Saturday, June 30, 2018

Summermusic 2018: Early Dvořák and Even Earlier Mahler, to Begin

What: The First Concert: Piano Quartets by Dvořák, Mahler, and Fauré
The Second Concert: String Quintets by Mozart and Brahms
The Third Concert: the String Quintet by Taneyev and the String Sextet (Souvenir of Florence) by Tchaikovsky

When: The First Concert: Saturday, July 7th, at 8:00
The Second Concert: Sunday, July 22nd, at 4:00
The Third Concert: Wednesday, July 25th, at 7:30

Where: Market Square Presbyterian Church on Market Square, downtown Harrisburg.

Who: Stuart Malina, piano; Peter Sirotin & Leonid Ferents, violins; Blanka Bednarz & Michael Stepniak, violas; Cheung Chau & Fiona Thompson, cellos.

Three-Quarters of this concert's Quartet: Peter Sirotin, vln; Julius Wirth, vla; Stuart Malina, p; Marty Malina, page-turner; Fiona Thompson,vc. (From a 2013 "Stuart & Friends" concert.)

While it seemed like spring would never get here, finally it's summer, creeping in cat-like paws on a cloudy, damp morning – 6:06am, back on Thursday, the 21st, for those awake to notice – and here we are, heading into our first official heat wave of the summer.

Which means, in one sense, Summermusic 2018 is more than right around the corner. In fact, the first of the three concerts, earlier this year than normal, takes place on the weekend right after the 4th of July Holiday. (Remember, “dates on the calendar are closer than they appear!”)

This summer's series of three chamber music concerts – all taking place (indoors) at (the air-conditioned) Market Square Church – opens on Saturday, July 7th, at 8pm, with pianist Stuart Malina joining an ensemble of string players led by MSC Artistic Director Peter Sirotin, with violist Blanka Bednarz and cellist Fiona Thompson, for a program of no less than three piano quartets by three well-known composers: Antonin Dvořák, Gustav Mahler, and Gabriel Fauré.

Speaking of Dvořák, here is a performance recorded at Summermusic 2014 with one of Dvořák's most famous works, his Piano Quintet written in 1887 which, like the 2nd Piano Quartet he'd write a couple of years later, overshadows an earlier work for the same ensemble. (The performers at this concert were Peter Sirotin & Leonid Ferents, violin; Michael Stepniak, viola; Cheng-Hou Lee, cello; with Stuart Malina at the piano.)

While some eyebrows might levitate slightly seeing the name of Mahler on a program of chamber music, I'll point out it's not a transcription of his “Resurrection” Symphony. By the way, July 7th is also Mahler's 158th Birthday Anniversary, for those who might want to rush out and buy a card. (Ah, but will there be cake?)

This summer, they'll be playing the 1st Piano Quartet by Dvořák – in D Major, Op.23, written between May 24th and June 10th, 1875; the only (and incomplete) Piano Quartet by Mahler – in A Minor, first performed in 1876; and the 1st Piano Quartet by Fauré – in C Minor, Op.15, probably begun in 1876 but completed in 1879 then revised with a whole new finale in 1883.

(This post is about the first two quartets: you can read about the third one, the one by Fauré, in this post.)

You might notice that all three works were written, essentially, around the same time – or at least over a four-year span (not counting Fauré's second-thoughts). It would be difficult for most concert-goers these days to imagine such different-sounding works were all created out of the same short span of time. And each of them come from what might be blithely described as their composers' “Early Periods.”

However – and there's a lot of “however” when musicians talk about “Early, Middle and Late Periods” with most composers – “early” does not necessarily refer to their respective ages. In this sense, it implies a certain stage of their musical development.

All three composers were at very different times of their creative careers.

So, considering Peter Sirotin planned this program with this chronology in mind in order to demonstrate “how different this music is,” it might be interesting to listen to these three very different pieces – all from similar times in their composers' developing stages – differently than we might usually listen to music.

Ah, but that in itself is a loaded question: how do we listen to music? We can, and often do, just appreciate it for itself, a single work without any context, enjoying its own beauties for the sake of beauty and how we respond to it. But what other ways can we approach the music which might help us enjoy these works in different ways?

