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CLASSICAL  August 2008

CLASSICAL August 2008

Subject:

LaGrange's Volume 4

From:

Roger Hecht <[log in to unmask]>

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Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 18:47:26 -0700

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http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/the_tls/article4429303.ece

From The Times Literary Supplement
July 30, 2008
Mahler triumphant
A great composer nears the end of a great biographical voyage
Hugh Wood

The long voyage is nearly over, and the great
ship is at last approaching land. But we are not
quite yet in harbour; for Henry-Louis de La
Grange's revision of Gustav Mahler: Volume One
still awaits translation into English. Then the
labours of a dedicated lifetime may be at an end.
Meanwhile, we have here, at over 1,750 pages, the
longest of the four volumes, and in every way the
climactic one. So much in it is new, or newly
re-explored, or freshly and radically
re-interpreted. The portrait that emerges is
surprising because it is so straightforward: that
of a great conductor at the height of his powers
and a great composer striking out boldly into new
territory. What has previously been obscured and
diminished by mythmaking, melodrama and malice is
now at last given its full stature. That this new
depiction is the underlying intention of the
author is made quite clear from the first page:
to realize how well he has succeeded, it is
necessary to read the whole book. But this is not
just a biography: it is more of a Mahler-Lexicon,
almost a history of the age. De La Grange has
found himself irresistibly drawn down every
avenue that offers itself, and his interests are
wide. By the time one has read through all
thirty-three of the Appendices, and has
discovered in the last one the recipe for
Mahler's favourite dessert (Marillonknodel - and
it sounds delicious), one feels not only triumphant but replete.

This is first and foremost a chronicle of the
American years, giving them their proper
importance. The departure from Vienna with which
Volume Three ended was not perhaps the calamitous
watershed it has been made out to be (and seemed
to be at the time). To a large extent the
divided, seasonal nature of Mahler's life simply
continued. He became a commuter not between
Maiernigg and Vienna, but across the Atlantic,
between Toblach, in the Tyrol, and New York. Just
as he had latterly never composed during the
winter in Vienna, so there is little sign of any
substantial composition being conceived or
undertaken in the United States. But in severely
limited summer spells at Toblach, two and a half
masterpieces were written: Das Lied von der Erde,
the Ninth Symphony and the incomplete Tenth.

Europe remained a hive of activity for Mahler: he
had never been busier. There were earlier
symphonies still to be given their premieres: the
Seventh in Prague, the Eighth in Munich, the
latter providing the greatest public occasion in
his composing career. There were three
expeditions to countries to which the Mahler writ
did not extend - two to Paris, where his Second
Symphony had the sort of reception you would
expect, and one to Rome, which was a disaster.
But when he visited the Netherlands at the end of
September 1909 for a performance of the Seventh,
Mahler found that he had built up a group of faithful friends there.

These three years were full not only of public
events but also private encounters with the most
lively and active of his contemporaries. The only
country scarcely represented, and lacking too in
performances, was England. Delius may have met
Mahler at Leipzig in the 1880s, and certainly did
at the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein in Essen
in 1906 (performances of Sea-Drift and Mahler
Six). He tried in 1908 to organize a Festival of
New Music in Liverpool, and asked Mahler to come
and conduct his Second Symphony. There was a
friendly exchange of letters but the event never
came off. A more long-lasting friend was
Ferruccio Busoni, whom Mahler had already known
for some years. They met again in New York at New
Year, 1910. Mahler immediately offered to conduct
Busoni's Turandot Suite, which he did that same
March. Busoni also appeared as soloist under
Mahler's baton. The warmth of their friendship is
reflected in Busoni's letters to his wife. And he
was there at the end: the Italian composer
travelled on the boat which took Mahler on his
last journey back to Europe. Mahler's links with
Charles Ives are altogether more tenuous. Round a
minimum of fact about Ives's Third Symphony,
which Mahler may or may not have seen in a
copyist's office, has been woven a cloud of myth.
Dispelling this 'might have been' demonstrates de
La Grange's forensic skill at its briskest and most rigorous.

