Intermezzo

Intermezzo no.2, op. 117, by Brahms.

Who could have guessed that 2020 would be the year of enforced domesticity? Well, here we are. Life in lockdown is harder for some than others. Living on the edge of a small town, I’m fortunate to have plenty of space for safe exercise. And as the streets assume an almost prelapsarian quietness, I also have some old technology to turn to: a piano.

Looking through my stash of sheet music, I found Brahms’ Three Intermezzi op. 117. No. 2 caught my eye, because the delicate arpeggios of its opening bars looked more like a Bach prelude than something from the nineteenth century.

An intermezzo seems appropriate for this strange in-between time, as we wait uneasily for life to somehow resume itself. There’s a fittingly pensive mood to this piece too – despite my first impressions, Bach’s old Lutheran certainties are absent. In Brahms’ world, wistfulness and self-doubt reign.

Much about this piece is remarkably tentative. Brahms is hardly famed for light textures, but for most of the work you won’t find even four notes struck together. The dynamic markings, for the most part, remain muted.

There is, however, an almost constant sense of movement. Swift arpeggios predominate, and the unusually microscopic time signature of 3/8 means that clouds of demisemiquavers darken the page, like arrows in the sky at Crécy.

Brahms reserves the longest, most sweeping arpeggios for moments of harmonic surprise or instability, as though he were an unsatisfied painter, washing away what came before. And while there is a contrasting theme with a more chordal texture – and wonderfully bittersweet it is too – even here he staggers the rhythm in the left hand.

Truth be told, I like playing this kind of music. I rarely sit down at the piano wanting to blitz the keyboard, nor am I much interested in stretching myself technically. In fact, I feel it’s with broken chords, of one kind or another, that the piano is at its most poetic. Sketching out harmonies with a sense of flow while picking out a melody, the decaying notes bleeding together – it’s how the instrument shines.

Difficulty in music is over-rated. When you’re taught in the classical tradition, you learn to make way for its demands, however exacting they may be. In hushed examination rooms and concert halls, the music comes first. It rules there. But in the amateur domestic sphere, music has to negotiate a shared space.

The funny thing is, when I play the piano I often find my foot has strayed to the una corda pedal without thinking, even when I’m alone. It seems I’ve learned to practice social distancing in music, to shrink myself away from cohabitants and neighbours, be they real or imagined.

The upright piano is a domesticated breed, but it’s still a muscular beast. I started learning on an electric Clavinova, which had a handy headphones socket, but none of the all-important touch you get with a mechanical action. When I began studying for my Grade 8 as a teenager, I was fortunate that my parents realised this would no longer do.

I remember visiting a piano shop with them, and my Dad’s unease when he heard the bright din of real mallets on strings. He was right to hesitate: British homes are neither large nor well insulated. Sound bulldozes through them. To prepare for the exam, I spent a year bashing out the sforzando chords of an angry Beethoven sonata. There’s a good reason why Für Elise is so popular.

I don’t remember any complaints, so I’m grateful for my family’s patience. But in any case, I’m not psychologically cut out for performance. With a lot of practice, I scraped a Distinction in the exam, which seems laughable now, because I hated the experience. Leaving the room was one of the few times in my life where I’ve made an immediate vow never to do something again. Pity my poor teacher, angling for me to get started on a Diploma.

Nowadays, fumbling through old scores is enough. I am lazy and rusty and rough-edged with the piano, and I’m fine with that. Alongside Brahms, I’m enjoying the company of Scarlatti, Byrd and John Ireland as quarantine companions. Although the strings have really started to pine for their tuner.

A month into lockdown, I can now make a decent hash of the Intermezzo. And as it turns out, it has a curious ending. That secondary chordal theme reappears, but the texture seizes up this time, stuck over a long held note in the bass. The tempo slows. The music’s defining fluidity has evaporated, and it becomes more forceful, as if protesting its new restriction.

Brahms beautifully works the theme to a sense of resignation, before the quiet final cadence. To await whatever comes next, whenever that might be.

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