Here’s a short excerpt of last week’s performance by the Rose City Chamber Orchestra of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet as arranged by Mahler and me. Without changing a single note of the work, Mahler’s version makes ingenious use of divisi and a very few doublings in order to make both the balances and virtuoso writing more manageable for an orchestral performance.
For those curious about where I’ve tampered with Mahler, there is one conspicuous change at the very beginning of the excerpt. Mahler omits the basses from the unison that you hear at the start. His thinking was both practical and harmonic. Practical in the sense that he didn’t feel an 1890’s bass section could cleanly execute a passage like that, but also harmonic, because he did use the double basses to reinforce the cellos at the end of the phrase when the music suddenly shifts from A to F major, one of those all-important Schubert third relationships.
Remember, however, that Mahler was orchestrating this for a performance with the entire Vienna Philharmonic string section, an enormous group. He omits the basses to allow a huge string orchestra to maintain more of the precision and transparency of a quartet. I use one double bassist here to make a very small string orchestra sound more like a large orchestra in a passage where I felt it was called for. These days, a modern double bassist can dispatch a passage like this cleanly enough that Mahler’s concern about technical precision is no longer an issue- kudos to Mike Murphy, the bassist on this performance.
In both his quartet arrangements (this one, and Beethoven’s Serioso Quartet, op 95), Mahler uses the basses with restraint bordering on trepidation. For a man who wasn’t afraid to ad E-flat clarinet to Beethoven 9, he certainly seems overly cautious about adding basses to a string quartet. His caution was not neccessarily ill-advised. Transcriptions like this one are now both common and popular, but in the 1890’s, this was unhead of, and there was an actual riot at Mahler’s one public performance of the arrangement