A startling avatar was the appearance at Mahler's
door of the twenty-five-year-old Edgard Varese,
bearing the score of his orchestral work
Bourgogne. If Mahler had felt more certain of his
position with the New York Philharmonic, it is (I
suppose) just possible that he might have dared a
performance. But he sent Varese on his way with
kind words and a letter of recommendation. Much
closer to his heart - and extremely thoroughly
narrated by de La Grange - was Mahler's
championship of Schoenberg, to which we shall return.

Mahler's time was not altogether spent with
musicians. The account of his twelve sittings for
Rodin in April 1909 is fascinating. Both men were
previously unaware of the other's existence,
never mind fame: they were informed of both by
friends - a task made easier, not more difficult,
by Rodin's ignorance of German and Mahler's of
French. Stranger was the descent on Toblach of
the biologist Paul Kammerer. Music - and Mahler's
in particular - was one of Kammerer's passions;
another was, unfortunately, Alma Mahler, who left
a highly coloured character sketch of him. But
perhaps Mahler's most celebrated non-musical
encounter was with Sigmund Freud in Leiden, where
Freud was on holiday. Freud's account of the
meeting, made long after in conversation with
Princess Marie Bonaparte (his patient, colleague
and confidante) has never been more fully or
sympathetically treated, although the subsequent
psychiatric discussion is somewhat overextended.

De La Grange's narrative is greatly enhanced by
substantial setpieces, of which the visit to
Freud is one. The book begins with another. It is
not until page 43 that the Kaiserin Auguste
Victoria, carrying Mahler and his wife to
America, sails past the Statue of Liberty of the
morning of December 22, 1907. Over the previous
forty pages we have been plunged into all the
vitality, competitiveness and enthusiasm of New
York's musical and social life in the years
before Mahler's arrival. It is an Edith Wharton
world (she is quoted twice) of old money
competing with new, both intent on raising up
monuments to their newly achieved privilege and
social grandeur. Of course, there is a passion
above all for opera. The Metropolitan Opera
building had been completed in 1883 and Anton
Seidl had initiated Wagner seasons throughout the
1880s. International artists soon found their way
to the Met: in 1903, Caruso made his debut there
and starred in the two succeeding seasons. But by
this time the Met had a formidable rival in the
shape of Oscar Hammerstein and his newly built
Manhattan Opera House - to which he enticed
Nellie Melba at New Year 1907. Heinrich Conried
(in charge at the Met) could only riposte with
Feodor Chaliapine, whom the critics panned.
Conried had to deal, too, with a panic of the
puritans over a proposed Salome: and in the
autumn there was (coincidentally) a financial panic on Wall Street.

It was into this frenetic and overheated
atmosphere that Mahler was introduced. He must
have felt himself quite at home - especially with
trouble over Salome. Mahler made his Met debut
with a Tristan which was received
enthusiastically by the leading critics, though
less so by the general public. That the
box-office takings (given in detail by de La
Grange) did not dramatically fall off may be put
down to the section of the New York public who
were not confined in their interest to Italian
opera, among them a large German-speaking
community (15,000 in the 1880s) who already knew
and loved their Tristan. Mozart's operas were a
different matter. A certain amount of advocacy
was needed for Don Giovanni, prepared with a cast
unused to singing Mozart before an audience
unused to hearing it. Walkure and Siegfried
followed, but the final triumph of this first
season was Fidelio on March 20, 1908, universally
praised by the critics - even those who had
previously declared themselves in the opposite
camp - but sparsely attended by the public.

