Intermezzi, omaggio à Ligeti e Lutosławski

By Martín Rincón Botero

Eliasson’s Intermezzi (1988) for chamber ensemble was the first work by Anders Eliasson I discovered, and which has strongly influenced my career as a composer for its fine use of harmonic, contrapuntal, rhythmic, melodic and orchestrational devices.

Chronologically and stylistically, this piece emphasizes concrete melodic, harmonic and rhythmic forces as opposed to more abstract timbral textures in Eliasson´s previous works as heard for example in Canti in Lontananza (1977) or his Symphony No 1 (1986). This return to celebrating “cheerful aspects of music”, as Jean Christensen (2002) puts it, by Eliasson and other Swedish composers, would become ever more present in subsequent works like the Concerto for Horn and Strings “Farfalle e ferro” (1992) or his Symphony No. 4 (2005).

Intermezzi are somehow built following the tradition of Brahms’ Klavierstücke op. 118 where intermezziare are not used to formally connect adjacent movements, but rather as autonomous formal unities. In the case of Eliasson’s Intermezzi each Intermezzo works as a formally autonomous, materially interrelated section of an uninterrupted single movement.

The beginning of each one of these sections provides additional formal contrast through tempo, thematic, developmental and orchestrational changes (as seen for example in the sparing, articulating use of the double bass), and less by clear articulatory strikes, with the exception of the beginning of the piece, and the beginning of the Third Intermezzo, which also marks the beginning of the second part. The form of the piece can be elucidated by following this proposed ordered set-like notation (IM = Intermezzo):

Intermezzi {Part 1 [(Intro.), (IM 1, IM 2)], Part 2 [IM 3, IM 4]}

The materials for each Intermezzo are already present in the introduction, where the motivic and harmonic materials that will be used later are heard as repeated “bursts”, or impulses, in which prevalently contrasted rhythmic layers between strings and winds engage in a dialogue. 


The harmony of the introduction is built around F-G-A♭-B♭ (set (0,2,3,5 in Pitch-Class-Set Notation), which suggests some sort of incomplete F minor. This set is used and developed throughout the piece and as such it is the headstone of the harmony.

The centrality that would arise by consistently emphasizing F in the introduction (and other places as well) is avoided, or “corrupted,” by ornamenting the melodic lines in the winds with F♯ as passing note, forming often a dense chromatic texture that is reminiscent of Ligeti’s micropolyphony.

Strings tend to harmonically dominate this introduction by playing complete chords. For example in bar 14 we have 0,2,3,5 transposed to D♭ (a major third below our “tonic” F, thus D♭, E♭, F♭, G♭) for three bars before returning to F. In bar 22 the transposition is to A♭ instead (a major third above F), after which the double bass marks a small articulation in bar 28, where this time the transposition is C (a major third above A♭, a fifth above F). Two more transpositions occur in bars 34 and 35, where we get a transposition to D and D♭, before returning to F.

The process by which the “tonic” is corrupted with a minor second, as mentioned above, starts to pervade not only melody but also harmony. In bar 40 the transposition is to B♭ (a fourth above F) but adding an A below, so what should be only B♭, C, D♭ and E♭ has also A presented inside rhythmic patterns of the viola and the cello, building up tension through impulse-like dynamics that go back and forth until the f of measure 45, transposing again to D. Curiously, the G in this D chord (D, E, F, G) is not played in the strings as usual but, instead, the note is “outsourced” to the trumpet, an instrument that will play a major narrative role on successive occasions.

Shortly before the first Intermezzo the transposition is again to B♭ (a nearer zone to our initial F than D), which marks the beginning of the new section.

Intermezzo 1

This Intermezzo has a new tempo and character (lento), and introduces new melodic materials in the winds. The “outsourcing” to the trumpet in the final part of the preceding section in the harmony is now moved to the timbral plane, where the trumpet has now an ornamental function (with a wa-wa mute) and doesn’t depend on the other two brass anymore (in contrast to the introduction they are not being used as a harmonic block). The ornaments are still reminiscent of the impulse-motion of the introduction. They are more like bits of ornamental impulses raher than a constant acoustically commenting flux.

The meditative character of the section and the melodic contour of the new themes of this Intermezzo remind us of Lutosławski´s Symphony No. 4, as if the Intermezzo were its durationally more compact version.

In the second part of the Intermezzo (from measure 71 on) there is a recapitulation of the initial theme from the introduction, and thus rhythmic forces attain their previous vigorous character.

Intermezzo 2

Intermezzo 2 follows a similar narrative structure to the previous Intermezzo, beginning with a quiet theme dominated by the strings and continuing with a second part with materials derived from the introduction, where winds regain their protagonism.

