Mahler Quartet for Strings and Piano

SUNDAY, November 10, 2019

Gustav Mahler is controversial…

There are composers who are known all over the world, who have never been anything but famous, and perhaps the most famous is Beethoven. I supposed there is someone, somewhere, who just doesn’t like his music, but so far I have never met that person.

But there are also composers who are less well known by the general public, who somehow never capture the imagination of the general public, and Mahler is such a composer.

Mahler wrote music that was neglected for a long time. Supposedly he is now one of the most recorded and performed of all composers, but he is mainly known because of his nine symphonies, all of which are very long, and non-musicians find them difficult to listen to, if note boring, because of the length and the “heaviness” of the music.

Nazi Germany called his compositions “degenerate music”…

We all know about the Nazi concentrations camps, but what the Nazis did to try to censor literature, art and music was horrible in a very different way. Because of propaganda, the music of Wagner and other so-called “Aryan” composers was hyped to the moon, and anything created by anyone else was censored.

Mahler was Jewish, and Jewish music was banned in Germany from around 1930 until the end of WWII . This, by the way, included the music of Felix Mendelssohn, whose family converted to Christianity long before Felix was born. However, Mendelssohn’s music has always been popular, while even today Mahler is not popular with casual listeners.

More popular since WWII…

Part of the delay in popularity was due to German censorship, but this does not explain why the general public was so slow to warm to Mahler’s music before 1930, or even why there was not a huge movement to play his music during the war years. Most likely the problem with Mahler’s music is that there are no easily recognizable “tunes” that are easy to hum, and in addition his music is so incredibly long.

Piano Quartet, written at age 15…

This strange, short work, is totally unlike anything Mahler wrote later in life. Instead of being at least an hour long (his 3rd Sypmhony can take as long as 105 minutes), this early work is less than 12 minutes in length. Apparently he had in mind completing something with three or four movements, but he never got past the 1st movement. He was working on it as early as age 15, and it was performed for the first time when Mahler was very close to his 16th birthday, with him at the piano.

We don’t know whether or not it was finished then, in the final form we know today. But we do know that it was forgotten for decades. Mahler died in 1911,  but his wife, Alma Mahler  lived until 1964, outliving her husband by around 53 years.

Alma rediscovered the manuscript of this early Mahler work in the 1960s, and it was premiered in the United States on January 12, 1964, in New York City. Since Mahler was born in 1860 and composed this music in 1975, there was a gap of almost 90 years between when he first played it, as a teenager, and its rediscovery.

Another teenaged musical genius…

I think it is one of the best things Mahler every wrote, and the fact that he composed it at the age of 15 is almost beyond belief.

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