So, first, let me offer some of those ubiquitous You-Tube videos of these three pieces for you. Then, you can read the more detailed bits following them for some biographical, some technical and some historical context. Then when you go to the concert, you will have absorbed more about this music than you'd known before, familiarizing yourself not just with the “surface music,” where then you'll be free to listen to it any way you wish.

Or, of course, you can listen to the videos and skip the rest of it and enjoy it no less in your own way than others who will have prepared themselves a little more beforehand. (There is, incidentally, no quiz you have to pass before leaving the performance.)

Or, if you want to hear the Dvořák and the Mahler quartets especially as “new” – since they're probably new to you – you may want to skip all of this so you can hear them fresh for the first time (well, for your first time) on Saturday evening, July 7th.

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Dvořák in the 1870s
Dvořák's Piano Quartet No. 1 in D, Op.23 is not to be confused with the more famous, more mature Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat, Op.87 (written fourteen years later). Considering Dvořák's lack of exposure in the wider world at this point, and the general assumption he hadn't found his “voice” yet, there are a lot of Dvořák's musical fingerprints in this piece: the folk-like melodies with their harmonic turns-of-phrase and some of his modulations which are handled beyond the usual student's inexperience.

It's in three movements. Here's a recording with the Ames Piano Quartet with the complete score, movement by movement:

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1st Movement, Allegro moderato

A fairly straight-forward sonata-form movement may rely a little too heavily on “sequences and repetitions” to fill out the form but compared to what Dvořák had been composing a couple of years earlier, there's a good deal here that will sound familiar to those acquainted with his better-known works. Despite writing symphonies and operas before, there's still the sense of a student getting a hold of his basic elements and breaking through an “assignment” to discover his voice.

The “sound” of that first phrase is one such fingerprint: its rhythmic flexibility against the persistent, pulse-like accompaniment is heightened by the simplicity of its harmony which then cadences in the relative minor (D Major to B Minor) which Dvořák changes to B Major (at 0:17) for one of those “aaah” moments as the theme “repeats” – but here, that sounds totally fresh rather than academic. Brahms did something similar in his Op.18 String Sextet and got soundly trounced by the critics in 1860.

2nd Movement, Andantino

The slow movement is a set of five variations in B Minor (the same two sharps in the key signature but a different note for the tonic) that may seem the most promising movement of the three, at least in its melodic treatments. One of the harmonic highlights in the unexpected move (another one of those “aaah” moments) to E-flat Major in the 4th Variation (5:00-to-5:16).

3rd (and final) Movement, Allegretto scherzando

The third movement combines elements of a scherzo (the by-now traditional third movement in most four-movement plans) with aspects of a more emphatic finale – two movements in one. It starts off leisurely enough – in 3 – and though not essentially a “dumka” – originally a Ukrainian dance that, in Czech Bohemia, is characterized by its alternating slow and fast contrasts – has a nonchalance that speaks to Brahms' more laid-back intermezzos (certainly nothing like Beethoven's scherzos or, for that matter, Brahms' more dramatically driven ones).

Pardon the technical speak, but at 1:41, then, we're in the first contrasting episode which, on first hearing, might sound like the scherzo's traditional “trio” or middle section, except it's “in 4” and, marked agitato, sounds more emphatic, like a finale would be expected to sound (and sounding especially Brahmsian). At 3:51, we return to the bucolic mood of the opening theme (again, in a lilting 3), switching back to the faster tempo at 4:25 with its characteristic cross-rhythms (a sense of 2 but still, technically, in 3, something theory nerds call hemiola) finally (after a lot of stretching the harmonies) we hear the 2nd theme again (the allegro agitato in 4) at 6:24. A text-book “dominant pedal” (the bass note “A” stretched out over 15 measures, 6:54 to 7:16) sets up the final resolution to the tonic D Major with a sprightly version of the 2nd Theme in 6/8 – what they call a “coda” or “tail” wrapping things up for a happy ending; in this case, a wagging tail – complete with a Brahmsian “slow-down” and a peremptory final cadence in D Major – plunk, Plunk! (dominant to tonic). While this is a fairly standard procedure for “how to end things,” for those like me who tend to hear reverberations from younger composers' possible influences, this sounds like it's directly out of the final measures of Brahms great Violin Concerto, also in D Major – until you realize Dvořák wrote this in June of 1875 and Brahms hadn't even started his Violin Concerto yet: it wasn't premiered until New Year's Day, 1879! Hmmm...

