Mahler et la France. Musical (Revue du Châtelet – Théâtre Musical de Paris) No. 9 (1988)

Mahler et la France. Musical (Revue du Châtelet – Théâtre Musical de Paris) No. 9 (December 1988)

ISSN 0983-267X
104 pages
Dimensions 28cm x 24 x 0.8 (11′ x 9.4′ x 3.14″)

24 April 2021

I was sent back to this valuable volume by a review published in the latest issue of Fanfare (March-April 2021), of Mahler’s 7th conducted by French conductor Alexandre Bloch leading the National Orchestra of Lille (Alpha 592). There, critic Huntley Dent wondered what was the problem between France and Mahler. He had checked on ArkivMusic and the only previous version of the 7th Symphony recorded by a French conductor that he found, said he, was Abravanel’s, part his famed complete cycle from the late 1960s-early 1970s with the Utah Symphony Orchestra on Vanguard.

That immediately made me react, because I knew that Abravanel wasn’t French at all. In fact, I had recently read a comment calling Abravanel a “Swiss-American” conductor. Prior to that, because of his close association with Kurt Weill and the Berlin avant-garde in the 1920s, I had thought that Abravanel was German – one of those numerous German or Austrian Jewish musicians (like Klemperer or Walter) who found safe harbor from Nazism in the USA.

In fact, looking at his bio on Wikipedia, it’s hard to tell what Abravanel really was before acquiring US citizenship in 1943 (he had emigrated in 1936): he was born in Salonika, in a family that had been established there since 1517, which I guess makes him Greek (like Mitropoulos), but Salonika back then was part of the Ottoman empire, which would then make him Turkish. When Abravanel was six, the family moved to Lausanne Switzerland, and that’s where Abravanel got his musical training (he lived in the same house as Ernest Ansermet), so that makes him Swiss (in training at least; I don’t know if he became a Swiss citizen at any point) rather than French. He then became part of the German avant-garde from 1922 to 1933, and a student of Kurt Weill. His only stint in Paris was from 1933 to 1936, and with Balanchine’s Ballet, which again makes him no more a French conductor than, say, Koussevitzky or Walter (who both settled for a while in Paris before moving to the US) and probably more Russian than French, too.

Not that any of this invalidated Dent’s point. In fact it reinforced it: with Abravanel out of the way, Bloch wasnt the second, but actually the first French conductor to record Mahler’s 7th. But while I was doing that research on Abravanel, it suddenly struck me that both myself and Dent were glaringly omitting THE major French conductor who had previously recorded not just the 7th, but the near complete output (save perhaps this or that cycle of orchestral songs): Pierre Boulez. Yes, I guess we both thought of Boulez as an “international” conductor rather than one assigned to a specific nationality…

But Dent went further and seemed to think that there was, still today, a problem in France with Mahler, that audiences and orchestras were still alien to his music. That I can testify is entirely false. While I couldn’t deny Dent’s observation that in the 1960s at least, the music of Mahler was seldom, and not very well played by the French Orchestras, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, under the vibrant advocacy of critics like Henri-Louis de La Grange and Harry Halbreich, France fell to the Mahler mania as much as the rest of the Western world and Japan. Another factor of France’s change of attitude was, I would suggest, Boulez’ embrace of the composer, precisely in the late 1960s and early 1970s (first with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, because, largely due to his biting tongue, Boulez was pariah in France in those years).

All this sent me back, then, to this little volume which I had the good fortune to buy in the early 1990s when it was still in print. It was part of a short-lived series published by Théâtre du Châtelet (the response of the City of Paris, then headed by Mayor Jacques Chirac, to the Paris Opera). The magazine bears no copyright year, and my dating from 1988 is based on Bibliothèque Nationale de France’s indication that the series existed between 1987 and December 1988 and reached No. 9 (this one).

