Mahler Meets Schnittke: The Unfinished Piano Quartet in A Minor

Gustav Mahler was fifteen or sixteen years old and a student at the Vienna Conservatory when, in 1876, he composed the Piano Quartet in A minor. The work exists as a single movement, cast in sonata form and marked Nicht zu schnell (not too fast). Conceived as the opening movement of a larger abandoned project, it is followed by a thirty-two measure fragment of an unfinished scherzo.

This is the only surviving authenticated student work of Mahler. At the time, he studied harmony with Robert Fuchs and composition with Franz Krenn, both of whom were stylistic traditionalists in the manner of Brahms. Upon leaving the Conservatory in 1878, Mahler was given a diploma, but was denied the prestigious silver medal awarded for outstanding achievement.

First performed privately on July 10, 1876 with Mahler at the piano, the Quartet fell into obscurity until it was rediscovered in the 1960s by the composer’s widow, Alma Mahler. Eighty-six years after its composition, a performance of the work was broadcast over New York City’s WBAI radio station. Pianist Peter Serkin and the Galimir Quartet presented the official premiere at New York’s Philharmonic Hall on February 12, 1964.

As a mature composer, Mahler conceived music of a cosmic scale which embraced orchestral forces, as well as the human voice. Perhaps there are subtle intimations of this music to come in the A minor Piano Quartet movement. It begins with the pitches A and C, repeated in the piano’s floating triplets. For a moment, the music drifts in harmonic ambiguity, and flirts with a possible resolution in F major, before confirming an ominous A minor. A searching, melancholy conversation, initiated by the piano and soon joined by the violin, viola, and cello, takes shape. There are echoes of the music of Schumann and Brahms. The final moments fade into dreamy lament, with the exception of a sudden, dissonant outburst in the violin, which takes the form of a wild cadenza.

In 1988, the Russian composer, Alfred Schnittke, used Mahler’s scherzo sketches as the basis for a new companion piece. In Schnittke’s words, the enticing fragment inspired him to “to recall something which had never been accomplished.” Mahler’s original fragment is repeated seventeen times in various guises. Each time, its further development is cut off amid anguished, apocalyptic shrieks and swirling late twentieth century lines. In the final moments, we are left with Mahler’s original, enduring fragment. Following this final statement, the piece fades into ghostly murmurs. The same fragment is quoted in the second movement of Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No. 4, completed the same year. Schnittke described the exercise as “At first the attempt to remember, and then remembrance itself.”

We hear Mahler’s Piano Quartet movement, followed by Schnittke’s Piano Quartet (after Mahler) in this performance from the 2010 International Chamber Music Festival Utrecht in the Netherlands. The performance features Inon Barnatan (piano), Boris Brovtsyn (violin), Amihai Grosz (viola), and Boris Andrianov (cello):


  • Mahler: Piano Quartet in A minor/Schnittke: Piano Quartet (after Mahler), Avery Ensemble Amazon

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

1 thought on “Mahler Meets Schnittke: The Unfinished Piano Quartet in A Minor”

  1. This is just gorgeous… it’s really a shame Mahler didn’t write chamber music – other than the many songs he wrote, this piano quartet seems to be his only chamber work. I guess he can be forgiven since his symphonies are so magnificent and eternal.


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