Brahms, Kierkegaarde and Repetition: Three Intermezzi

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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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)101-117
Number of pages16
JournalNIneteenth-Century Music Review
Issue number01
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2013


  • Brahms
  • Kierkegaarde
  • Repetition
  • Analysis
  • Late piano music

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