Monday, August 27, 2007

He Said No

For fifteen years, piano was pretty much a “yes, yes, yes” affair for me. As a child, I made friends not with kids in my classes at school but with each new piano piece my teacher assigned to me. I progressed easily from simple songs with playground titles to Inventions, Sonatas and, finally, Fugues. The winter and spring seasons culminated in recitals, and I took pride in showing off my friends, friends I’d been polishing and forming relationships with over the course of months. Memory came easily. A confidence and flair for performing complemented my otherwise bookish life.

Then I met Brahms Op. 117.

I fell in love with the Three Intermezzi at a time when all other pianists my age were playing Op. 118, No. 2. I fell in love with the folk simplicity of No. 1 and how it gives way on the second page to something awful and yearning. I fell in love with the ornate filigree of No. 2 and considered myself cultured and sophisticated when I played it. (Now I hear it as pure old Vienna, permeated by the casual lilt of a waltz and as gilded and decorated as Freud’s favorite cafe.) I fell in love with the overwrought intensity and—though I had yet to acquire a very strong knowledge of chromatic harmony—gorgeous mercurial cadences of No. 3. These twelve pages of music contained all I needed. The deal was done. I had fallen in love. We would be friends, lovers, for life.

And then the second intermezzo broke my heart.

In performance the piece became elusive, evasive, surprisingly out of my grasp. The design of the main motive—spun as if by a tiny frightened spider—fits right under the hands, but the constant chase up, down, and around all registers of the keyboard is counterintuitive. I would return to the piano after a day of practice, and whatever I had filed away as “learned,” was gone, vanished, like a blue moon lover. Practicing seemed for nought as I wrestled for the first time with major memory issues. I couldn’t pin this piece down! Now, looking at the score and the markings I made over ten years ago, I wonder if my muddled understanding of its harmonic structure did us in. Hesitant pencil scratches (“kind of a sequence?”) over three bars of music reveal my insecurities, even though the analysis is correct: V7 of V, V, V7 of IV, IV, V7 of III, III. But in three bars? That was hardly enough time to hear the progression as dominant/tonic, new dominant/tonic, newer dominant/tonic. I comprehended the harmony, but that didn’t seem to help me put the piece to bed.

Now, or, now that I too have a few grey hairs, Brahms and I are more in accord. One can fill the page with Roman numerals, one after another, new harmony, new harmony, new harmony—it’s frightening how fast he drives through the hairpins!—but parsing and labeling is not the only key to understanding this music. There is a greater scope to the piece, a scope that is broadly, melodically, derived, and it is Calm and Certain if you can hear it that way. The interior is still a wild combustion of chromaticism, but the exterior is suave and pulled presentably together. This duality was too much for me to comprehend when I was twenty. I loved it, but I couldn’t reconcile it. And so the piece slipped away. It slipped away from my memory in more than one performance and perhaps caused the first doubts about pursuing a solo career.

I am not through with Op. 117, No. 2. We have a sublime rekindling of things every now and then. The piece is on the piano right now, and I understand it better than before. Its motives and harmonies operate at a micro-level that I can analyze, but the true effect of the piece relies on a magnification that blurs and extends beyond the periphery of perception. I must accommodate and yield to its design, but at the same time, I must not over-think it. I can imagine Brahms advising this. Hearts can be broken, but with the Intermezzi, all I have to do is pick up the score, and I am still in love, again.


Great post. It sent me back to these late piano pieces, some of which I used to play, and all of which are beautiful. There's a discussion brewing on a couple of musicology blogs about harmony, and I empathize with your description more than any of their examples.

--Caleb Deupree

By Blogger Heather, at 6:52 PM  

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