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Gustav Mahler: Piano Quartet

(Arranger: Marlijn Helder)

  • for orchestra
  • 4 3 4 3 - 4 3 3 1 - timp, perc, hp, cel, str
  • Duration: 14’
  • Instrumentation details:
    1st flute
    2nd flute
    3rd flute
    4th flute (+picc)
    1st oboe
    2nd oboe
    3rd oboe (+c.a)
    1st clarinet in A
    2nd clarinet in A
    3rd clarinet in A
    4th clarinet in A (+bass cl(Bb))
    1st bassoon
    2nd bassoon
    1st horn in F
    2nd horn in F
    3rd horn in F
    4th horn in F
    1st trumpet in C
    2nd trumpet in C
    3rd trumpet in C
    1st trombone
    2nd trombone
    3rd trombone
    violin I
    violin II
    double bass
  • Composer: Gustav Mahler
  • Arranger: Marlijn Helder
  • Commission: Commissioned by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra

Work introduction

When I first began to study the Piano Quartet by Mahler as a young pianist, I became intrigued by the many contrasts in it presented. The multiple doublings and repeats of the thematic material as well as the often incomplete harmonic chord settings, provide it with a sense of infinity, an almost lingering development. At the same time, the music evolves while the repeats suggest not a confirmation of what has been but to what will come.

To performers the quartet at first glance seems self-explanatory. But when you study the music extensively, it keeps raising questions on its musical direction and its dynamic and harmonic development. These questions create a challenge which captivates the musician with each performance.

By simply rearranging the voices, adjusting the tempo slightly or changing the dynamic course of the theme, Mahler creates an endless range of shades that are always related to the original theme in the piano in the first few bars. 

A contradiction that still astonishes me as a pianist as well as a composer relates to the dramatic development of this piece. The larger the dynamic and harmonic range and the more extensive the accompanimental elements become, the simpler the dramatic course and outline seem to be. On the other hand, during the relatively unaffected and sober sections with small dynamic differences and a slow harmonic progression, the dramatic weight appears to be more intense and of a greater significance within the complete piece.

As a composer I was able to identify with and recognise myself in most of this quartet. Nonetheless, the meaning or sense of many segments of the quartet is still a mystery to me: Where is Mahler heading? What is the question, and maybe even more important: is there an answer? The mystery was never solved. It is in my opinion the force that is always present in Mahler’s music.

To be given the opportunity to orchestrate a piece that I have been intrigued by and has been an inspiration to me as a composer as well as a pianist for over a decade, feels like a true gift.

When I performed the Quartet, I often decided to combine the finished first movement by Mahler with the Schnittke version on the original sketch of the second movement. The short sketch Mahler made for the intended second movement is incredibly beautiful and delicate in structure and I wanted to perform it as much as possible.

When I started to work on the orchestration, I decided to first search for ways to incorporate it into the orchestration of the one movement Klaviersatz in such a way that the two movements become one. Already when I was performing the piece as a pianist, I tried to integrate the sketch within the first movement since I felt it was directly linked to it. At the same time the first movement by itself is a piece on its own. In my feeling this movement ends with a large question mark, but the question it leaves you with does not require an answer.

Orchestrating the Klavierquartett finally offered me the opportunity to explore if my thoughts were sensible. Where to insert it became clear instantly: directly at the beginning of the recapitulation where it literally evolves out of the triplets of the first movement and in the end it overlaps with the continuation of the first movement, like a hint towards the answer the music is searching for. 

This way the circle in my feeling is closed.

Marlijn Helder

Sample pages

World première

De Doelen, Rotterdam (NL)
Rotterdams Philharmonisch Orkest
James Gaffigan

Press reviews

“... an ingenious new orchestral version of Mahler's early Piano Quartet. The orchestra, conducted by the American James Gaffigan, brought out the subtle inner voices brilliantly.” (Volkskrant)

“It is a skillful symphonic piece from a young and evidently talented and inspired composer.” (Gustav Mahler Foundation Holland)


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