relative major).  What happens at that moment is that an expectation is momentarily revived and  enhanced by the composer but a new present reality is superimposed upon it. For a moment the two tenses interact*, but a moment or two later our ear has taken up its bearings in the new.

The ears of a sensitive listener will even prick up before the second theme, at the exact moment when the composer deviates from the harmonic path that led to the second theme in the exposition.

One of the things that makes late Brahms difficult to hear lucidly is that when something stands in relief with something else, we often haven’t had an opportunity to hear that something else earlier in the piece.  So how does the pianist make a contrast with something that is not ever heard, but whose meaning lies entirely in its contrast to this unheard base or reference?

An example from the Brahms Intermezzo:

Consider the passage in measures 10 through 14.  Contrapuntally, what is going on has less to do with the triplets in the right hand but in implied, but not literally heard, duplets, which are formed from the second and third triplet notes, if the first triplet note is put back onto the beat, omitting the first triplet note entirely, and playing the third triplet note as the second note of a duplet.  If we do this, we suddenly hear a very conspicuous appoggiatura.  In measure 12 for example the e5 is clearly heard as an appoggiatura to the d5.**   As we shall see, this perception need not become vitiated by the delay of the restoration of the appoggiatura to its original position in the measure (one triplet eighth later than the sounding of the chord in which it functions as an appoggiatura).

The same relation of appoggiatura applies to the c5 to b4 and the a4 to g4.   When performed successfully, this passage haunts the listener with the sustained feeling that something else is going on other than what is most obvious to the ear (delayed triplets).  There lurks this implication of regularly arriving appoggiaturas on the beats.  Similar appoggiaturas occur throughout the passage.

Brahms doesn’t stop there.  Once he establishes to the ear that this comparison to the implied simplified counterpoint,  he is able to take a further step to hide the actual appoggiaturas by attracting the ear, in measures 11, 12 and 13, to a descending scale in the top voice.  But let’s pause for a second.  Do we hear a scale?  Almost.  At least we get the feeling that there is a scale present.  For here too, there is a layer of removal from what is heard to what one might call what is meant-to-be-heard.  We hear a melody stopping and stopping in two note groups, which if there were no interruptions would be a coherent, fluid scale: b5 a5 g5 fs5 | e5 d5 c5 b4 a4 g4 | etc.  The beauty of a melody arising from following this scale depends on the implication that our consciousness is able to pass lightly over the first the first of each group three triplet notes (a note that is merely part of an  accompanying chord) so that the notes of the scale seem to flow connectedly one into the other.

I have my students leave out the first triplet note, and change the next two notes to regular eighth notes, putting the first of the eighth notes back onto the beat.  The scale is now much clear to the pianist’s ears.  Crucially, if that point, the student goes back to playing the written notes, the reference to the fluid duplet scale is not lost.  It attempts to maintain itself in spite of the pauses.  It haunts the image of the passage and changes a somewhat trivial passage in triplets to something more transcendent sounding.

Thus a passage can transcend itself.  It becomes beautiful only in relief to something more basic, not literally heard, to which it yet can refer itself.   Generally, in late Brahms, we often must try to make a passage sound like what it isn’t! (something clearer in harmony, clearer in rhythm, and clearer in voice leading and counterpoint).

* This momentary contrast, if it were prolonged would lead to a confusion in the sounds, like when a person accidentally takes a double exposure with a camera.  If, however, the process could be frozen in time, and experienced just in space, we would have the equivalent of a biologist looking through a microscope that allows on eye to view one slide and the other eye view another slide, as for the purpose of noting what contrasts there are between them.  A side by side comparison.  In music it is more sublime.  It is a a sound image from time past that melds with a sound image from time-present.  The past isn’t gone it lives in memory, for many in the form of a sound-memory.  The past sounds do not really sound in the glare of the light of present, but colors it.  But a comparison is made.


e5  d5



Clearly there is a D Mjor chord trying to fully form and as an e5 yields to the partially formed chord and resolves to the chord note d5.