Dvořák (far right) w/family & friends in New York, 1893
Again, every composer is different and each one is essentially unique in the experiences – both musical and personal – that go into creating the composer's voice. Because Dvořák was a “late-bloomer,” not yet famous at 33, does not make him any less a composer than someone who was composing fully mature masterpieces at the same age because there are a ton of composers – like many of Dvořák's contemporaries who may have thought, at this stage of his life, he had little future – who would've killed to write the New World Symphony or the Cello Concerto he'd compose 20-some years later.

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Gustav Mahler's Piano Quartet in A Minor

Mahler (1907) aged 47
Mahler, on the other hand, had only just decided to become a composer when he wrote this piano quartet – that's how “early” this is. Besides, it was premiered just a few days after his 16th Birthday. Sorry to disappoint anyone anticipating a long-lost companion to the great cycle of symphonies his fame rests on, but it might be difficult to imagine the Future Mahler in this piece. However, even mighty oaks come from unassuming, tiny acorns...

Mahler (1878) aged 18
So keep in mind this is a work written by a 15-year-old would-be composer, though he didn't officially change his major to composition until September of 1877 when he began studying with Franz Krenn, the Vienna Conservatory's chief composition teacher (generally considered a pedantic “backwards-looking” composer and teacher). So far, after leaving his hometown of Iglau (on the Czech-Moravian border of Bohemia) to study piano in Vienna, he'd composed a few songs and some other works – or at least, he started to compose them because friends of his noted (according to Henri de la Grange's epic biography of Mahler) he had yet to complete a single piece. Perhaps his thoughts about switching majors seemed to them a bit premature.

So, given that context, how do we evaluate a work like this, compared to the composer he would eventually become?

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Members of the Szymanowski String Quartet and pianist Vyacheslav Gryaznov, recorded in 2015:

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page 1 of Mahler's Piano Quartet
The opening is certainly dark – a pulse in the middle range of the piano (similar to the opening of the Dvořák but very different in effect), a slowly unfolding, almost dirge-like idea in the bass (call it a-1) that slowly unwinds. A new motive – call it a-2 (at 1:16) , part of this unfolding process, takes us into a higher register before its struggle to arrive at some point of resolution only to collapse into a dramatic, rhythmic idea (at 1:36) that begins to turn more positive: at 1:57, this second motive, a-2, reappears and turns itself into what we'd probably hear as the “contrasting second theme.” But rather than go anywhere dramatically, we end up repeating the opening section so far, just as we'd expect to do in a traditional sonata-form movement (it's called “the exposition” which presents the thematic material and establishes the tonal harmonic direction, setting up the “home tonic” and digressing to some contrasting key). So far, so good – except Mahler's themes are not really “themes” and are there really two of them? And does it matter? Depends on how you look at it: for a 15-year-old first-time student, is he supposed to be following a specific, academic pattern or was this part of a free-range assignment?

Repeating this exposition brings us to 4:38 where we hear a more dramatic, certainly more emphatic statement of the opening idea (a-1). By 5:37, both a-1 and a-2 start getting more insistent, pushed ahead (and getting pulled apart in the process) till we reach a climactic point (with a flurry of piano octaves) at 6:04 with an incisive new idea (but still based on a-1) that almost sounds like, “okay, that was a long introduction and now we're into the main part of the movement, the allegro.” Except the harmonic tension builds and pushes us along in the manner of the standard “development” section which should, eventually, reach some sort of climax – aha, it collapses at 7:39, having been reduced to just three notes battered back and forth until the “theme” is exhausted.

What we would expect is a “recapitulation” at this point, a resolution of the tension to its home tonic, but instead, he meditates on the two different motives of the theme (a variation of a-1 in the viola's upper register with a minor-key version of a-2 in the cello). By the time we get to 8:40, we now realize the last minute has really been an extension of the development's collapse – because now we're going to hear the opening theme, again, but this time as it was heard at the opening: the “recap” has begun.

