Brahms Fantasien Op 116 Analysis Essay

McMaster Music Analysis Colloquium


A Formal Analysis


Nicholas Greco

One may ask why Brahms called this piece an Intermezzo.  Perhaps the meaning of the term might serve to clarify the form or function of the piece.  The term Intermezzo can refer to three musical concepts: 1) "light theatrical works inserted between the acts of Renaissance comedies"; 2) "comic interludes sung between the acts or scenes of an opera seria," during the 18th century; or 3) "movements or sections, generally within larger works; also for independent pieces, often for piano solo and predominantly lyrical in character" since the early 19th century.(1) The final definition is the one which relates most closely with this piece.  This definition suggests that the piece stands alone, and therefore, does not need to be analysed as a single part of a larger series.

This paper will attempt to elucidate the form of this piece, while exploring its unifying and contrasting elements. It will employ a simple Schenkerian approach to indicate certain unifying motives and will discuss the nature of the piece with reference to Hegel's Dialectic philosophy.(2)


It is worthwhile to first focus on the relationship between the contrasting sections, discussing the piece as an example of ternary form. The piece consists of an A section (mm. 1-24/2), contrasting B section (mm. 24/3-42/2), and a return to the opening theme, A' (mm. 42/3-64).(3)

There are specific musical elements which provide contrast between the A and B sections. Section A is in E major, while the B section is in g-sharp minor (iii). Distinct from the homophonic texture of the A section, B is made up of arpeggiated triads, with a melody in the highest voice. With regards to metre, bass notes in the A section occur on every beat, whereas in the B section, there are triplets to every quarter, in a kind of "arpeggio/rest/arpeggio" pattern (see Figure 1 for clarification).

Figure 1. Mm. 7-8 (chordal texture) and m. 29 (arpeggiated texture)

This rhythmic variance between A and B is further enhanced by a kind of hemiola effect in the B section, with a two-beat pattern occuring within a three-beat meter framework.

It may be argued that the triplet figures in the A section (mm. 9/3-10/2 and mm. 11/3-12/2 in the bass clef), though only occuring twice in the section, act to forshadow the texture of the B section. The tempo of the two sections is similar due to the identical marking of dolce in both, although the B section may be slower in performance due to the fact that there are more notes to be played in the same amount of time. As for length, the B section is three quarters the length of A. Regarding musical elements which may provide continuity between the sections, the key of the B section, g-sharp minor, is iii of E.

Also interesting is the relationship between A and A'. Mm. 42/3-48/2 are identical to mm. 1-6/2. The remaining 16 measures of A' seem to incorporate the "melodic" texture of the B section, although they are not identical. Finally, the sections are almost the same length (A' is 2 bars shorter than the A section).

As a link between the A and B sections, the composer forms the large chords starting in m. 22 in first inversion (in the treble clef) with the third of the chord in the top voice, which happens to be a g-sharp5. This g-sharp is in the same register as the root for the i chord of g-sharp minor that begins the B section. This common note is the only sign of a link between the contrasting sections. Also working to unify the work is the reference to the B section presented in mm. 57/2-58 of the A' section. In m. 56, notice the g-sharp in the highest voice, hearkening back to the linking gesture between sections A and B. But rather than following with an exact presentation of the B section in A', the composer decides to do something more interesting.

Measure 57/3 is marked in tempo, suggesting the notion of returning to something previously stated, with the music characterized by arpeggiation reminiscent of the B section.  It can also be argued that this marking refers simply to the tempo before the ritardando in m. 53.  The major difference from what has gone immediately before is the insertion of e-sharp and d-natural into the music; this is an indication of the composer injecting the mainly diatonic nature of the B section with selected bits of chromaticism.

This fusing of the A and B sections in the A' section is an example of an interesting ternary form developed in the Romantic era, following the pattern A-B-(A+B). Renwick suggests that, "This formulation had particular aesthetic significance for composers because of its philosophical basis in the Hegelian concept of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis."(4)


The Hegelian Dialectic was an influential Romantic philosophy developed by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). It refers to the development of a synthesis of two opposing concepts:

At the center of the universe Hegel posited an enveloping absolute spirit that guides all reality, including human reason. His absolute idealism envisages a world-soul, evident throughout history, that develops from, and is known through, a process of change and progress now known universally as the Hegelian dialectic. According to its laws, one concept (thesis) inevitably generates its opposite (antithesis); their interaction leads to a new concept (synthesis), which in turn becomes the thesis of a new triad.(5)

Synthesis is thought to be a process occurring in reality, not simply in theory, for the furthering of intellect:

Even more than Aristotle and the Stoics, Hegel believed that the study of logic is an investigation into the fundamental structure of reality itself. According to Hegel, all logic (and, hence, all of reality) is dialectical in character. As Kant had noted in the Antinomies, serious thought about one general description of the world commonly leads us into a contemplation of its opposite. But Hegel did not suppose this to be the end of the matter; he made the further supposition that the two concepts so held in opposition can always be united by a shift to some higher level of thought. Thus, the human mind invariably moves from thesis to antithesis to synthesis, employing each synthesis as the thesis for a new opposition to be transcended by yet a higher level, continuing in a perpetual waltz of intellectual achievement.(6)

Hegel suggested also that this triadic movement from thesis to antithesis to synthesis was to be found in nature, cultural progress and history.(7) It can be argued, then, that Hegel's dialectic is present in this piece, with the synthesis being music combining the character of both the A section and B section (more on this in the discussion of the A' section and the possibility of a coda).


















f-sharp (ii)

C-sharp (V/ii)












g-sharp (iii)



a, b


A+B (coda?)







