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ideas, the pieces are innovative in the way Brahms treats these ideas in each piece, with

unexpected departures and returns. Sometimes the second idea grows from the first (119/3,

117/2) or there may be more than two themes (119/4). The contrasting ideas do not stand alone,

but are inter-connected by various elements. The handling of ternary structure differs from piece

to piece, producing combinations with variation, rounded binary and sonata form. Thus the

miniatures are highly condensed works containing elements of large-scale structure and harmonic


Bozarth (1990: 377) states that ‘One must view the young Brahms not as a composer of

instrumental music who occasionally wrote songs, but rather as a tone-poet whose lyric muse

found expression principally through song, both with and without words.’ This is also true of the

old Brahms, and the late miniatures are perfect examples. Although written for the piano, the

pieces carry the idea of a song, with the principle of melody and accompaniment, reflecting

Brahms’s fondness of both folk song and other vocal genres. The melody is mostly confined to

inner voices in the middle register, reminiscent in tone colour of the contemporaneous clarinet

pieces. It can also be considered a manifestation of Brahms’s instrumental preferences, as he

especially liked the cello and viola, as well as the alto voice, thus favouring the corresponding

register of the piano. In fact, pianists at the time had dubbed Brahms’s thumbs his ‘oboe fingers’

or referred to them as ‘tenor thumbs’ due to the abundance of melodies confined to the middle

voices, which would be articulated by these fingers (Cai, 1986: 415).

Both technically and musically demanding, the miniatures are the ultimate synthesis of

Brahms’s earlier compositional techniques, bringing together traditional elements of harmony

and form, and revitalizing them with romantic ideas and even more progressive characters such

as extreme dissonance and harmonic ambiguity. There is a striking prominence of the ‘third,’

thematically, harmonically (shifting between major and minor third), texturally (doubling for

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