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Brahms, Kierkegaard and Repetition: Three Intermezzi

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 June 2013


Schoenberg's ideas about ‘Brahms the progressive’ involve the close study of the composer's use of ‘developing variation’ technique, yet Brahms's music also contains a high incidence of repetition. In 1843, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard published a book called Repetition under the pseudonym, ‘Constantin Constantius’. As an encryption of his underlying philosophy, this pseudonym encapsulates both the constant nature of repetition – and its more subtle element of change. Thus stasis and dynamism, similarity and difference, are equally (and visibly) represented here. Kierkegaard's ideas find resonance within the late Brahms piano miniatures (for instance in the Drei Intermezzi, op. 117) where highly compressed formal structures exhibit differing kinds of repetitive processes. The temporal quality of repetition – the fact that experiencing the ‘same’ thing can only occur later on in time – makes this device more dynamic than it may at first appear. Such a view of repetition sits alongside Schoenberg's notion of ‘developing variation’ – the endless reshaping of a basic shape – but although they may have underlying connections, each is articulated in a different way. Studies of developing variation in Brahms are confined to pitch structures, interval patterns and rhythmic shapes, whereas considerations of repetition need to embrace issues of temporality, narrative and motion. Drawing upon Kierkegaard's philosophical distinction between re-experiencing something, rather than experiencing it again, allows repetition to become a catalyst for change. It may help to explain the expressive expansiveness of Brahms's structurally controlled late piano works.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

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8 The possibility of hearing elements of organic unity in an opus-based collection has also been explored by Jonathan Dunsby, but from a different perspective and for a very different purpose: see ‘The multi-piece in Brahms: Fantasien op. 116’, in Brahms Biographical, Documentary and Analytical Studies, ed. Robert Pascall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 167–90. Dunsby shows the seven highly diverse pieces with contrasting titles of op. 116 to be governed by an overarching tonal scheme, though his main analytical frame of reference is the unity of their underlying motivic connections. In contrast, the three Intermezzi of op. 117, given the obvious unity of their three-of-a-kind nature, do not constitute a multi-piece, as issues of ‘sameness’ are immediately apparent; on the contrary, the main impetus for the current discussion is to uncover a particular use of (structural) repetition that can be shown to provide (expressive) diversity within this collection. Supporting evidence is gathered from a wide number of domains, as listed above, and not confined essentially to pitch and rhythm.

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11 Part of Constantin's story concerns the theme of unrequited love; part two of Repetition includes letters written to him from an anonymous youth seeking his counsel in this regard. This is generally viewed as an autobiographical reflection of Kierkegaard's own break-up with his former fiancée, Regine Olsen.

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16 As an aside, it is worth noting that Brahms also felt Herder to be important, particularly in his early career, as evidenced in the first of the Four Ballades, op. 10, which was inspired by a folk-song from Herder's collection. The first Intermezzo of op. 117 may in some way be concerned with a degree of recollection of that past, the nostalgia of lost youth perhaps, though such speculation is beyond the scope of the present discussion and may align more closely with notions of reminiscence (as outlined in note 9 above).

17 It is worth noting the 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 elements of a Fibonacci sequence that are involved here for repetition patterns that operate in terms of bars, phrase lengths and numbers of gestural recurrences. A summation series is frequently associated with processes of organic growth; thus developing variation may, yet again, be seen to be operating alongside more direct instances of repetition.