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Harmony in Late Brahms

Harmonic wonders in Brahms’ Intermezzo Op 117 No 3 in C# Minor

#1: The key

What is so compelling about C Sharp Minor?  Perhaps it is due to the effect of certain pieces that were written in that key: the opening fugue of Beethoven’s late quartet, op 131; the 5th prelude and fugue from the first book of the Well Tempered; and, Brahms’ Intermezzo Op 117 No 3.

The spell of this key is both obvious and subtle.  Tragic but not overly so.  Deeply reflective of the human condition, but without overstatement. or wallowing.   Notes that enter this solar system of retain reveal the opposite effects of stoicism and great sympathy.

#2. The theme.

As in many of Brahms’ his late pieces, the motivic material out of which the piece is woven are themselves terse and simple.  Nothing startling in itself.  In Op 117 No. 2, just two notes, descending in a step, suffice to create the entire varied panoply of music effects heard throughout the piece.  In the case of Op 117 No. 3 it is woven out motives of three notes, rising in pitch by the steps of a scale.

Sometimes the distance between the second and third note is enlarged to three half steps.  Sometimes the middle note stands as a passing tone between the other two notes which are chord tones.  Sometimes the middle note stands as a lower neighbor note connecting two identical chord tones.  Out of these motives a long theme emerges which takes most of the entire first line of the score.

Every time the theme returns it does so in one way – invariable: exactly the same sequence of pitches (C# D# E …).  There is a growing sense of ineluctability about it, an effect that is progressively offset however by changes to the chords that set the notes of the theme.  No matter how these chords lead us away from the tonic, C# minor, all eventually leads us back to that tonic.

At the beginning the theme appears without simultaneously sounding chords.  When it appears again there are implications of triads (chords having just root, third and fifth).  At the next statement, the chords embracing the theme have become 7-chords.  And even later they have become 9-chords.  This is done is such a way that, a particular note of the theme, let us say the third note, E natural, sounds first as the third of a chord, then as the seventh of a chord, and ultimately as the 9th of the chord.  This means that the chords, rather than being built on the same root note, are built on changing root notes: a more revelatory way of enlarging upon the chords, so as to be always expanding the harmony.

We go on to trace in somewhat more detail these changes of harmony, changes that are always put held in check by the constancy of the theme notes:

– At the beginning we hear the theme as unisons, amplified by sounding in three octaves once at once, an effect made starker by the absence of vertical chords.  The harmony is there. but remains adumbrated by just the melody notes (which are sensed as chord tones and which as tones of embellishment.

– When the theme appears again at the end of measure 5, it is almost as if Brahms wants to keep the harmonic implications as Spartan as possible.  There is a hint of the tonic chord (C# minor) and a dominant chord (G# major).  The third is missing in the dominant chord, though, so we hear it as major only through the implication of the melody notes.   The effect here is one that when I played the piece today I described to myself as tragic inevitability tempered with patience and nobility.

– The next statement of the theme occurs after a Spartan interlude.  This interlude begins with an inexorable march notes of equal value (eighth notes) to which, at the end, sixteenths are added so that there is a sense of reprise of the rhythm of the main theme (which uses the rhythmic germ of sixteenth, sixteenth, eighth.   The measures of the interlude repeats, but with the magical addition of an extra voice appearing in the left hand which creates a rhythmic counterpoint to the steady eighths, but whose beauty is largely the result that these attempts at rhythmic variation are still imprisoned by the constant eighth notes.

As the theme occurs throughout the piece, it does so unaltered in terms of pitches (a series that always begins with the notes C# D# E.  However the chord that is woven around theme has expanded into a 7-chord, an F# Minor-7 chord.

The piece is in three broad parts, the first of which is brought to a close with a statement of the theme that retreats into its initial harmonic simplicity: there is a tonic chord, there is a dominant chord, but but the two are blurred together by the retention in the dominant chord of the C# from the tonic chord, an effect added to by the absence of a third in the dominant chord.  We are being reminded, though subtly, that we are in C# Minor, so that we more fully appreciate the modulation to A major in the second part.

