What is…Intermezzo?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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An intermezzo is a short orchestral piece, often heard in between acts of an opera.

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The Italian word intermezzo means ‘in the middle’, as does the term intermedio that pre-dated it. The first recorded intermedi occur in Italian court theatres in the 15th century, where they served the eminently practical function of smoothing over scene changes, or even simply helping the audience distinguish one act from the next.

An early intermedio could be just music – offstage for added effect – but soon dance and stage drama (on convenient allegorical themes) were added to the mix. As often happens, though, for many spectators this kind of ‘filling in’ soon began to upstage the main event.

The six intermedi staged in Florence for the wedding of banking mogul Cosimo de’ Medici in 1539, at a cost far exceeding the grossest modern bonus, were spectacular. By the end of the century, the play itself was little more than a pretext for these super-opulent ‘middle’ pieces.

With the rise of opera seria in the 18th century, the intermedio transformed itself deftly into the intermezzo. Performed between the acts of an opera or play, it was effectively a self-standing theatre piece: comedic, topical and realistic where the main evening’s entertainment was serious, classically remote and highly artificial.

Once again, the stuffing was soon eclipsing the meat in popularity, so that by 1733 we have in Pergolesi’s La serva padrona the phenomenon of an independent intermezzo, ‘in the middle’ of nothing. Opera buffa, with its politically subversive rude health, was now waiting impatiently in the wings.

And then the Romantics got hold of the term. For artists who venerated ruins and fragments and cherished their haunted atmosphere, the idea of a piece of music in the middle of – well, what exactly? – was potent, hence the Intermezzos of Schumann and Brahms.

Like Mendelssohn (for example, in his magnificent A minor String Quartet), Brahms also found the term useful as a way of signifying that a fast inner movement was emphatically not trying to be a Beethoven scherzo.

But by the end of the 19th century, the word intermezzo had shifted back to something like its original meaning: a kind of interlude indicating a change of scene or time, as in Mascagni’s famous Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana.

The scarcely less famous ‘Walk to the Paradise Garden’ from Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet is also headed ‘Intermezzo’, ‘in the middle’ of an opera hardly anyone knows – a clear case of the stuffing triumphant.

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This article was first published in the August 2014 issue of BBC Music Magazine