This section can be divided into 5 subsections, labeled here as 'a' through 'e.' The first subsection, mm. 1-4/2, contains the theme in E major.  At m. 4/3, the theme is stated a second time, but now in f-sharp (ii), drawing the listener away from the home key of E major, both by changing the mode and transposing up a tone. There is a half cadence leading to a section in C-sharp major at m. 8/1-8/2; this key area remains until m. 12/3 with the insertion of a prolongation of an f-sharp diminished chord until m. 14/2.(8) In m. 14/2, the a-sharp in the lowest voice acts as a leading tone to the b-natural in the following chord. This gesture leads  the return to E major with the tonic chord stated in m. 14/1 and a thematic statement similar to that of the opening of the piece. Measures 18/2-21/3 prove to be important for an understanding of the B section, and are simplified in Figure 2 below.

Figure 2. Mm. 18/2-21/3

Notice again the g-sharp5 at m. 22/2 which acts as a link to the second section in g-sharp minor.

The first presentation of the theme in E major is, more importantly, an instance of the motive which occurs throughout the piece. This motive (referred to as motive 1) is a four-note descending pattern, made clear by Figure 3 below. Its use is even more abundant in the B section (as discussed below), where it is completed by arriving on 1^.

Figure 3. Mm. 1-4/2; the first instance of Motive 1



Dr. William Renwick has suggested the following (Figure 4) as a harmonic reading of the B section:

Figure 4. Harmonic and Formal Analysis of Section B

To answer a question posed by Dr. Renwick, "What 'compositional' or 'design' technique(s) are at work in this section," the reply would be 'repetition.'(9) Levy and Leverie comment:

In the case of immediate repetition, the contribution to growth is obvious. A chain of such repetitions produces, as the case may be, strophes and variation sets. The absence of a limiting principle keeps these occurrences short of creating definitive forms. ... The morphological gain seems greater; for paired with proportion, symmetry or number, periodic recurrence can be made to serve limitation as well.(10)

Dr. Renwick also suggests that the Urlinie of this section is a descent from d-sharp in m. 36 to g-sharp at the end of the section, and questions to what extent this melody is supported by the bass. This question is particularly difficult to answer.  Nevertheless, this exercise reveals a characteristic which is very important to the unity of the piece. The notion of a five-note descending pattern is not new; motive 1 is exactly that (though incomplete), but the motive has not been shown to occur over a large area of the piece. The fact that the B section could be thought of as built by such a pattern reveals the motive as a more important unifying feature than perhaps first thought. Although contrasting in terms of texture and key, the B section may be similar in motive (see Figure 5).

Figure 5.Full Graph of B Section.



The third section begins with the same material as was introduced in the first measures of the piece (there is exact repetition from mm. 42/3-48/2, corresponding to the first 6 measures of the A section). Measures 48/3-56/1 generally correspond to mm. 18/3-21, but with a prolongation of F-major (a kind of V7/B-flat) in mm. 52-54/2. This division ends with a V-I cadence at m. 56, followed by a g-sharp minor chord (iii6/4) acting as a transitional gesture. The following section is marked in tempo and can be thought of as one of the most important in the piece because of its musical characteristics.

This final subsection (mm. 57-64) can be thought of as the 'synthesis' in Hegel's 'thesis-antithesis-synthesis' equation. The melodic character of the B section is very evident in these last measures, but with the insertion of chromaticism (like the e-sharp and d-natural in m.58), which is characteristic of the A section (and the beginning of A' as well). The straightforward harmonic quality of the B section is now fused with the more complex chromaticism of the A section.(11)

The question that should be asked is if this last subsection should be referred to as a coda. What is its function as such? Can it not simply be designated a subsectional title like the others? The idea that this subsection may constitute a coda is not supported by the cadence in m. 56, since the PAC occurs m. 63 (at the end of the piece), but this author suggests that the term "coda" may be warranted as a rhetorical device.  Following a kind of restatement of A, with a transitional chord in m. 56 very similar to that which occurs at the end of the first A section, the "synthesis" subsection is added.  Without this transitional chord, the piece could have ended with a PAC in m. 56 (with the form A-B-A), which would be acceptable. To alleviate this concern, the last portion has not been given its own designation beside that of being a subsection of A'. Such a statement certainly does not overlook the importance of the subsection to the piece as a whole. One must not forget that it is fulfilling the Hegelian Dialectic applied to this piece; after all, the Hegelian Dialectic needs the synthesis portion. The presentation of two opposing concepts would demand a synthesis. But looking at the B section as motivically similar to A may debunk the notion of them being true opposites. This would be worthy of further exploration, perhaps in future analyses of this piece.

