January 13, 2012

Previously unknown composition by Brahms found in old book


Johannes Brahms in 1853

Okay, all of you who have made fun of people who keep visitor’s books, now’s the time to rethink your attitude: The conductor Christopher Hogwood, while flipping through an 1853 visitor’s book filled with the signatures of musicians, found a composition by Johannes Brahms that no one had ever seen before.

Nor heard, either, but that’s about to change: According to a report from The Independent, the BBC immediately commissioned famed pianist Andras Schiff to play it for the first time. Roger Wright, from the BBC’s classical music station, called it a “fascinating discovery” that “sheds light on his work in a new way” because few of Brahms’ early manuscripts exist.

The piece, called “Albumblatt,” or “album page,” “was written in Brahms’ breakout year, 1853, when he was just 20,” notes the Independent report.

A Guardian report meanwhile notes that Hogwood made the discovery at Princeton University:

Hogwood found the music in a book that belonged to the director of music in the German university town of Göttingen. “He saw signatures of the famous musicians who had come to dinner with him, including Liszt and Schumann – and was astonished to find this complete little work by Brahms, written when he was 20,” said Tom Service, presenter of Music Matters and a Guardian classical music writer. “It was really thrilling to hear it in the studio – it felt like we were discovering something.”

… The piece is especially significant as the tune reappears, in a different key, in the second movement of Brahms’s horn trio, written 12 years later. Service said that although Brahms was assiduous at destroying all his unfinished pieces, “because he’d left this at somebody’s house he couldn’t”.

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.