Rather than unfolding as before, the second idea (a-2) sounds like it's now actually going to be turned into a completely independent second theme – ah, but no, it's still intertwined with a-1. At 10:32, we hear the dramatic passage from 1:36 in the exposition, followed by the passage dwelling on a-2. As before, the tension collapses (this time, following a violin cadenza in place of the piano's octaves) at 11:46. One last round, meditating on a-2, and we end up with a hushed cadence and some quiet pizzicato chords – “desolate” comes to mind – at 12:27.

p.16, showing blank spaces in piano part
Okay, it's not a text-book sonata form, if that was the assignment, but on the other hand it's a much more subtle and much more creative use of the standard form whether he's gotten the hang of the idea of tonal structure or not. But think about it: here's a first-semester student, writing probably his first “serious” piece and certainly his longest piece to date (even if he only did write the first movement), and he lets his material find its own way through the form, rather than stuffing it into a preconceived box. If that was his intent (or his teacher's intent), it was more than what Dvořák was doing in his first piano quartet a year earlier, where he stuck to the basic forms like a good student.

You learn the rules, then you learn how to break them – or why you break them. Is that what this 15-year-old novice is doing here? In which case, it's a pretty impressive result. We don't have his teacher's reaction to the piece: did he red-pencil this and that for not doing what Mozart would have done, or did he say “this is good, I like what you did, there”? (Somehow that doesn't sound like something Mahler's teacher, “Old Krenn,” would say...) Still, he won a prize for composition that year, so the response couldn't have been too negative.

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Which brings us to Gabriel Fauré's 1st Piano Quartet – but to keep this from becoming gargantuanly long, let's save that for the next installment.

Meanwhile, here's some biographical background on both Dvořák and Mahler at this point in their lives.

Despite a few pieces that have remained in the repertoire, the music we think of as Dvořák's maturity – those much-loved works regularly performed around the world – come from the years after this piano quartet. While it already sounds like no one other than Dvořák could've written this, it's clear his models, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and possibly Schubert are not far behind. The variations, certainly, seem to echo Schubert, particularly the slow movement of his E-Flat Trio (the work had been published in 1828, so it's possible Dvořák might have known it).

Neither, for that matter, is the sound of Johannes Brahms, still a young composer in his early-40s who, in 1875, was still working on his first symphony; however, his first two piano quartets, the original version of the Op. 8 Piano Trio, both string sextets and the famous Piano Quintet were all works Dvořák might well have known (or at least heard) after he moved to Prague in 1857 when he was 16.

When I first heard Dvořák's early piano quartet not long after a live performance of Brahms' 1st String Sextet (written in 1860), it wouldn't have surprised me if somehow that piece might've been in the younger composer's mind at the time, directly or indirectly.

While it may not seem entirely favorable to young Dvořák to be describing his work in terms of later masterworks or to point out his “borrowings” – how else does a student learn? – it is interesting, if not fascinating to other composers, to point out where those later masterworks came from. Curiously, Dvořák, when he was 22, played viola for an all-Wagner concert which Wagner himself conducted in Prague and so it's not surprising some of his earliest works – those early symphonies nobody plays anymore – and no doubt great stretches of his operas from those years sound very much like Wagner. But he admitted this style had limitations for him and so he sought inspiration elsewhere: and where else than the aesthetic antithesis of Wagner, Johannes Brahms, the “other” leading composer at the time?

Yes, when Dvořák composed his piano quartet, he was not yet famous but had, at least, just won the big “Austrian State Prize” – a significant validation for his sagging self-confidence – that introduced his music to his future mentor, Johannes Brahms. He was already 33 years old, rather a late-bloomer as far as professional recognition is concerned (keeping in mind, at that age, Mozart had some 626 works in his catalogue and would only have two more years to live; Schubert, with 965 works in his catalogue, would've been dead two years). He had already written four symphonies and a number of operas, but none of his music had been heard much beyond his home in Prague.

