An intermezzo is a musical composition that has no particular form and is defined more by how it is used or its intent. It is designed to fit between two other compositions, serving as an interlude. The term is most commonly associated with operas or plays, but can mean a purely instrumental piece, too. The plural form of the word is intermezzi.
Intermezzi got their true start in the Renaissance. During this time, intermezzi were dramatic pieces performed between acts of plays, especially at the Italian court. Made of solos, madrigals and even dances, these intermezzi were extremely elaborate, and people came to see them regardless of the main work performed. A Renaissance intermezzo usually followed mythological, allegorical or pastoral lines. This was common because composers wanted to contrast the surrounding work, which normally had a comedic theme.
During the 18th century, composers created highly sophisticated serious operas. Intermezzi thus switched moods, changing from serious to comedic to contrast the operas that enclosed them. This was significant because the lighter intermezzi paved the way for opera buffa, or comedic opera.
Starting around the 19th century, composers such as Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms began to see that an intermezzo could benefit instrumental performances, as well. Subsequently, they started to write intermezzi solely for instrumentalists. Instrumentalists and directors often chose an intermezzo to perform based on the orchestration of the larger work, because it made little sense to bring in an extra player or players only for the intermezzo. Modern directors are slightly more accommodating. It is not at all unusual for instrumentalists to come to and leave a performance venue based on when they play in the concert, especially when musicians are paid hourly, so players can be scheduled just for the intermezzi if desired.
Instrumental intermezzi sometimes were written as independent works, but some were designed as movements to larger instrumental pieces. When an instrumental intermezzo was part of a larger composition, it usually was quite melodic and lyrical. Instrumental intermezzi generally were character pieces, however. They embodied a particular feeling that, following the intermezzi tradition, contrasted the mood of whatever music surrounded it.
Contemporary composers are writing new intermezzi only rarely, largely because there is already so much intermezzi music available from which to choose. Composers often like to concentrate their efforts on larger, more substantial pieces. Additionally, the role of the intermission has changed somewhat — whereas before the expectation was for the intermission to continue the performance but merely break up the mood, the modern expectation is for audience members to read programs, stretch and completely leave the performance area to use the restroom, buy goods and concessions and socialize.