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Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.

Beginning in 1892 Johannes Brahms (1833–97) composed a series of twenty short keyboard works that were published as Opuses 116 through

119. These precious and rarefied masterpieces belong to the introverted and nostalgic soundscape of Brahms’s final years.

The Intermezzo in A minor, Opus 116, no.2 stands among Brahms’s most lyrical and beguiling compositions. Here a deceptively simple three-note figure is subjected to a chain of expansions and developments, including a shift to major mode before subsiding back to minor at the end. The Intermezzo in E minor, Opus 119, no.2, provides a superb lesson in the expressive potential of Brahms’s favored technique of “developing variation,” in which a small idea is continually modified and enhanced in preference to adding new material. The “A” section is characterized by jittery rhythms within incessant variation of its basic three-note idea, giving way to a radiant E major middle section that evokes the Austrian Ländler, almost aching with nostalgia despite being made up of precisely that same three-note seed idea; it puts in a brief, almost furtive appearance right at the end.

If it weren’t for the Andante con moto tempo, the Intermezzo in C-sharp minor, Opus 117, no.3 might stand among the most melancholy pieces in Brahms’s entire catalog. However, both tempo and the directive sotto voce sempre indicate more introversion than depression. A shift to A major marks the middle section, in which a disjointed, offbeat main melody lightly but firmly resists being shoehorned into metric regularity. The original material returns abridged, and the piece closes with a nobly resigned statement of its primary theme.

The Romance in F major, Opus 118, no.5 resembles one of Brahms’s folk song settings. It opens with an uncomplicated descending melody that is stated four times, each with slight variance. A shift to D major introduces a miniature chaconne, i.e., evolving variations over a static bass. A return to the original key and melody—stated then repeated once with slight variation—brings the piece to an unruffled close.—From notes by JAMES M. KELLER, SCOTT FOGLESONG, MICHAEL STEINBERG, and STEVEN ZIEGLER