In 1874, at the time he submitted his newly premiered 3rd and 4th Symphonies among the 15 scores he submitted to the Austrian State Prize Jury, Dvořák was “an impoverished music teacher” who didn't even own a piano (before he had married the year before, he shared an apartment with five other men, one of whom owned a small “spinet” piano).

The prize was awarded in February. Between May 3rd & May 14th, he composed his famous (and very mature-sounding) Serenade in E for Strings, Op.22 – and then from May 24th to June 10th, composed his 1st Piano Quartet, Op.23.

In the mid-1870s, after the piano quartet was premiered, Brahms took Dvořák under his wing, professionally, suggesting his publisher look at the younger man's music, and in the process bringing about a set of “Slavonic Dances” – the Czech equivalent of Brahms' own (and very lucrative) “Hungarian Dances.” If Dvořák needed the suggestion – though it seems only, by this time, to be a reinforcement – the idea of finding his own voice in the folk music he grew up with rather than in imitating something like Wagner – especially Wagner! – which was nothing more than a hot-house graft that had failed to take. Ironic, since Brahms' “Hungarian” style was hardly natural to his own background, but which proved to be a hot-house graft that did.

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Basically, at the end of Mahler's first year as a conservatory student (and not yet a composition major), he performed this Piano Quartet he'd written at some point during the second semester on a recital on July 10th, 1876. And again – or at least this first movement of it – at a benefit concert for his grammar school back home in Iglau on September 12th, 1876, when he also played Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy and a Chopin ballade – so he must've been no slouch as a pianist: he'd won a performance prize for playing a Schubert piano sonata at the end of the academic year, as well. There was also a violin sonata of his own on the program which, unfortunately, has not survived at all.

Only the first movement of the piano quartet and the first 24 measures of its scherzo survive in the original manuscript, but the assumption is it was a four-movement work (or was intended to be). When we say this one movement is a “complete” piece, that means it's complete enough to stand on its own – after all, we can certainly perform and enjoy the first two movements of a certain Symphony in B Minor that Franz Schubert never finished, even though he had also begun a third movement scherzo when, for some reason, he put it aside – but that doesn't mean this is a “piano quartet complete in one movement.”

On the other hand, maybe Mahler wasn't able to finish the whole quartet in time for his end-of-term concert, so did they, in fact, perform only the first movement? There's no way of knowing (not that I would call it the “Quartet for the End of Term,” either...).

The curious thing is, listening to this piece, marked Nicht zu schnell (“Not too fast”), is it a traditional first movement for a multi-movement work in the mid-19th-Century Romantic tradition? This is not the opening “Sonata-Allegro” Movement of Beethoven and, by extension, Brahms that we've taken as “the norm” even though it is in “Sonata Form.” It feels like a moody slow movement, but then the mature Mahler was not often prone to traditional first movements, either. It's the classicist (like Mendelssohn or Brahms and to a large extent Schumann) who pays attention to the structural integrity of the form, the architecture of the piece; it's the romanticist who pays more attention to the content and that's more often an emotional response first (like Liszt and Wagner and to a certain extent, Schumann).

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One thing that came to mind when I first heard this piece is “how to deal with the Name-That-Tune Fixation so often applied to a young composer's earliest works: in this case, “where'd he steal that from?” In the case of the very opening, I'm thinking, “yeah, Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night,” originally for string sextet) until I remember, “oh yeah, that was written in 1899...”

The second part of those opening phrases (what becomes the most recognizable part of the “first theme,” the positive response to the opening's negative questioning, perhaps) reminds me of some throw-away phrase from – oh, geez, what is it?! My “drop-the-needle” abilities aren't what they used to be: I'm thinking something from Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel? Nope, that was 1893... Or was it in Smetana's Bartered Bride? Now, that's a possibility: it was premiered in Prague in 1866 but I'm not sure it is such a “theme” a young would-be composer would've latched on to to use in a work that has no connection whatever with being a folk-inspired work of the Czech national school (keeping in mind Dvořák had yet to write any of his most famous works). This is a piece of chamber music deeply imbued with German culture and if it doesn't sound to us like Brahms, the roots of Robert Schumann are not far below the surface.

