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Chapter 2

Drei Intermezzi Op. 117 ‘Three Lullabies for my Sorrows.’2

The title ‘Intermezzo,’ previously applied to movements before or midway between other

parts of a suite, had acquired a different meaning in the 19th century. They were now short pieces

of individual character. Schumann had used this title for a connecting movement (as in the Op.

11 Piano Sonata) and for independent pieces (Op. 4). Brahms seems to have done the same at the

beginning of his compositional life, with the Rückblick Intermezzo movement in his Op. 5 Piano

Sonata, and the 2nd movement of his Op. 25 Piano Quartet, a graceful, medium-tempo inner

movement with ABA-coda pattern, also labelled Intermezzo. The term had an ambiguous

meaning in the Op. 10 Ballades, as the third is called an Intermezzo, acting both as an

independent piece and as a connection. In Op. 76 and 116, Brahms used the title with similar

implications, as they were independent character pieces, but provided contrast by being placed

between the more passionate Capricci. In Op. 117, the genre seems to have acquired a more

independent identity.

The Op. 117 Intermezzi date from Brahms’s 1892 summer in Bad Ischl, a time when he

was losing one by one, those dearest to him. Although it is speculated that the pieces could have

been sketched earlier in his life, the death of his sister and his especially close friend Elizabeth

von Herzogenberg, the fatal illnesses of Hans von Bülow and Theodor Billroth, tension in his

relationship with Clara Schumann,3 together with his advancing age, must all have had an effect

on the completion of such sorrowful and reflective monologues. It is no wonder that Brahms

described them as ‘Drei Wiegenlieder meiner Schmerzen’ (Three Lullabies for my Sorrows), and

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