The volume was compiled in collaboration with Henry-Louis de La Grange’s Bibliothèque Musicale Gustav Mahler (Mahler Music Library), the institution and place where the famous critic and Mahler biographer deposited all the Mahler documentation (and more) that he had accumulated throughout the years. Although De La Grange has passed away, the institution still exists today. Contributors to the volume include, among others, De La Grange, composer Gérard Pesson (a dense article comparing Mahler and Debussy and their sense of nature), critics Marc Vignal and Alain Surrans. The volume is filled with a magnificent iconography, most of it drawn from De La Grange’s collection.

The book provides valuable information on the early reception of Mahler in France, starting with his first visit to Paris as the conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic, in 1900, during the Paris World Fair (programs of the three concerts included music of Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, Wagner, Bruckner – the Scherzo of the 4th Symphony- and even Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, but no music by Mahler) and the formation of a small circle of French fans, which included Paul Clemenceau, the brother of progressive journalist and future Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau aka “The Tiger”, and mathematician and future Prime Minister (in addition to many other functions in the French executive and legislative branches) Paul Painlevé.

Re-reading those articles, one thing that had totally escaped my attention back in the 1990s, suddenly acquired a new significance following the 2019 Roman Polanski film on what is known in France as the “Dreyfus Affair”, An Officer and a spy (in French: “J’Accuse”, after the title of the famous article by Emile Zola): one member of that early circle of Mahler admirers was no less than Capitaine (and soon to become Général) Marie-Georges Picquart – the Dreyfus champion impersonated in the film by Jean Dujardin. I hadn’t captured from the Polanski film that Picquart, just like Dreyfus, was alsatian, born in Strasburg in 1854 (Dreyfus was born five years later in Mulhouse) when the city was still French; Alsace became German after France’s defeat in 1871. Picquart was a keen amateur pianist and he knew Mahler’s music better than most through playing it at the piano with his friend and also passionate amateur musician and Mahler fan, Général Guillaume de Lallemand (“l’Allemand” means “The German” – must have been hard to bear that name for a French General in those years…). Once, in 1905, shortly before Dreyfus’ and his exoneration from all  charges, he even sneaked into German Strasburg, without asking for permission from his superiors, only to attend a performance of Mahler’s 5th Symphony conducted by the composer. One more nice thing in the relation of Picquart and Mahler is that, apparently, Picquart’s admiration was reciprocated by Mahler…. and even more by Alma. For more on Picquart and Mahler, see my blog post.

Mahler et la France also reproduces a review by French writer Romain Rolland – a close friend of Richard Strauss – of that same Strasburg concert of the 5th Symphony. Although Rolland does pay lip service, and even respect, to the significance of the composer (“I will not allow myself to talk about him in a light or disrespectful manner. I give him credit and am certain that a musician of such high conscience will some day create the work to which he is entitled”), the review is very negative, but it makes clear enough that Rolland disliked precisely those features that we love in Mahler today: the disjointedness, the mixture of the educated and of the popular (Rolland calls it “the barbaric”), the “obstinate repetition of rhythmic cells”. He also points to “the graciousness of the Ländler and of the delicate walzes, of the elegiac dreaminess” – I take it as an implicit reference to the Adagietto, which he doesn’t otherwise mention: possibly his attention had drifted by then (he complains too about the excessive length of the Symphony’s 75 minutes).

More generally, a number of the articles contained in the volume provide the context that helps understand why, in those years, Mahler’s time in France had not, and could not come. France was pervaded with a violent “anti-Boche” (anti-German) sentiment, of which Debussy is a telling example. The country’s symphonic tastes were also nurtured along a line that led from Beethoven to Franck and Saint-Saëns, and, sure enough, when you come to think of the two latter’s classically-molded symphonies as the apex of symphonic form, Mahler would appear hard to swallow, if not totally insane – and very “Boche” indeed.