Like any young composer, the student's job is to listen to as much music as you can – especially in the days before recordings and YouTube – and become a musical sponge, absorbing anything you liked and trying to figure out how you can do it your own way. Eventually, you discard what you don't like or like less or lose interest in, and build from there.

While we know what Mahler eventually became as a composer, remember that between 1876 when he wrote this piece, and when he started his first symphony, there were 11 years during which he wrote very little that also survived: several songs (short forms) and the hour-long cantata, Das klagende Lied (“Song of Lamentation”) which he wrote between 1878 and 1880, and which he spent the next two decades revising. Oh, there's a reference to a violin sonata that he and a friend performed that September in Iglau along with the piano quartet, but nothing of the sonata survives, which I suspect was probably written after the premiere of the quartet.There's also mention of a scherzo for piano quintet which he composed for his graduation exam, none of which survives. But then Brahms, who advocated that a composer's most essential tool was a wastebasket, certainly destroyed more than he ever let the world hear.

If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, this one movement of a piano quartet, then, is one giant leap (to mix the metaphors) for a boy of 15.

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Brahms (1876) aged 43
There was almost a Brahms Connection with Mahler and his Piano Quartet. We don't know much about Mahler's youth and while we know this work was first performed on July 10th (shortly after his 16th birthday) at the end of his first year at the Vienna Conservatory and again on September 12th as part of a “home-coming” recital during a summer break spent with his parents in Iglau. In between, as Mahler's friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner mentions in her notes, jotting down much of what she and Mahler discussed during their friendship between 1890 and 1901, there apparently was also a performance at the home of a close friend of Brahms', the surgeon and amateur musician Dr. Theodore Billroth, a member of Brahms' inner circle of friends and “musical advisers.” The question remains how that might have happened: had Billroth heard the performance at the Conservatory and invited the young composer to play it again at his home for some of his friends?

And would Brahms, then, who was finally completing his 1st Symphony that summer, been there to hear it?

The chances are unlikely: it would have happened before Brahms returned to Vienna after spending his summer holiday – finishing not only his 1st Symphony but also the 3rd Piano Quartet (both in C Minor – at a village on the shores of Lake Zürich. Did Billroth write to his friend about this piano quartet by a young conservatory student? It's curious to imagine what Brahms, still a youngish composer (and still without beard) at 43, would have made of young Mahler's earliest efforts. Brahms himself was very careful about destroying anything he'd written he didn't approve of, including a number of piano pieces and songs composed when he was in his teens.

In the Great Composers Debate of the late-19th Century, it's Brahms versus Wagner, or at least their fans. While we tend to think of Brahms as a leading composer of the Romantic Era, he was considered a conservative – an arch-conservative by many – and is, in hindsight, more of a “classicist” with an emphasis on structural craft and abstract forms than his romantic colleagues like Wagner and Liszt. While it's not so easy to be black-and-white about these things, basically one could say that Schumann and Mendelssohn were more “classical” than “romantic” but that Brahms was more “classical” than both of them; Wagner and Liszt were more extreme on the “romantic” side, especially Liszt who, in the 1880s, would begin writing piano pieces “without tonality” like this little waltz written just 10 years after Dvořák wrote his piano quartet.

(As a sidebar, Wagner's and Liszt's styles were credited with pushing Schoenberg into atonality – music without a tonal center – but Schoenberg himself credits Brahms' approach to motivic development as a leading idea behind his development of his “serial” style which is, by definition, “rigorously controlled atonality.” But that's another history course in itself...)

((Oh, and by the way, while Dvořák wrote his piano quartet in 1875 and Mahler wrote his in 1876, Arnold Schoenberg was born in Vienna in 1874 – five weeks before Charles Ives was born in Connecticut.))

So, where were we?... oh yeah, while Dvořák went through his Wagner Period in the 1860s before ending up in the Brahms Camp, Mahler, as a student moving to Vienna in 1875, was surrounded by Wagnerites. Wagner was not popular in Vienna (keep in mind, he had not yet completed The Ring) which was ruled by critics and followers of Brahms (who, as I've said, hadn't completed his 1st Symphony yet), though various orchestral excerpts from his operas were performed and were often successful though always controversial.

