This probably will be of interest only to those well-versed in France’s history at the turn of the 19th to 20th century, or those who saw Roman Polanski’s latest film from 2019 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 – link to Wikipedia article), but re-reading an issue of the magazine Musical, published in the December 1988 by Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on “Mahler et la France” (link will open new tab to my review), I discovered that one of the first French Mahlerites, and as early as 1900, had been the now famous Capitaine (later Général) Picquart, impersonated in the film by Jean Dujardin. I hadn’t realized, or didn’t remember, from the Polanski film that Picquart was born in Strasburg, which was a French city when he was born in 1852 (with an Alsatian-speaking population, a German-derived dialect) but turned German in 1870, and not only did he speak fluent German, byt he must have spoken French with a more heavy alsatian accent than pictured by Jean Dujardin in the film. Anyway, Picquart, himself a keen amateur pianist and who had befriended Mahler upon the latter’s first visit to Paris in 1900 with the Vienna Philharmonic (programs included Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, Schubert, Bruckner – Scherzo of the Fourth Symphony -, Wagner, and even Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, but no Mahler), even illegally sneaked out of France without authorization from his superiors in May 1905 to go to Strasburg and attend a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony conducted by the composer.
Even more touching, a common friend, the Viennese Berta Zuckerkandl, wrote this in her autobiography : “Picquart told us how, when he was imprisoned, dishonored, molested, he thought only of one thing: if one day he came back to life, he would do a pilgrimage of sorts in all the places where his god Beethoven had lived. And his second dearest wish: to hear Tristan conducted by Mahler. The first was accomplished et, on the same evening, the second will be: to the bliss of Picquart, Mahler programmed Tristan and will be conducting it himself. Picquart is elated as a child. He is so impatient that he rushes to the Opera an hour before the performance. As I didn’t leave with him, we agreed to meet on the grand staircase. My sister (…) and Picquart had just left, when a telegram was delivered, from Georges Clemenceau, then France’s Prime Minister, that said: “please announce to General Picquart that I have appointed him War Minister. He must leave at once”. Undescribable scene on the staircase of the Opera, where Picquart was waiting for us. When he read the telegram, he blenched, not with joy but with furore. And, losing his self-control, he threw to me with anger: ‘that telegram, you had a duty to set it aside. Tomorrow morning first thing would have been soon enough’.”
Incidentally, that Berta Zuckerhandl may be a mere footnote in the biography of Mahler, but she had an important role in his life: it is at a dinner party at her house that Mahler fist met the young Alma Schindler, in 1901. With all that, you’d think it was through his acquaintance with Mahler that Picquart got to meet and befriend Mrs Zuckerhandl; it is, in fact, the other way around: the small circle of French admirers that Mahler met in Paris in 1900 included Paul Clemenceau, the brother of Georges; Paul’s wife, Sophie, was Berta’s sister (and both were the daughters of a famous progressive journalist, founder of the Wiener Tagblatt and then Neues Wiener Tagblatt, Moritz Szeps); she asked Mahler to give her hello to her sister when he returned to Vienna; which he did, and that’s how he got included in the progressive socialite circle of the Zuckerhandls.
Picquart’s admiration for Mahler was apparently reciprocated, too, and Mahler is said to have appreciated Picquart’s “strong personality, purity, exceptional class”. And Alma! She pined. In one of her books on Mahler, she writes: “Picquart exuded wisdom and strength of character. [Mahler’s French admirers] undoubtedly composed to the most cultivated circle of Europe. Picquart could barely be called a man. He looked like an angelic creature, with eyes like a mountain spring, blue and clear, he talked seldom, but with wisdom…. When, the first time, I looked him in the eyes, I knew Dreyfuls had been wrongfully indicted… Picquart spoke fluent German, knew all the literature, knew the music of Mahler which he had become familiar with by playing it four-hands with [his friend, member of “the circle” and passionate amateur musician, General Guillaume de] Lallemand. Seeing him, you could believe in all possible metaphysics, but you wouldn’t have fancied him as a great warrior”.
Polanski should have used the music of Mahler in his film.