The second section of the piece a contrapuntal and harmonic miracle brought down to earth from the celestial harmony of the spheres.  I want to hold off describing what Brahms does there until we have followed the remaining statements of the main theme which occur in part three.

When the theme next appears in its entirety is at the beginning of the third section.  The 7-chord has been expanded by a D#-9 chord (the ninth being a minor ninth above the root note).  It is as if Lear asked the of his three daughters: “what {harmony} can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.”*.  Unlike Cordelia’s answer, which is most understated and matter of fact, Brahms’ answer is a 9-chord compared to the previous “sisters'” ‘5’-chords and 7-chords .

In the coda, at the penultimate entrance of the theme, the melody is accompanied by a chord whose root note is now A# which, with the other chord tones in the melody, forms an A#-half-diminished 7 chord.

At the very last, we hear the theme one more time and, as if surveying the field of a great harmonic battle which has taken place over just a single day, and which now looks deserted and barren: the original theme returning one last time accompanied by just a tonic and dominant chord, bringing the piece to rest on the C# minor chord, which, which for the first time in the piece is heard alone, complete in time and unencumbered.’

#3. The middle section of the piece

The middle of the piece deserves special analysis.  Let us start by trying to “uncover” its ‘main theme’, or at least that, which by default acts in the place of a principal voice line.  In itself it is not the most melodious of note sequences,  it is devoid of any rhythmic personality, and moves seemingly randomly from one note to another – sometimes in skips, sometimes in steps, and sometimes in capricious jumps: seeming somehow in between insipid and random.  However, this seemingly undernourished melody is is able to usher in, with each new note, a new “chapter”, a new harmonic vista, allowing us to see further and then further to the harmonic horizon, as if from higher and higher vantage points.

In its most stripped down form, which we never get to hear literally, the theme consists of the succession of the notes E F E B G# A C.  Upon this Brahms performs a series of transformations and eventually metamorphoses.

The first transformation seemingly makes things worse rather than better:  a random yanking around of the melody notes from one octave range to another.  In its base form, all the notes would sound in the octave of middle (we shall call this octave number “4”).  But this remnant of pitch stability is dislodged so that the first E sounds just in octave 4; the F simultaneously in octaves 4 and 5; the following E just in octave 5.  This is followed by B in octaves 5 and 6 simultaneously, G# in one octave only – octave 5, and the last two notes, A and C, each heard in two octaves (octaves 4 and 5).  What began as uninspired is now wonky** as well.  It is like being on a roller coaster and leaving out the parts that connect the low points and the high points.

To this Brahms adds a single bass tone, A, modestly appearing at the beginning of each measure of 2/4.  It is a first attempt at establishing a tonal center for all the meandering of the theme.

But the stability is further broken by shifting each melody note (which lasts a quarter note, or four sixteenths), to the “left” so that each note comes in a sixteenth too early, just before each beat.

So far in this analysis we see how octaves have been changed, almost capriciously, melody notes brought in ahead of time, one modest note in the bass to remind the listener of where the first beats of the measures actuakkt are.  Not a good state in which to leave things.  There is however one more step to the transformation,  Each melody note is accompanied by an voluptuous figure of four sixteenths that swoop down and then soar back up.  Somehow this makes everything else make sense to the ear.  If we examine these four note groups, by making chords out of their notes, we get this succession of triads: e-cs-e, e-b-d, e-cs-e, e-d-f, fs-d-fs, forming just by themselves, as it were, a single “thick” melody.