Mahler had deliberately chosen for his debut
season five of his greatest achievements in
Vienna, and so it was not surprising that his
thoughts occasionally returned there, and
particularly to his old colleague and
collaborator, Alfred Roller. The two men were in
correspondence. Roller's letters reflected the
fact that he was a survivor under Felix
Weingartner, and only hanging on by the skin of
his teeth - the customary situation for those
left behind under a new and alien regime. Mahler
- for both artistic and personal reasons - would
have liked to have him at his side in New York. A
long letter to Roller advises him as to how to
bring this about, in very down-to-earth terms. It
also suggests that he, Mahler, is to be in charge
of German opera at the Met, and Arturo Toscanini
in charge of Italian opera. It wasn't to work out
like that, and Roller never came to work in America.

De La Grange writes: 'Mahler, who had been so
relieved to leave a city of intrigues for a New
World that he hoped would be free of them, had
clearly been mistaken'. But at least these
intrigues seemed to lack the petty and vicious
infighting of their Viennese predecessors, and
one of them at least worked in his favour. Mrs
George Sheldon, a 'resolute, forceful woman' -
and, as the wife of a banker, a rich one - was
intent on creating for New York a permanent
symphony orchestra of the calibre of the Boston
Symphony, and she had her eye on Mahler to
conduct it. And there was another conductor in
town who wished to conduct Tristan at the Met:
Toscanini. The quadrille that was then danced was
too intricate to be described here, but by the
autumn of 1908 Mahler had been engaged to conduct
three orchestral concerts with the New York
Symphony Orchestra during spring 1909. Toscanini
conducted Aida at the Met on November 16, 1908
and (admittedly some months after the triumphal
performance of the work by Mahler) at last had
his will with Tristan on November 2, 1909.

These New York years are very thoroughly
documented by de La Grange - one imagines as
never before. His wholesale reprinting of the
main bulk of newspaper comment by the city's
critical fraternity may be felt by some to be
itself open to criticism. But I believe it to be
justified, and indeed one of the book's special
qualities. The leading critics are each equipped
with pocket biographies, which reveal them to be
impressively well-educated individuals. Richard
Aldrich of the New York Times; William Henderson,
originally of the Times, but who had moved to the
Sun; Henry Krehbiel of the New York Tribune;
Henry T. Finck of the Evening Post - these four
were the Old Guard, but many others are also
cited. Not all were friends to Mahler: Krehbiel
was conspicuously an enemy, and his enmity
outlived its victim, spilling over into the
obituary columns. But these were all cultured men
who wrote well and intelligently. Their writings
are invaluable in building up a record of how the
music of the day was regarded, what values it was
judged by, into what categories of judgment it
fell. Indeed, since it was long before the days
of universal high-quality recording, these
written accounts are the nearest to any permanent
record of the performance itself that we have.

The two seasons (the second curtailed by cruel
fate) that Mahler spent with the New York
Philharmonic were certainly the busiest, maybe
the summit, of his career. Enterprising
programmes abounded, not all of them to our taste
today. A series of planned 'historical' concerts
began with a medley of Bach movements from the
orchestral suites - Mahler's big-band Bach
arrangements would scarcely pass muster now.
There was, of course, a Beethoven cycle. The
Pastoral seems to have been given most
frequently, and the Fifth was greatly praised.
(The near absence of Symphonies Two, Four and
Eight shows how the times have altered in a
post-Stravinskian world.) But he gave all the
Schumann symphonies, and they were perhaps better
for a little Mahlerian retouching. A programme
consisting of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique,
the Liszt-Schubert Wanderer Fantasie and the
Prelude to Meistersinger was daring and original
as a piece of programme planning. Mahler gave in
to New York taste when he programmed
Tchaikovsky's Pathetique: he much preferred
Tchaikovsky's operas. So it was fortunate that,
with his residual contract with the Met, he had
the chance to conduct the American premiere of Pique Dame.

