Gustav Mahler ‘Piano Quartet in A Minor’: A Forgotten Gem

Dearest readers, I have a special treat for you today. I am writing this blog on my favourite composer – Mahler! Even though I am doing my Alphabet Challenge, I couldn’t help but write about this work for you all to listen to. Known as a master symphonist, this blog is taking a look at something a bit different, which is not often discussed. In his teens, Mahler composed many Quintets and Quartets, which were later destroyed. However, the first movement of one Piano Quartet has survived, and this shall be the basis of this exploratory blog.

At the young age of sixteen, Mahler was finishing off his first year at Vienna Conservatory. Studying under the great Robert Fuchs, Mahler began dabbling in composing some chamber music. Due to his hot head, Mahler tore up his very successful Piano Quintet after it had won two awards. After this, Mahler composed his Quartettsatz (Piano Quartet in A minor), which has parts of the first and second movement exist. It seems that due to Mahler’s later popularity within the symphonic genre, many of his smaller works were lost, and this particular quartet was not actually published until 1970 – 59 years after Mahler’s death in 1911.

Traditionally, the first movement is performed, which usually takes 11-14 minutes in duration. After the second movement was abandoned by Mahler, Alfred Schnittke took the liberty of completing it, however it is quite rare now to hear this second movement. Although this quartet was not published until the 1970s, this does not imply that it it was never performed. In fact, the first performance was on July 10th 1876, with Mahler playing the piano. Although written in his teens, this work is certainly not resonant of a young composer. In a true Mahlerian manner, this quartet emphasises seriousness and emotion in every phrase on the score. With the key of the work being centred around A minor, the foreboding darkness of the work can be heard – but it is still oh so wonderful!

What is clever about this quartet is how one small nugget of melody is taken, and then passed around the whole ensemble, but in a way that isn’t completely obvious. It all starts with the piano. A foreboding, quiet beginning with the piano playing triplet minor thirds for two bars, until the main ‘motif’, if you will, is heard. More specifically, the intervals are the main part of this motif, with the bass moving from A-F and then resolving to E. The strings soon enter, with the violin utilising this small kernel of music, and developing it further, making it into a beautiful lyrical statement. This melodic phrase is reiterated by all parts, with the violin and cello taking a particular active role in communicating with each other. Soon, this moves onto the piano, which further develops this lyrical section.

Soon enough, as perhaps expected from Mahler, a brash ascending scale is played, and the music regains that foreboding and perhaps even menacing aura around it. The small kernel of music is then taken and played in different ways with the use of extensions and rhythmic changes. Again, the music comes back down to a more lyrical and melancholy section, which is riddled with minor thirds and chromatic harmony. The nugget of music is compressed much more here, and this begins to build intensity once more, with another ascending sequence into the next section.

Throughout this work there is a feeling of the unknown, that the music is acting as a cloaked figure, who we never get to see properly. With the growth in intensity comes a change in the sound, and at times it is really amazing to think that this is only four players. The orchestral sound, which Mahler is celebrated for, comes out in abundance in parts of this work. The piano plays an important role in this work, with it utilising the dramatic intensity and foreboding lower harmonies. Although only 11-14 minutes, this quartet oozes emotion, and is quite unrelenting at times, with uneven phrases, complex dissonances and changes in atmosphere.

After this rougher section, the piano comes to the forefront, playing what sounds like a very sad motif, which is perhaps the aftermath of what has just taken place. The beginning of the work is reiterated, with the piano sounding the first motif. This time, although still in a minor key, feels sadder, and feels as though there has been some sort of loss. After another ascending sequence, the work is drawn to a close by the violin and piano, who delicately state the theme one last time before slowly dying away – the final struggle is now over.

Reflecting some stylistic features of Brahms and Schumann, Mahler was able to create a daringly beautiful quartet, which is sadly unfinished. Being able to now reflect on the development of Mahler’s style is incredibly interesting, and, in a way, it is a shame that he didn’t complete this work, nor did he really write any more chamber works. This is now the only surviving piece of chamber music by Mahler that is without a vocal part – so it really is something special!

Happy reading!

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