The composer Robert Fuchs (whose later music sounds like a pale imitation of Brahms to us, today) was the harmony teacher who dealt with Mahler and his friends at the conservatory – and he often introduced what his colleagues considered “contraband music” to his students: works by Wagner and Liszt, among others from what was called the “New German School,” music they would be unlikely to hear performed in Viennese concert halls.

(Keep in mind, the most popular music in Vienna at the time was Johann Strauss Jr.'s Die Fledermaus, premiered in 1874.)

One of Mahler's close friends was the composer Hugo Wolf, best remembered for his magnificent songs, and who, early in his career, was a frequent trouble-maker protesting the conservatory's old-fashioned Brahmsian attitudes which later grew into heated professional battles with Brahms himself.

Like many of his friends and fellow students, Mahler belonged to a Wagner Society and, because Wagner espoused vegetarianism in one of his essays (“Religion and Art”), Wolf and Mahler were both (at least for a time being) ardent vegetarians.

Another friend was the composer Hans Rott, just two years Mahler's senior – whose Symphony in E Major it is almost impossible to listen to, if you should hear it at all, without thinking “oh, he stole that from Mahler” only to realize it was composed 8 years before Mahler began work on his own 1st Symphony (if you have the 13 minutes, I strongly recommend listening to the scherzo).

Rott had a famous (in possibly misunderstood) run-in with Brahms about that symphony in the fall of 1880 and Brahms' supposed open hostility to the young composer apparently led not long afterward to Rott's being arrested while riding on a train. He threatened a passenger about to light up a cigar, warning him the train was loaded with dynamite, placed there by none other than Johannes Brahms in attempt to kill him. Rott spent the last four years of his life in an asylum (diagnosed with “persecution mania”) and died there at the age of 25, presumably of tuberculosis.

It's interesting to note, too, their teacher Robert Fuchs' own career was just beginning: his first works were published only in 1872 (he was 25) and he'd been appointed professor of harmony at the Vienna Conservatory in 1875, which was also Mahler's first year there as a student – so it's important to realize this particular teacher was not only not an established composer but also, essentially, a first-year faculty member!

Even more curious is to realize Fuchs was composing his own 1st Piano Quartet, Op. 15, in 1876 (it was published later that year), the same year Mahler wrote his. Unfortunately, I can't find a recording of it on-line but for anyone curious, here's a link to the score at the IMSLP On-Line Music Library!  Here is a slightly later work, his 1st Piano Trio in C Major, Op.22, written in 1879 and dedicated to Brahms.

More significantly, here is Fuch's Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Minor which won Vienna's important Beethoven Prize in 1881 when the Jury included... Johannes Brahms. Who was among the losers of the competition that year? A young man named Gustav Mahler with his hour-long cantata, Das klagende Lied. (This work was so extensively revised by the time Mahler premiered it in 1901, it's an entirely different piece than the original version.)

What was the outcome of that loss? Well, Mahler figured if a work like that wasn't going to gain him any recognition – even Franz Liszt returned the score without comment beyond not liking the "poem" – he'd better pursue a different career. So he decided to become a conductor, instead!

Yeah... but then, that's another chapter, completely.

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So what's the story on the score of Mahler's Piano Quartet?

The only part of it that survives, as I'd said, is the first movement and the first 24 measures of the second movement, a scherzo, before the manuscript breaks off. While Mahler never published it, and it seems it was never even performed again after that September concert back in his hometown, he did mention it in the 1890s to his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner –  he apparently began a piano quintet and performed the scherzo for his graduation composition exam, for which he was awarded first prize. It too has disappeared.

Which makes you wonder how this manuscript survived only to surface in the early-1960s. Mahler's widow, Alma, living in New York City at the time (already in her early-80s), was apparently going through some of Mahler's old papers in her possession and there it was! It was given its first modern performance, then, in January, 1964, in New York City with Peter Serkin at the piano and member of the Galimir Quartet less than a year before Alma's death.

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Stay tuned for the post about Gabriel Fauré's Piano Quartet that concludes the first concert of Summermusic 2018 on Saturday, July 7th, at 8pm at Market Square Church. (Did I mention it's air-conditioned?)

– Dick Strawser

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