Even more modern music was represented: Strauss
(Also Sprach Zarathustra, Don Juan, Ein
Heldenleben, Till Eulenspiegel, Tod und
Verklarung); Busoni (not only Turandot but also
the world premiere of his Berceuse elegiaque -
given under tragic circumstances, for this was
Mahler's very last concert, on February 21,
1911); Elgar (Sea Pictures, Enigma Variations).
There was even some Debussy. At the rehearsal of
the Nocturnes, Mahler said to the orchestra,
'This should be played like a mist . . . don't
misunderstand me! - I don't mean Mist in German'
(in German, it is a quite different four-letter
word). Much earlier, but only according to Alma,
he had briefly said of Pelleas, 'Sie stort nicht'
(It doesn't disturb). In the same season as
Nocturnes, Mahler gave L'Apres-midi and in the
following one Iberia and Rondes de Printemps -
the latter only published in that same year of 1910.

But the honeymoon was over. By the beginning of
the 1910-11 season, difficulties with the
management - and, later, over aspects of Mahler's
relations with the orchestra - began to make
themselves felt. The Guarantors, it seemed,
expected him to conduct twenty extra concerts in
the forthcoming season for nothing. Also they
were dismayed by some of his programmes. In point
of fact, they were making a profit, and Mahler
was already working to his limit. His tenor
friend from Vienna, Leo Slezak, had been involved
in the Pique Dame production and reported meeting
the composer in a depressed state: 'a tired, sick
man . . . mild-mannered and sad'. But this was
written long afterward with the benefit of
hindsight and possibly under the influence of
rumours already spread about. And when quite
suddenly Mahler was removed from the scene
altogether and the New York critics prepared to
write their memorial notices, the stain began to
spread retrospectively. Mahler's medical history
was soon confused with his career problems and
two and two began to make five. There was a
particularly distasteful episode in midwinter
1910-11 when Mahler began to be so ill that he
had reluctantly to cancel concerts. This was
portrayed as some diplomatic illness behind the
screen of which Mahler was thought to be
negotiating his departure - a piece of
viciousness as well as deadly irony. His stand-in
was praised up; his successor stood ready waiting in the wings.

Why then, de La Grange asks, this 'romantic myth'
about the American years and the picture of Das
Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony as 'the
swansongs of a man who was worn out, at the end
of his tether and full of forebodings about
impending death'? How did it arise? De La Grange
lays the blame on Alma. He devotes practically
the whole of his eighth chapter, some 117 pages,
to a thorough, perceptive and quite ruthless
analysis of her extraordinary personality. Maybe
there is no need to throw even a twig further on
to the bonfire of moral disapproval in which she
is already consumed. But she continues to exert
an unholy fascination with her monstrous
egocentricity, her fantasist's self-deceptions,
her lust for power and status, her apparent
sexual voracity masking an icy emotional
frigidity. This nightmare lady was surely in her
time the Pamela Widmerpool of Central Europe.

But Alma was no fool. She was shrewd and
intelligent, and had a genuine gift, not so much
for composing songs, but for writing - and she
had the instincts of a romantic novelist. During
Mahler's life she lived in a solipsistic world
that she had created, and drew others into
believing in it, too. After his death she
managed, simplifying and softening the truth
here, sharpening up a good story or an anecdote
there, to transform her memories into the fiction
(or faction) of a cheap but intensely readable
novelette. And then she published: this was the
'romantic myth', and we have all read and enjoyed it.

She offers a peculiar difficulty to the
biographer. Simply: she was a bad witness.
Sometimes she was careless or approximate (a
time, a date, a year) with the truth through
sheer fecklessness. More often, she was cavalier
with it, tampering with the evidence by omission
or distortion, striking out passages in Mahler's
letters which did not please her, rewriting
episodes in their life together in order to place
herself more firmly centre stage. Often she is
the only witness, and the biographer has to
depend on her while doubting with every sentence
her capacity for telling the truth. Everything
that passed through her hands must be regarded as
tainted. It is an insoluble problem, even for a
master biographer like de La Grange.