An article which I’ve found very helpful is a list (which doesn’t claim to be complete, but it’s a good start) of performances of works of Mahler in France from the very first in February 1905 – it started in a whimper rather than in a bang, with three Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen sung by Nina Faliero-Dalcroze and Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux under Camille Chevillard – to the end of 1970 (Fifth Symphony in Lyon under Jacques Houtmann; a few months earlier Bernstein had conducted Orchestre de Paris in the Third Symphony). Where you learn that the first performance of the 5th (excluding Mahler’s 1905 concert in Strasburg) was by Camille Chevillard and Concert Lamoureux in  1911, a few months after the famous performance of his Second that Mahler conducted in Paris with Orchestre des Concerts Colonne (April 1910), a performance in which Debussy famously (or infamously) got up and left after the second movement – his loss! and I wish he had given me his ticket… First performance of the First and Fourth were both with the Tonkünstler Orchestra of Munich under Joseph Lasalle, repectively in May 1909 and January 1911; the First is reported to have been badly under-rehearsed, and apparently Mahler even unsuccessfully opposed its programming… Composer Alfredo Casella, himself a great advocate of Mahler in those years, conducted the Fourth in 1912 in Paris. Not unsurprisingly, Mahler performances trickled to almost nothing after that. Jump almost two decades, and Oskar Fried conducted Das Lied with Orchestre Straram in 1929, followed by Mengelberg with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra two years later. After World War II you see more Mahler performances, especially with the French radio orchestras, conducted in general by foreign conductors and Mahler champions: Horenstein, Walter, Schuricht, Markevitch, Haitink, Kletzki, Solti, Scherchen, Gielen, Leopold Ludwig, Leinsdorf, Kubelik – you even find David Oistrakh conducting Orchestre National in 1968 in the Fourth Symphony, a work that he also recorded for Melodiya with Galina Vishnevskaya – but also Tzipine, Maurice Le Roux, Martinon, and Hungarian-French and Opéra stalwart Georges Sébastian. Bernstein gave his first Mahler concert in France  with Orchestre de la Radiodiffusion Française in November 1958, with the Second Symphony (Oralia Dominguez and Maria Stader were the soloists). According to the list, the French premiere of the Ninth Symphony took place only in 1960 (Concerts Lamoureux under Dean Dixon), the Third in 1961 (Orchestre National, Sébastian), the Eigth in 1964 (same forces), the Sixth in 1966 (Gielen, Orchestre Philharmonique de la Radio-Télévision Française)… and the Seventh, never! not at least in the time-frame examined by the article, which again goes some way to prove Dent’s point. Mmmhhh… I need to investigate that!

Finally, the volume contains an interview of Boulez by De La Grange, which I find, with hindsight, particularly interesting to read. Keep in mind that it was done at the end of 1988, and that’s way before Boulez embarked on his complete cycle for DG: by then he had only recorded Das klagende Lied and the Adagio of the Tenth for CBS. It’s funny to read his reply to De La Grange’s question “suppose you were offered to record in good conditions a complete traversal of Mahler Symphonies, would you accept?” . To which Boulez responds: “certainly not, because you’d need to have your own orchestra in your hands for a long while, you need a direct and entirely instinctive correspondence with the musicians”. Well, never say never (to be entirely fair, Boulez says that working on the scores is a huge effort that he’s not ready to do “now”). De La Grange’s questions are always knowledgeable and intelligent – for instance when he asks: “what are, in your mind, the main problems in conducting Mahler? The tempi with their frequent changes? The transitions? The continuity? The long breath (“le souffle”)? The instrumental balances (“l’équilibre des plans”)? The character?” to which Boulez can only answer: “yes, that’s it, all that, and there’s nothing to add” (but don’t worry, he finds plenty to elaborate). The interview is also very instructive on how Boulez slowly came to the music of Mahler, what attracted him to it, and how it influenced his own compositional work.

Obviously the volume is aimed at the French-reading Mahlerite. It’d be great to have the same for the UK, Germany, Italy – even the USA. And maybe those books or essays have been written, I haven’t researched. At the time of writing two copies are sold on, best price 18 € + postage, search asin B00L8PUNRQ, and one copy on eBay, for 13,50, item 332040507535

Comments are welcome