In conclusion, although a Schenkerian study of the beginning of the A section and the whole of the B section may be questionable, such an approach does reveal certain motivic figures which serve to unify the piece.  While the A and B sections are initially thought to be contrasting (and are, to a certain extent), perhaps the unity shown by the recurrence of the motive would discourage the application of the Hegelian Dialectic to this piece. A resolution to these issues is difficult; nevertheless, this paper has raised these questions with the hope that future analysis might prove fruitful toward such a resolution.


1. Charles E. Troy, "Intermezzo (i)," and "Intermezzo (ii)", Maurice J. Brown, "Intermezzo (iii)," The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians, 6th Ed, ed. Stanley Sadie, IX (New York, Macmillan, 1980), 269-72.

2. The use of the terms "simple" or "questionable" here do not denote that Schenkerian analysis itself is in any way deficient as an analyzing system. Rather, the terms are used in the context that the Schenkerian analyses presented in this paper are not exhaustive. The graphs presented are, in some cases, background graphs, while others indicate the foreground. The nature of the graphs should be clarified by reading this paper.

3. Throughout this discussion, when referring to a certain beat of a bar, the number of the beat will be indicated after a backslash following the number of the bar. For example, the third beat in the fourteenth bar will be referred to as m. 14/3.

4. See Renwick's discussion of Douglas Green's systematic summaries of the main subdivisions within the category of ternary forms, found at

5. See for more.

6. See

7. See

8. A great source of anxiety and later humour is the chord on the first beat of measure 13. It consists of e, f-double sharp, and b-sharp, which, when respelled, form none other than an easily identifiable C major chord (not A minor or anything else this humble student may have thought under pressure).

9. Dr. Renwick's full comments are as follows: "[referring to the form of the section,] in other words always a descending sequence, i VI iv with the regular ending to V and with the extended ending through ii vii to V. Then in each case, the V is turned back and overlapped with the new phrase as it returns to i. Melodically, why not propose a descending fifth from D-sharp (m. 24) to G-sharp (m. 41) and see the extent to which the melody works out this formula. Then consider the extent to which the bass (above) supports your view of the melody. What "compositional" or "design" technique(s) are at work in this section?"

10. Ernst Levy and SiegmundLevarie, Musical Morphology: A Discourse and a Dictionary (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1983), 238-9.  A colleague, in assisting this author to work out this discussion, informally attempted to answer some of the questions posed by Dr. Renwick, regarding the compositional processes taking place in the B section, as well as reasons why Brahms repeats the harmonic pattern four times instead of some other number.  Ruth Cumberbatch suggests,

I found your comments about Levy and Levarie's ideas of repetition interesting, especially, "In the case of immediate repetition, the contribution to growth is obvious . . . paired with proportion, symmetry or number, periodic recurrence can be made to serve as limitation as well."  I thought this quote completely tied in with your piece  - for example, in the B section, the Urlinie is repeated four times - Dr. Renwick had asked before in a previous posting why Brahms would have repeated this four times instead of two or three or seven.  Well Brahms could possibly have decided to repeat this line four times because this would be in proportion to what is happening in the A section - for example in mm. 1-8, there are four transpositions of the main melody (even though the fourth one is only a partial occurence of the melody).

The author is grateful to Ruth for this insight.  Her analysis of Brahms's Intermezzo in A major Op. 118, No. 2 can be found here.
11. In an online posting on December 3, 1999, Dr Renwick commented, "It seems awkward when writing about this piece NOT to mention the extreme chromaticism of the C major chord in mm. 13-14, and the effect that this music has on the shape of the A section."  He also suggested that the "omission" of a corresponding chromatic part in the A' could also be a contribution to the "addition" of the Hegelian reference.


© Copyright 1999 by Nicholas Greco.



Let’s finish the week with Johannes Brahms’ Intermezzo in E major, No. 4 from the Seven Fantasies, Op. 116 for piano. Written in 1892 in the final years of Brahms’ life, this is music infused with a deep sense of lonely introspection. It draws us into a dreamlike world where every chord and hesitating pause seem to have something important to say.

There are moments when the rhythmic feel changes in interesting ways, obliterating our sense of “strong” and “weak” beats. We also get a visceral sense of the spacial dimension in this music: lines pull apart and converge in an elaborate musical architecture. We feel the width of the piano’s keyboard. And listen to the aching beauty of this passage, in which a series of voices pour passionately from the piano in imitative, canonic counterpoint.

As Op. 116, No. 4 draws to a close, the pitch “E” in the bass takes on increasing power, as if to foreshadow the inevitability of a final resolution. When that resolution comes, it’s met with peaceful acceptance.

Here is American pianist Richard Goode’s 1987 recording:

  • Find this recording at iTunes, Amazon.
  • András Schiff plays the entire Seven Fantasies, Op. 116 in this live performance.

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

View all posts by Timothy Judd | Website

Categories Romantic Period, Solo Keyboard, The Listeners' Club, UncategorizedTags András Schiff, classical music blog, Intermezzo in E major No. 4, Johannes Brahms, piano, Richard Goode, Romanticism, Seven Fantasies Op. 116

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