Piano Quartet in A minor

February 12, 2023 – Gloria Chien, piano, Alexi Kenney, violin, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola, Mihai Marica, cello

Schumann’s famous words about Brahms, that he had sprung “fully armed like Minerva from the head of Jove” might just as well have been uttered about Mahler, whose surviving compositions show that he apparently achieved mastery “not step by step, but at once.” Yet we now know that Brahms destroyed dozens of student works that might have offered a glimpse into his development. In Mahler’s case it seemed no such glimpse was possible until 1964, when Peter Serkin and the Galimir Quartet played what may have been the first public performance of a youthful piano quartet movement by Mahler (New York, January 12).

The only surviving authenticated composition from a list of possible student compositions by Mahler, the Piano Quartet in A minor (first movement and thirty-two measures of a scherzo) was found in a folder labeled “early compositions” in Alma Mahler’s hand. The date 1876, inscribed on the title page may or may not be authentic. Beginning in the academic year 1875–76, Mahler spent three years as a student at the Vienna Conservatory, studying harmony with Robert Fuchs and composition with Franz Krenn—both conservatives in their musical orientation. Other sources of influence may have been Brahms’s Piano Quartets—Julius Epstein, Mahler’s piano teacher at the Conservatory, had helped introduce Brahms and his Quartets to the Viennese public in 1862.

Mahler’s Quartet movement in A minor shows thorough knowledge of sonata form. Such knowledge is intriguing to find in light of Mahler’s more complex and less orthodox sonata-forms in later works. Of the three main themes in the exposition, the second is somewhat unusual in appearing in the home key, only moving away somewhat later, and the third, which has a closing character, exhibits harmonic instability. A tendency in Mahler’s later works to “slip” into other keys quickly rather than modulate painstakingly is already apparent in this movement. A “textbook” development section is followed by the recapitulation, which varies its presentation of exposition materials by incorporating passages from the development and reversing the order in which the second and third themes return. But perhaps the most unusual feature of the movement is the introduction of a violin cadenza just before the tranquil close.

Composers throughout history have treated their student or early works with varying degrees of disdain, but would the discovery of more such works truly alter our opinion of a master’s greatness? We can at least be grateful for one glimpse into a formative stage in Mahler’s development as a composer.

© Michael Parloff

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