This year, when we came to the central hymn-like passage in F# major (mm.57-64) which serves as a kind of “eye of the storm” for the entire piece, we questioned why it is that Brahms enharmonically spells two chords right at the passage’s center:
I thought perhaps the F major chord might be referring to something else in the piece. From the home key of A major, F major is flat-VI, a good example of mode mixture, and mixture plays a big role is defining the Intermezzo’s overall character. An F major chord does appear in measures 20 to 21, but making a case that the m.60 F chord is referring to these measure seems a stretch.
Perhaps he’s placing visual emphasis on the piece’s precise midpoint. These two chords come at the center of this “eye of the storm” passage in a work whose overall form is a palindromic arch form. With 116 measures in the entire piece, these two chords sit almost precisely at the midpoint. Is this what he’s doing? A tepid “maybe.”
I wanted to see if there were instances of this kind of seemingly-arbitrary enharmonic respelling in other late Brahms piano works. The first passage that caught my eye is a very similar kind of passage in the very next piece in the Op.118 set–the Ballade in G minor. The central section of the piece finds its way to the chromatic mediant key of B major (via a wonderful non-resolution of a V7/iv in mm.38-40). The B major section sets out but soon modulates to d# minor (via a reinterpretation of a V7/IV chord as a German +6 chord), a key which requires the use of numerous double-sharps. Listen here.
Then I remembered two passages from second Intermezzo from the Op.117 set.
First, measures 4 to 11. Listen here.
So as interesting as this passage is, it sheds no light on the Op.118/2 passage containing enharmonic spellings, a passage driven not by voice-leading but by harmonic progression . Let’s move to the other fascinating passage in this Op.117/2 Intermezzo.
Measures 20 to 23. Listen here.
If one suggests that the VI chord would have to be spelled as an E double-flat major chord (rather than as the less cumbersome D major) in order for it to function as the Neapolitan in the oncoming key of Db major (which it does), let’s remember that such a consideration of function did not prevent Brahms from spelling A# minor’s functioning dominant as F major in Op.118/2.
Therefore, it seems this passage provides us with an example counter to the one discussed in class. Explaining the Op.118/2 respellings as being done “for ease of reading” seems less convincing.
[Incidentally, the Op.117/2 passage just referenced reminded me of that wonderful extended passage from Schubert’s 4th Moments Musicaux written in F-flat major (8 flats). Schubert has taken the liberty in other pieces of respelling such keys, and in this case, respelling F-flat major as E major would have made perfect sense considering the latter’s close relationship with the piece’s home key of c# minor. But he leaves it as F-flat major.]
So back to Brahms 118/2. If the 117/2 passage puts a dent in my toss-away explanation for the respellings in 118/2, then why does he respell these two chords in the center of Op.118/2? I am sure that someone out there has written a dissertation on enharmonic spellings in Brahms and that someone has unlocked the mystery surrounding these particular measures. I’d love to hear other explanations. In the meantime, I’m inclined to believe that the best answer is the one provided by a students three seconds after I asked the question: “Why did Brahms spell these chords as Eb and F rather than D# and E#?”
“Because he felt like it!”