Donald PalmaDonald Palma, who coaches the NEC Chamber Orchestra, writes about a November 17 Mahler Unleashed concert in which his orchestra will perform, but Palma himself will not take the podium; where we will hear scores created by Mahler, but based on music written by other composers. These are "smaller masterpieces" that Mahler felt were neglected by the audiences of his later years, and that he wished to bring to a contemporary orchestral audience through his arrangements.

Video of a related conversation between Palma and NEC President Tony Woodcock appears here.

Mahler UnleashedMahler as Arranger

“I had particular fun recently at a Bach concert for which I wrote out a basso continuo for organ and conducted and improvised—just as they used to—from a spinet with a very big sound, which was specially prepared for me by Steinway. Quite surprising things came out for me (and for the listeners). This buried treasure was lit up as if by an arc-light. Its effect (and also the tone coloring) was more powerful than any modern work.”

Thus wrote Gustav Mahler in a letter to a friend dated Nov 19, 1909. Mahler was referring to the first performance of his arrangement of movements from Bach’s 2nd and 3rd Orchestral Suites, which had its premiere at Carnegie Hall on Nov 9, 1909.

Mahler so enjoyed this outing with his beloved Bach, who, according to his wife, Alma, was the only composer whose scores were allowed into the summer house where he composed, that he performed the Suite eighteen times during his tenure as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, including four performances at Carnegie Hall, two at the Court Square Theater in Springfield, Massachusetts, one at Woolsey Hall in New Haven, Connecticut, and one, on Feb 26, 1910, across the street from New England Conservatory at Symphony Hall, Boston.

Mahler’s new Suite begins with the Overture from BWV 1067, then proceeds to juxtapose the final Badinerie into the Rondeau of the same suite. He then adds the famous Air from BWV 1068, here without continuo, and concludes with the Gavotte from this 3rd Suite creating a grand finale with trumpets and timpani.

It seems that in America, Mahler was finally able to publically express his passion for the music of Bach. In his own words:

“It can hardly be expressed, what I learn more and more from Bach (admittedly as a child sitting at his feet), for my innate method of composing is Bach-like. If I only had time to immerse myself completely in his highest school! I will dedicate my later days to him, when I am my own man.”

In these days of mass communication, Schubert’s Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, D.810 is a well-recognized and highly regarded work. But in Mahler’s time, a period of grand, often bombastic symphonies and operas, the small masterpieces could easily be eclipsed by these mammoth works.

Mahler sought to present Schubert’s timeless work to wider audiences, and made careful notes in a score on how the music could be arranged for a full string orchestra and thus make its way into larger concert halls. The unfinished arrangement, marked with details on dynamics, articulation and instrumentation was discovered by his daughter Anna some seventy years after his death. Anna in turn gave the score to Mahler scholars David Matthews and Donald Mitchell, who prepared a performance edition from the annotated source, which was published in 1984.

The quartet itself, composed by Schubert in 1824, is an intense work with the theme of death at its center. The title “Death and the Maiden” comes from the inclusion of his song by the same name as the theme of the second movement. In the song, a girl begs to be let alone by Death, who soothes her with a promise of friendship and gentle sleep. Perhaps here we have Schubert, not in good health and increasingly aware of his own mortality, confronting death in all its guises.