There are still other startling details before this section finishes***.  But it is the last one that is the most stunning.  Something that the ear believes and disbelieves at the same time.   It occurs after the second double bar, where the key signature changes back to 4 sharps.  In other words a point when we would expect either a return to the original theme, or first, some transitional passage linking the the end of the second part, the one we have just been discussing, to the beginning of the third part.  What happens instead a polyphony worthy of the forty-voice Renaissance motet “Spem in alium” by Thomas Tallis.  Little, nascent, voices, appear and then disappear into the overall harmonic firmament, each one living just for three notes, each modeled exactly on the first three notes of first statement of the theme at the beginning of the piece.   Moreover each ephemeral voice makes its appearance in such a way as to partially obscure (or perhaps “occlude” is a better word) the end of the previous one.****  This process continues in a cascading fashion working its way through an elaborate dominant-like (G#) harmony that barely succeeds in stabilizing the whole affair.   I say barely because it is intentionally destabilized  by coercing a cadence to end it based on a B Minor-7 chord.   And then, to completely throw the listener off, a similar cascade begins, seemingly without reason or preparation, tracing over the first cascade but with each note two half steps above the similarly placed note in first cascade.   The first was built around the dominant of the original tonic key of the piece.  That seems to make sense if we looking for a transition back to the original C# minor key.  The second is just ‘quasi-dominant’ in nature, but its root note is A#!   Now this unexpected A# turns out to be the dominant of D#, which is the dominant of G# which is the dominant of the original C#.  Thus it only becomes clear why this shift of two half steps had occurred between cascades when the original theme comes suddenly comes back in its full form (starting with the usual notes: cs4 ds4 e4) but this time surprisingly surrounded by a D# Major (9) chord.   This chord then transforms itself until, in a fairly short amount of time, we are clearly back in the original C# minor.  Thus the previous six measures have prepared two separate but parallel things: the longer range goal of an eventual return to the tonic key of C# Minor, and a shorter term goal of preparing the D# chordal sonority that will underlie the return to the original theme.

#4. The end of the piece

In the last two measures of the piece we have a stable, lasting C# Minor chord.  So, in the end, all is drawn back into this tonic key, which may have been at times out of mind, but which never lost its grip on the piece.  At the end there is only the solace that no matter hard we try to get away from fate, we never free our self completely from its somber embrace.  As is the case with Brahms – perhaps the greatest worker of harmony – for all the restless harmonic movement towards or away from the tonic, no note, no chord, no modulation is ever away from the tightest control of the original key.  There is never a chord, be it ever so remote from the tonic, that is not perfectly clear to the listener as to its relationship with the tonic, in spite of as many as several key regions that we would have to travel through to get to it from the tonal center of the piece.

These are just some of the harmonic and thematic wonders of Brahms’ Op. 117 No 3.

* King Lear, Act I, Scene I

** Searching google produced this definition for wonky:

– (of a thing) unsteady; shaky…                – synonyms: wobbly, unstable…                                        – not functioning correctly; faulty.


In measure 4 and 5 of this middle section there are two flowing voices, one in eighths, and one in sixteenths, that chime with each other in the presence of a D# followed by an F#, and a B followed by an A.   This all occurs as the ‘main’ melody settles down to rest on a long C.

In the fourth and fifth bar of the section that follows the next double bar, the simplest kind of canon is utilized, but with ranks closed, the imitative voice starting but one sixteenth after the imitated voice, but also with the imitated voice sounding a sixth lower than the imitative voice.  A simple idea structurally but one which has the effect of creating near chaos with where the principal beats are supposed lie.  The ear wants to be thrown a lifeline, and Brahms does so, but with the least clarification that will still shed some light on the situation.


The first such contracted theme motive is on the notes bs4 cs4 ds5, snd when the ds5 occurs, it is hidden in the middle of a triad, whose bottom note is the beginning of the next, furtive, momentarily flickering motive entrance (whose notes area4 bf bs4).

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Brahms: Large Spans – Small Hand

Sometimes what appears to be a single technical difficulty located in a very specific place in the score, turns into, upon closer inspection, a series of  separate but sequential technical issues that happen to cascade by in a short  mount of time.   Somehow, we need to be able to separate one step  from another.

