Brahms, Piano Trio in A Major, Op. Post

Johannes Brahms, 1833-1897

Piano Trio in A major, Op. Post
Attributed to Brahms, composed around 1853-1856 (?), published in 1938.

Johannes BrahmsReeling within the rich welter of contemporary music, one occasionally thinks with wistful nostalgia: why doesn’t anyone write more music like Bach, Beethoven or Brahms? This question provokes another: might there more music of these composers or their contemporaries yet to discover, learn and love? Here, the thought of Brahms is especially poignant since it is thought that he carefully destroyed over half of his chamber music compositions, the unpublished music swept away on the cutting room floor. If only we could gain a sense of these lost works!

In 1924, German musicologist Ernst Bücken received a number of manuscripts from the estate of Dr. Erich Preiger of Bonn including an unsigned piano trio in A major, its cover missing along with the composer’s name. Brücken strongly argued that this copy from the 1860’s, was in fact an unpublished work by Brahms, a lost, early trio most likely dating from 1853-1856, possibly a companion to the first published trio in B major. Around this time, Brahms mentioned in a letter to Schumann that he had written several trios. Could this be one of those that escaped his otherwise methodical destruction of unpublished compositions? Opinion is divided, but some have accepted its authenticity and it has been included on several recordings of the Brahms piano trios.

Whoever wrote this trio in A major produced a masterful work very much in the style of Brahms and generally in the manner of the great romantic trios of the 19th century with passing evocations of Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann and even a prescient hint of Dvořák. All four movements are broad and substantial, full of lyrical inspiration, skillful part-writing, taut development, thematic variation and sophisticated rhythms. Wonderful music throughout.

The sweeping first movement sonata features a simple, noble theme in long, elegant phrases articulated by rich harmonic changes. A second idea strides and bristles like Schumann, punctuating recurrences of the main theme like the extended rondo-like expositions of Schubert. The compelling developments eventually imbue the primary theme with a touch of “Gypsy” or Hungarian exoticism, another Brahmsian trait that surfaces again in the scherzo and the finale. The second movement is a dark, muscular scherzo with fast triple pulses grounded by a strong underlying downbeat, a dashing march that is both swift and resolute. A soft trio nestles in between, tuneful, heartfelt and slightly melancholy. One feels that is “unmistakably” Brahms.

The slow movement begins like a late Brahms intermezzo, spacious, reflective and exquisitely lyrical. A darker, slow march with dotted rhythms and a dramatic trill establishes a potent contrast and a long narrative full of song, pathos and changing color suggests a lost trio from Schubert. The finale is possibly the most fascinating of the four movements in that it seems uncannily familiar while evoking several composers with each passing bar. Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Dvořák seem to meld minds in a hearty peasant dance with a strong chromatic stride waxing into a Hungarian Rhapsody. Another movement in sonata form, its development launches into a little fugue complete with countersubject and the conclusion treats the main materials to some skillful thematic variation, eventually a central hallmark of Brahms’ mature genius.

It difficult to pin point the details, but, repeated listening occasionally suggests that this trio might not be by Brahms, or, at least the Brahms we know. But a broader consideration of the possible context easily accommodates this feeling that something is not quite “right” here. If Brahms composed this trio around 1853, it would have been a very early work dating from just before his first published trio in B major, a somewhat “lost” work itself in that the now famous version dates from 1891 when the mature Brahms extensively revised it. If Brahms did compose the A major trio, he certainly didn’t edit or publish it: he wasn’t finished. Finally, this would simply be “new” Brahms for us. Compared with his well-known chestnuts, this is a stranger with some unfamiliar features, a slightly different character, and a handful of idiosyncrasies. If Brahms didn’t compose this wonderful trio, we are left with a rich, accomplished and substantial chamber work by a completely unknown composer who clearly wielded sophisticated musical powers, a contemporary of the young Brahms. The thought of such a lost composer is possibly more bewitching than a lost early work from one we know so well.