Academic journal article Music Theory Online

The Progress of a Motive in Brahms's Intermezzo Op. 119, No. 3

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

The Progress of a Motive in Brahms's Intermezzo Op. 119, No. 3

Article excerpt

[1] Johannes Brahms's skill with motivic development is well known. Beginning with Arnold Schoenberg's famous essay "Brahms the Progressive,"(1) analysts have demonstrated time and time again the masterful ways in which Brahms manipulates his motivic ideas.

[2] Motivic development is especially concentrated in the late piano music op. 116 through 119, written in 1892 and 1893. About op. 118, no. 6, for instance, John Rink (1999, 97) writes that "to characterize [this piece] as a motive in search of a tonic would hardly do justice to the tremendous dramatic impulse generated by Brahms's incessant reharmonizations of the almost ubiquitous melodic shape." Notable about many of these pieces is the extreme economy of material: the way in which a single idea is transformed in myriad ways.(2)

[3] Among the op. 119 pieces, No. 1 has received the most analytic attention.(3) Op. 119, no. 2 has also been studied at length, particularly for its re-casting of a six-pitch motto introduced in the A section in the B section.(4) The literature on Nos. 3 and 4 is relatively scant, however, quite possibly for opposite reasons: whereas No. 4 is the longest, weightiest and most complex in the set, No. 3 is, at least on the surface, the most innocuous. No. 4 is treated in a recent dissertation by Samuel Ng and a paper by Frank Samarotto;(5) the only relatively comprehensive analysis of No. 3 is in a dissertation by Camilla Cai.(6) The lighthearted mood of No. 3 masks an underlying sophistication: the piece is remarkable, not only for its economy of material, but also for its use of a double-tonic complex and its serial ordering of chromatic pitch classes, two musical procedures not usually associated with the music of Brahms.(7) That the motive is exclusively diatonic places the chromaticism into especial relief.

[4] Like many of the late piano pieces (and like the first two in op. 119), the Intermezzo is in ternary form, as shown in Example 1. Section A1 is in two nearly identical parts, each of which progresses from C major to A major; the B section moves from A major back to C major; and section A2 is exclusively in C.

[5] In its first appearance, the motive embodies these two keys, which in section A1 form a double-tonic complex. Before examining the double-tonic complex in more detail, we must first examine the motive itself. It consists of the melodic cell and harmonic progression given in Example 2. The melodic cell, labeled "J", consists of the interval pattern ascending 3rd, ascending 2nd and descending 2nd. A clef is omitted from the first part of the example because J appears in different scale locations in different parts of the piece. J's first occurrence begins on .

[6] The harmonic component of the motive is dubbed "DOWN-THIRD-UP-FIFTH" after its constituent root motions. In all statements of this harmonic progression, the descending third is diatonic-the quality of the third depending upon the quality of the starting chord-and the ascending fifth is perfect. In this first appearance, the descending third is minor. Moreover, the total pitch-class content of the progression in its first appearance is diatonic.

Example 1. The Form

Example 2. The Two Components of the Motive

[7] The melodic cell and harmonic progression-J and DOWN-THIRD-UP-FIFTH- sometimes occur independently, but for the most part interact to create a larger unit. This larger unit, given at the bottom of Example 2, is the motive of my title.(8) Again, the fact that the motive is exclusively diatonic is significant, because it makes the chromatic pitch classes especially salient.

[8] The opening of the piece animates the motive by repeating and varying the duration of J while arpeggiating the chords of DOWN-THIRD-UP-FIFTH. Example 3 annotates the melody of m. 1 through the downbeat of m. 3, which fuses together three Js.(9) By fusing together three Js and altering the duration of the final pitch of each J (the durations are , , and , for the three occurrences, respectively), Brahms creates a symmetrical rhythmic structure. …

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