How Mahler turned up the bass

While Gustav Mahler was composing his Third Symphony, the longest work in the mainstream symphonic repertoire, he was also working on an arrangement for string orchestra of Schubert's Second Quartet, Death and the Maiden. In 1894 Mahler gave a performance of his re-orchestration of the second movement of the Quartet in Hamburg where he was chief conductor at the Stadttheater. But he did not complete the arrangement and it was only published in 1984 after the manuscript was discovered by the composer's daughter Anna. The performing edition is the work of Mahler authorities Donald Mitchell and David Matthews who produced it from the composer's annotated score.

What motivated Mahler to arrange a string quartet while composing his Third Symphony and leading a major opera company? Was the Death and the Maiden project simply the composer's way of destressing or was there another motivation? As classical music struggles to reach new audiences, is there something we can learn from the now neglected practice of re-orchestrating masterpieces to increase their sonic impact?

Mahler put the arrangement aside following criticism from purists after the 1894 performance; is it still a target for the music thought police? The performing version of Mahler's incomplete arrangement was realised by two expert editors; does this reduce its authenticity?

It is apocryphally reported that Mahler said "Schubert's skill fell far short of his sensibility and invention"; was he hoping to "improve" the Quartet by arranging it? Conversely, Schubert is considered to be one of the foundations of Mahler's music; does Mahler's fascination with the Death and the Maiden tell us anything about Schubert's influence on the composer's symphonic output?

Those are just some of the questions I will be discussing with Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud at the Britten Sinfonia pre-concert talk in Norwich on Sunday October 2. Henning is soloist and director in a typically bracing Britten Sinfonia programme that includes the Duets for Two Violins by a composer who famously re-purposed Mahler, Luciano Berio, a first performance from the young British composer Piers Tattersall, and a Mozart Violin Concerto.

You can catch the Britten Sinfonia with the same programme in Cambridge on October 5 and the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London on October 7 . Hosting the QEH pre-concert talk is
Fiona Talkington. Fiona presents BBC Radio 3's "these moments are rare in radio" Late Junction programme and her Norwegian credentials include curating the prestigious Punkt Festival at Kristiansand. Her talk will be available as a Britten Sinfonia podcast and the London concert is being broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, which means readers around the world can hear for themselves how Mahler turned up the bass.

* There are a number of recordings of Mahler arrangement of Death and the Maiden in the catalogue. These include a hybrid SACD rom the Kiev Chamber Orchestra which receives a very favourable review here.

Cartoon of Mahler as Schubert is by the Viennese caricaturist Theo Zasche. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Pliable said…
Synchronicity -
Ben Kulp said…
I am looking to purchase the sheet music but can only find the study score. Does anyone know where it is available for purchase or rental?

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