The Brahms Intermezzo

Since I retired from my university faculty position in 1999, I have turned to playing the piano with some dedication. Recently, over the noontime program on the public radio station, I heard a lovely and somewhat familiar solo piano work. I hurriedly wrote down the details about the piece — Johannes Brahms, Opus 118, Six Pieces, Intermezzo II.

I have a sort of stash of piano music, handed down from my family and from my husband’s family, upstairs in the piano bench and on shelves next to the piano. I began pulling out music to see if by chance the Brahms was among the stacks, and, to my utter surprise, there it was! A piece of over-sized sheet music, definitely much used and tattered, but there it was — the Intermezzo II of Brahms’ Opus 118, Six Pieces.

Okay, now what? The sheet music was barely in one piece, ripped almost all the way up the back, and in the middle, top and bottom of the edges. Then as I began to look more closely, I gradually discovered all kinds of other remnants of years past on that singular piece of music. The more I looked, the more I noticed.

The entire piece of music consisted of a cover with title and information on the front side and blank on the over-side, then three pages of music, and finally the back cover (inexplicably printed upside down). Looking closely at the front cover, I discovered the following: A copyright date of 1910 (by N. Simrock, G.M.B.H., Berlin and T.B. Harms Company, NY.); also, three lines stamped in red — very faint: first line, “Made in Germany,” next line, “Philadelphia, PA”, third line, illegible. Locations of other publisher offices were named: Paris, London, and Berlin. The price for the music was printed as 1 M. (1 German mark). Up in the right hand corner was penciled in the number “50” (50 cents?). Lastly, near the bottom of the front cover was a line in very small print — Copyright for the British Empire by Schott & Co., London. The British Empire! Isn’t that right out of a history book?!

Looking inside, on the blank inner side of the front cover were two ring-like water marks, apparently where glasses of something liquid had been set down some time in the past. An older copyright date was printed at the bottom of the first page of music: Copyright 1893 by N. Simrock, Berlin.

By this time I was very eager to start really playing the music, yet it was so fragile and the pages had to be turned so carefully. Also, the page size was much larger than more contemporary music and the paper so tattered that the music buckled over on the music stand. What should I do?

I placed a telephone call to the University music library for advice on mending the music. A helpful woman answered and asked: “Is the paper in good condition?” No. “Does it have a “shoulder?” Uh, no. Then, “Never use scotch tape” . . . “Never use Elmer’s glue” . . .and finally, “Bring it in so I can see it and then I will know what will be best.”

But now I was wondering, did I really want to “fix” this piece of music? This specific sheet of music was an important part of someone’s everyday life years ago. A certain kind of charm and a sense of character and history were embedded in this tattered copy, much of which would surely be lost under any “archival tape” covering the tatters or with a new “shoulder” made out of “Japanese paper.”

Geographer Graham Rowles wrote about the concept of space-time depth, i.e., the sense of lived experience over time that can be integral to objects and spaces in our lives (Chapter 3, The Meaning of Everyday Occupation). The sheet music of Brahms’ Intermezzo offered me a sense of connection to past years and to the experiences of another, though unknown, family pianist. I had acquired a sense of intimacy with the music that I was reluctant to let go of or to spoil in some way.

Yet, at the same time, the plaintive Intermezzo deserved to be played and heard. You may have guessed what I ultimately did — I purchased a new copy of the Intermezzo for actual playing. Things were not as simple as I had first thought — I had not only “seen” the copy of the music, I had fully “noticed” it. I felt the need to preserve the old and much-used sheet music that I had come to know so well and at the same time to be able to learn and practice the Intermezzo in my own daily life. As Erving Goffman has said, we must “guard” our acts while in the presence of an object that has special value (Gregory W.H. Smith, Taylor & Francis E-Library, 2006, p. 52). At least for now, I am “guarding” the 1910 copy of the Brahms Intermezzo, returning it to the safety of my music stash.

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