Long Winter Intermezzo

There is a Laura Ingalls Wilder book called The Long Winter. This was probably my favorite of the Little House series, which my grandmother sent in a boxed sent, each book with the same distinctly pale yellow cover. I think many girls who grew up in the 80s and 90s probably had this set, also sent by their grandmothers. Anyway, I liked these books okay (I preferred The Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins), but The Long Winter got a few rereads not because of its depiction of, well, a long winter, in which the Ingalls family struggles to maintain enough food and warmth for months, but for a chapter near the end: it is May, there is a thaw at last, and a barrel that was sent from family out east intended for Christmas finally arrives. In it are food, clothes, and gifts—what I remember best out of these is colorful silk thread, which Laura can’t use yet because it will get caught in the rough skin of her chapped hands—and the Ingalls family can finally have a Christmas celebration five months late. I liked this scene because Laura Ingalls Wilder did a good job of making it seem like all of the cold, hunger, and isolation was worth this moment—the description of the barrel’s contents was so vivid that I wanted to receive it myself, even though its treasures would likely have been underwhelming to a kid of the 90s with a room full of trolls, Jelly Bellies, and Pleasant Company paraphernalia.

We did not have a long winter in southwestern Virginia this year.  Oddly, there is snow in the forecast for tomorrow (March 12th), which, if it happens, will be the only snow of the year. Other than that, we’ve barely had winter at all save one nasty cold snap that came with no precipitation, but winds high enough to knock out our power for several days at Christmas. So other than the weird Christmas, our winter had few parallels with the one in the book. And yet, the phrase “long winter” keeps entering my thoughts. Because even though spring arrived early in our neck of the woods—the crocuses have come and gone, the daffodils are already fading, and tomorrow the snowflakes will fall on trees in full bloom—I still feel a bit like I’m waiting for a great thaw and the arrival of my Christmas barrel. It is a winter of the mind more than anything else—a longing for inspiration, for opportunities, for goals achieved—a longing for the delivery of a barrel of possibilities, as it were.

A lot of this feeling is coming from a deficit of new ideas—my brain feels mushy and blank. Last spring, I started writing a novel (my “debut,” I have learned to call it, one never refers to “firsts” in the literature industry), and last fall I completed the first draft. Since then I’ve been editing it and trying to figure out how to enter the publishing world, the former with modest success and the latter with pretty much none (I guess I did learn the thing about the debut). In the meantime, I have not written much of anything new. Meanwhile, my “day job” (musician, long-term adjunct extraordinaire, piano accompanist) has been in a holding pattern, too—it’s fine, but ever lacking in upward mobility, which further contributes to this wintery feeling of hunkering down into a holding pattern, of hoping that surrounding time will not whiz by me but instead push me forward into something new and inspiring.

Speaking of inspiration, I have lately been practicing Johannes Brahms’ Intermezzo in A major Opus 118 No. 2 (here it is, played by Rubinstein, not me) in the hopes of inserting it somewhere into an instrumental recital in a couple of weeks. Will I have the motivation to get it ready? I don’t know—the piece lends itself to a sort of suspended goallessness—not really all that technically difficult, but with tricky harmonies and voicings that seem to transform disarmingly into something different every time I play it.

An intermezzo was originally an instrumental number played between acts of a theatrical production—something whose purpose was to fill the in-between. But Brahms’ piano intermezzi are independent pieces, not theatrical interludes, and it is left vague as to exactly what space they are designed to fill. I love that about nineteenth century music— abstract ideas were so highly valued that you could title something—or several somethings—“in the middle” with absolutely no contextual basis and everyone just sort of…accepted it. If Brahms says it’s an intermezzo, well, that it must be.  And there is a sense of in-betweenness to this music—it evokes nostalgia and longing, but also a feeling of resignation to being suspended, to being lost in time.

Brahms wrote this intermezzo, like much of his piano music, for the concert pianist Clara Schumann, with whom he shared a perpetually in-between sort of relationship. They were very good friends, and close colleagues, and maybe lovers. Or at least, almost-lovers. It seems they lived in a constant state of will they/won’t they until Clara’s husband (the composer Robert Schumann, who loved and was loved by them both) died after spending years confined to a mental hospital. Then they went on vacation to Switzerland and ultimately—didn’t. We think. Regardless, whatever happened was disappointingly anticlimactic. Theirs was a frustratingly undefined relationship and a romance that was ultimately unfulfilling in the twenty-first century sense—little or zero sex, no public proclamations of affection, no marriage. And yet in many ways they existed for each other. Clara was a constant mentor and muse, helping to launch Brahms’ career. He was her lifelong supporter—even managing her household and children so that she could maintain her performing career while Robert was ill. The fact that Brahms’ intermezzi, and this one in particular, are so effective and among his most popular piano works makes sense. He was a master of the genre because he lived in the undefined space that defined it.

Another thing I love about nineteenth century music is that, since established harmonic rules were starting to break down, harmonies don’t always hustle from one to the next—sometimes they just exist in themselves, not really knowing where they’re going until they somehow end up there. Which I guess is what I’m doing now. Existing suspended in time with a novel I may never publish, a career that may never be anything but more of the same, and a snowed-in mind just waiting for that spring barrel to arrive with all its treasures. And did I mention I’m turning forty this year? Crap, what a midlife joke—a person who lives for goals achieved stuck in a wintery intermezzo of uncertain length that may not be the midpoint of anything at all.

The obvious response to my predicament is to realize what Brahms surely knew—the intermezzo is not to fill space; it is the space. What comes before or after matters little, what matters is that it is. I recognize that finding myself in a place where I have a bit of time to dabble in novel-writing, unpaid piano playing, and making far-fetched correlations between Johannes Brahms and Laura Ingalls Wilder is not a bad place to be, even if these things seem to come to nothing in the end.

Even so, the ending to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s long winter still appeals to me. She knew that no kid was going to suffer through a book depicting a minor ice age without the promise of something really good at the end. So she delivered the spring thaw, and the Christmas barrel, rewards for the perseverance of the Ingalls family—and the reader—who kept the faith that winter would cede to spring and that and their hard work and discomfort would be rewarded. A more simplistic view than Brahms’ contextless intermezzi, and also more gratifying in its concrete and clearly messaged ending. Still, I guess Brahms is probably right. The best we can hope for is the existence of the intermezzo no matter where it might occur. So I play through the same one again and again, and maybe it will snow tomorrow, or maybe there will be sun instead, and maybe it is enough either way.

But I’ll be honest. Once the last cadence has died away, I can’t help thinking about that barrel arriving at last, holding within it springtime and Christmas all at once. It makes me smile, because even if I wasn’t all that crazy about the book as a whole, that was a damn good ending.  

5 thoughts on “Long Winter Intermezzo

  1. Beautiful writing Ashley. Which grandmother gave you “Little House”–just curious….I listened to the intermezzo for the first time. Very moving piece. Can’t wait to hear you play it.


  2. I never really read them. Too long a winter!

    Lovely, though. I agree; the intermezzi may prove to be enough, but the hope (promise?) of the barrel is not nothing.


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