The situation is not unlike something that often happens to our moods.  We feel happy at one instant and then sad at the next.  This may distress us doubly because not only do we find ourselves sad, but because we have no  idea what caused such a sudden change from being happy.  Why this sort of  thing happens is often because between the happy state and the sad state there were, flying through our mind, a series of thoughts, each one  triggering an association with a thought, or memory, a bit more sad than  the last.  A second or two later, at the end of the train of thoughts, we feel  that our mood changed as rapidly as being at the high point on roller coaster, and then finding ourselves hurtling downwards in space.

Understanding how we got there requires capturing in mid-stream each of these thoughts as they occur, and bringing them to full awareness and not leaving them semi-conscious.  This blog entry presents an instance of this related to the piano, from a lesson yesterday when Irving played the  opening of the Brahms Third Piano Sonata, Opus 7, first movement,  specifically measure one, specifically beats two and three.

If you don’t have a big hand, this measure, and the ones following, can be difficult to play.  What follows is on behalf of the person with a more average sized hand.

What at first seemed to be a matter just of coping “somehow” with the large spans, turned out to be a series of difficulties encountered one right after the other. You may solve one, thinking it is the only one, only to find for some reason that you haven’t solved the measure yet. The fact is there is more than one difficulty for the smaller sized hand in this measure.

A more careful analysis is required, with close attention in real time to what different parts of the playing mechanism are in the midst of trying to do.  Playing in tempo obscures each step in the process.

The identity of these steps may not be apparent until we significantly slow down the measure, the same way high speed photography allows us to see a humming bird flapping its wings up and down, even a bullet traveling  through space.

In our case, we slow down the measure to a crawl, and observe what each finger (and the hand too), at each instant, is trying to do.

During the bare second or two it takes to play the measure in tempo, each difficulty needs to be dealt with, separately, and in the order in which it arrives.  Coping with one difficult a moment to early will throw off the  entire process.  It is like an assembly line, each worker takes care of a specific task and then passes things on to the next worker who then does their step.   A worker cannot do their step in the process until the worker before them in the line has completed their step.

What follows are details of the steps that Irving and I found – once he played the measure at an extremely slow tempo.

I do not think these same steps would work for every individual, with every shape of hand, with every complement of fingers.  But it is illustrative of the process itself, which each pianist can then tailor to their own  circumstances.

Beat two going into beat three.

#1: Play the three notes in the right hand on beat two.

#2: Release the lower two notes while continuing to hold the top note.

#3: Substitute another finger for the pinkie on af5.

#4:  Step 3 allows for a more legato execution of the af5 to the g5 to the f5.

#5: One now finds the hand in a position from which it is much easier to get to the particular hand distribution needed for the chord on the third beat.

If it is still difficult to get from the last thirty second note f5 back to the g5 that lies within the chord the chord on beat three, there is a second fake: when playing the thirty second note g5, continue holding down while playing the next thirty second note, f5.

As a further step, you can even hold the g5 into and through the chord on beat 3.

These steps, done in that order, will solve that measure for many pianists who have been intimated by the opening of this sonata.

The segue from one step to the next, however, needs to be handled with an exquisite sense of timing, a rhythm of its own independent of the rhythm of the notes, the rhythm of the body doing first one thing and then another.

When attempting to do these steps in order for the first time, do not try to do it in tempo.  Put a fermata, as long a pause as you would like, after you have done each step.  Don’t worry about going on to the next step until you  feel completely ready.  We a series of motions need to be executed rapidly, it benefits from spreading out the required motions in time, almost as if you are setting them side by side in space, which permits you to dwell for as long as you like on each part.

What we have done for this measure is an analysis that is just a matter of mechanics (though not requiring a degree in physics).  It requires careful and genuine regard for the details of one’s anatomy and how each part wants to behave if it could have its ‘druthers’.  If we observe the process carefully we will find just what motions are appropriate and as well as the time that should be given to each.

(I am going to try to import a photo of the first measure)

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