The intermezzo, in the 18th century, was a comic operatic interlude inserted between acts or scenes of an opera seria. These intermezzi could be substantial and complete works themselves, though they were shorter than the opera seria which enclosed them; typically they provided comic relief and dramatic contrast to the tone of the bigger opera around them, and often they used one or more of the stock characters from the opera or from the commedia dell'arte. Often they were of a burlesque nature, and characterized by slapstick comedy, disguises, dialect, and ribaldry. The most famous of all intermezzi from the period is Pergolesi's La serva padrona, which was an opera buffa that after the death of Pergolesi kicked off the Querelle des buffons.
In some cases the intermezzo repertory spread more quickly than did the opera seria itself; the singers were often renowned, the comic effects were popular, and intermezzi were relatively easy to produce and stage. In the 1730s the style spread around Europe, and some cities--for example Moscow--recorded visits and performances by troupes performing intermezzi years before any actual opera seria were done.
The intermezzo was the single most important outside operatic influence in Paris in the mid-18th century, and helped create an entire new repertory of opera in France (see opera comique).
In the 19th century the intermezzo acquired another meaning: an instrumental piece which was either a movement between two others in a larger work, or a character piece which could stand on its own. These intermezzi show a wide variation in the style and function: in Mendelssohn's incidental music to Midsummer Night's Dream the intermezzo serves as musical connecting material for action in Shakespeare's play; in chamber music by Mendelssohn and Brahms, the intermezzi are names for interior movements which would otherwise be called scherzi; and the piano intermezzi by Brahms, some of his last compositions, are sets of independent character pieces not intended to connect anything else together. Stylistically, intermezzi of the 19th century are usually lyrical and melodic, especially compared to the movements on either side, when they occur in larger works. The Brahms piano intermezzi in particular have an extremely wide emotional range, and are often considered to be some of the finest character pieces written in the 19th century.
Opera composers sometimes wrote instrumental intermezzi as connecting pieces between acts of operas. In this sense an intermezzo is similar to the entr'acte. The most famous of this type of intermezzo is probably the intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, by Pietro Mascagni. Puccini also wrote one in Manon Lescaut, and examples exist by Wolf-Ferrari, Delius and others.
Also incidental music for plays usually contained several intermezzi: Schubert's Rosamunde music as well as Grieg's Peer Gynt contained several intermezzi for the respective plays.
In the 20th century the term was used occasionally. Shostakovich named one movement of his dark String Quartet No. 15 "intermezzo"; Bartók used the term for the fourth movement (of five) of his Concerto for Orchestra.
- The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, ed. Don Randel. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1986. ISBN 0674615255
- Articles "Intermezzo," "Intermedio" in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980. ISBN 1561591742