It seems impossible that Gustav Mahler could write only symphonies and songs. Surely there were some intermediate steps. But whatever steps Mahler took, he left no prints — or almost none. A lone manuscript for a piano quartet was found at the New York home of Alma Mahler in the 1960s. All else has disappeared. There may have once been a kind of archive of other works in Dresden, but it all would have burned in the fire-bombing of 1945.
Mahler wrote his piano quartet at the Vienna Conservatory when he was about fifteen years old. It bears the marks of composers whose works he must have been studying as much as it contains hints of his own compositions to come. Schubert seems to figure prominently at the opening, and it seems vaguely likely that Mahler may have been looking at Schumann’s piano quartet — particularly the melodic contours of the third movement could have served as a starting point. Also some of the Bach-style writing seems like it might have been filtered through Schumann.. but who knows? It was a long time ago, perhaps 1876, when he wrote. Much has happened since then, not all of it explicable, he’s been dead for 108 years, and there are no records.
There is also, at the manuscript’s end, a tiny fragment of a scherzo movement.
This fragment becomes the starting point for Alfred Schnittke, who, to forge his own piano quartet, seems to have set it on fire. With distortions, reverberations, and curling-repeating motives, Mahler’s conservatory work is vaulted into the late 20th century, its ‘scherzo’ now a decidedly dark joke, if it’s a joke at all. Schnittke’s writing is a mix of decomposition, pastiche, and parody, and it treats Mahler’s fragment with a desperate bitterness — only to remember at its very end that Mahler’s work, however small and studious, once was a bit of something that it might turn, if all goes well, into symphony or song. Or not.