In this second part, however, there is a perceptible rhythmic simplification of subdivisions, in which a simple relationship of 2:1 is used to express the kind of intricate woodwind micropolyphony found at the beginning. What becomes more complex, however, are the ever-changing time signatures, where compound meters alternate with irregular times signatures. This metrical instability is stopped by the first fff attack of the tubular bells, the first strike of the percussion in more than 160 measures. Here harmonic and rhythmic forces line up again in quite a clear-cut, homophonic fashion for strings and woodwinds. However, in measure 164, two of the three brass, the horn and the trumpet, begin with a canonical, micropolyphonic episode that works as an independent flux in contrast to the general homophony.

Intermezzo 3

After a short passage echoing the beginning at the end of the preceding section, Intermezzo 3 is already a rhythmically and dynamically fully charged section. This Intermezzo follows an inverted narrative curve: it begins with the most energetic part and ends with the most quiet one.

The new theme of the section, a counterpoint between horn and bassoon, with its melodic and rhythmical blurriness, seems to recall Eliasson’s Concerto for Bassoon and Strings (1982) where the bassoon has almost six minutes of virtuoso quavering thematic episode. In the Intermezzo, in this contrapuntal section, horn and bassoon start crossing melodic paths progressively until they reach a state of indistinguishable micropolyphonic fusion, starting from measure 212, continuing for nineteen bars. In bar 232, the bassoon musically states, “I’m out”, with an abrupt change in register, this time using its lowest register. Immediately afterwards, the strings remain the only company for the horn for four measures, until the bassoon comes in again with a repetitive pattern that marks not only its way out but also the end of the texture. This last repetitive articulating device will be used in places of the Intermezzo 4.

A choral-like harmony from bar 241 serves as accompaniment for the resting p thrills of the horn, to which the bassoon, several measures thereafter, adds a reflective commentary that drives the Intermezzo to its second “deserto” part.

Intermezzo 4

Intermezzo 4, with its enigmatic indication “infrazione” (infringement), begins with a very different orchestration in the high range. The woodwinds shape a micropolyphonic passage, the piccolo and the oboe having F as tonal centre, with the clarinet embedding itself slowly into that tonal centre as well. This is accompanied by the soft metallic timbre of the percussion (pipe rack and cymbal), and, in the strings, the cello with repeated impulses of harmonics-arpeggios. A few bars later (m. 295), these arpeggios are passed on to the violins and violas, while the cello, with a new texture, integrates itself to the woodwinds with long notes, forming the type of harmony we have already been used to from the beginning, this time transposed to the tritone (B, C♯, D, E), probably the most remote transposition used until now. This harmony tends to be distorted with chromatisms in the woodwinds before returning to its normal construction. In contrast, the strings maintain a stable harmonic formation.

Repeated notes with crescendo drive the music to chords in the brass that continue to the next step in the harmonic progression (m. 302). This time, we have in the brass (G♯, A♯, B, C♯) a minor third below our last B, a minor enharmonic third above the “tonic” F, a kind of transitional pitch-space that has taken us from the most remote zone B to a place closer to the tonic.

The behaviour of this section repeats itself here (m. 303) with micropolyphony in the woodwinds and harmonics-arpeggios in the cello (in which the viola begins to participate as well). A sort of “rhythmic interpolation” occurs abruptly in m. 308, where the strings and brass begin with a homophonic, rhythmically multilayered texture with relations 3:6:8. Again, repeated notes with crescendo drive the energy on to the next step in the harmonic progression, which is the tonic, F, in m. 317. The arrival is celebrated for a few measures before coming back to a development of the previous string harmonics section.

From measure 341 on we have several dense impulses that go dynamically back and forth, following the pattern of repeated notes, which in this case are leading to multiple climaxes. In bar 361, this ecstatic behaviour is interrupted by the trumpet with a held crescendoing high B♭ that goes up to fff, the only “solo” of the piece. This one-note solo becomes a two-note solo, whereafter B♭ “resolves” into an A.

In measure 365, marked “Eco”, introduces the last part of the Intermezzo. It is a quiet part with subtle micropolyphony in the woodwinds against long chords in the strings and brass. Here, the harmonic space revolves around the tonic F with chromatic alterations of the tonic, i.e. F♯ and E. The final point of stability that marks the end of the piece is in m. 371, where the tonic chord (F, G, A♭, B♭) is sustained in the strings. Contrary to expectations in tonal music, instead of finishing the piece in measure 378 with the tonic as arrival chord, a new ambiguous chord is given, namely (E, G, A) in the strings. We could say that it is a transposition a semitone below. The ambiguity is due to the fact that the note which we need for feeling that it is a simple transposition, an F♯, is as much implied in the flute as is the F in both the flute and the clarinet. Is this last ambiguous chord perhaps the mentioned infrazione, i.e. an infringement both of the “rules” of the piece as well as of the tradition of tonal thinking?