Luckily, not everything did pass through her
hands. A recent discovery was immune from Alma's
revisionism. De La Grange was given access to a
collection of some 3,000 letters that she wrote
to her lover Walter Gropius, together with the
drafts of some of Gropius's replies. They
communicated largely through the poste restante
and the treachery of Mahler's mother-in-law. The
affair went on until Mahler's death, and ended
(after a tempestuous interlude with Oskar
Kokoschka) after she married and then left
Gropius. The last phase was a grotesque emotional
menage a trois with the Atlantic in between,
Gropius lost in admiration for Mahler, Alma
merely irritated by Mahler's genuinely reawoken
affection for her. Gropius himself was a curious
character who (in his own biographer's words)
'had a tendency to take up with women who were
married or who already had a male partner, and
then to get in touch with the husband or
partner'. Which is exactly what he did.

The whole business caused Mahler a great deal of
pain: the anguish which is scrawled across the
manuscript of the Tenth Symphony was real enough.
That imperfect masterwork remains as a permanent
memorial of those days. Mahler behaved well and he never stopped loving=
Alma.

De La Grange emphasizes several times that
Mahler's gaze was always turned towards the
future. His friendship with Schoenberg, who was
only thirty-six when Mahler died, is an instance
of this. When Mahler left for the States,
Schoenberg was shattered; on his return to
Vienna, Schoenberg was the first person that
Mahler would enquire after. This was a time for
Schoenberg of concert scandals and poverty.
Mahler did his best to alleviate the latter,
appealing successfully to a couple of rich
friends for bursaries and to Emil Hertzka, who
had newly founded Universal-Edition, that he
should add Schoenberg's name to his publisher's
list. In a letter (which de La Grange says is
'unpublished and little known') from June 1909,
Schoenberg thanks Mahler for these services and
goes on to say that he is working on 'some short
scenes for orchestra' - probably the first
mention of the Five Orchestral Pieces. Later that
same summer, Mahler and the Schoenbergians got
together on a rumbustious social occasion - well
narrated by Alma, but with the wrong date
attached. That Christmas in New York, Mahler
received a letter about his Seventh Symphony, of
which Schoenberg had just heard the first
Viennese performance. Whatever reservations
Schoenberg had once had were now swept away: 'I
am now one of your disciples lock, stock and
barrel'. Mahler wrote back warmly, in the only
surviving letter from him to Schoenberg, 'I have
taken your quartet along, and sometimes study it.
But I am finding it difficult'.

But as Schoenberg's creative pace quickens, so
his poverty increases, 1910 being the nadir - the
year of the Harmonielehre and Die Gluckliche
Hand. The libretto of the latter, together with a
copy of the Klavierstucke Op 11, Schoenberg sent
to the Mahlers. Schoenberg had, in these frantic
circumstances, taken up painting. But it was not
until after Mahler's death that Schoenberg
discovered (through a letter from Anton Webern)
that three of the paintings that had been sold
had been bought anonymously by Mahler.

The wreath laid in Grinzing cemetery by
Schoenberg and his pupils recorded 'the undying
example of [Mahler's] work and influence'. That
day of the funeral, Schoenberg is said to have
conceived, if not written, a piano piece - two
chords, an appoggiatura, a sigh, the wispy hint
of a ninth chord - in order to recapture the
essence of those immense symphonies: it became
the last of his Six Little Piano Pieces Op 19.
Now, almost a century later, we can set against
that tiny tribute a great one, which will be seen
as one of the oustanding musical biographies of
the past century: the four volumes of Henry-Louis de La Grange's Gustav=
Mahler.



HUGH WOOD
Henry-Louis de La Grange
GUSTAV MAHLER
Volume Four: A New Life Cut Short (1907-1911)
1,777pp. Oxford University Press. $70 (US $140).
978 0 19 816387 9



Hugh Wood's setting of Geoffrey Hill's sequence
of poems Tenebrae, for chorus and ensemble,
premiered last year, along with four other new works.

Copyright 2008 Times Newspapers Ltd.



Roger Hecht

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