Professor Henry-Louis de La Grange is the world's most eminent Mahler scholar. His outstanding biographical work is undoubtedly one of the greatest in its field in our time. Unfortunately it has not been translated into Spanish yet. However the original French edition and its ongoing English revision in four Volumes really constitutes a reference for all the Spanish-speaking, Mahlerian world. In spite of this, his meticulous method of research is well-known thanks to the only one of his books which has been translated into our language: “Viena, una historia musical”. We must never forget the very many sleeves notes which have made his name quite familiar with the mahlerian public of Spanish-speaking countries.
It is impossible to summarise the achievements of Henry-Louis de La Grange in a single paragraph. We may briefly recall that he studied music at Yale and Paris and became interested in Mahler in the 1950s. Mahler’s life and work has been researched by him along decades. In addition to this he has been the organiser of music festivals, co-founder along with Maurice Fleuret of the Bibliothèque Musicale Gustav Mahler and recipient of many honors, including the Chevalier of the Order of the Légion d'honneur.
But, nonetheless, he is an approachable and generous man, always willing to share his knowledge and experiences with any mahlerian enthusiast.
gustav-mahler.es: Dear Professor, it is a real pleasure and a privilege for me to introduce you to the Spanish Mahlerians, who are conscious of the transcendence of your work. First of all, I must congratulate you for the imminent appearance of your Fourth Volume. I know that the whole of the Mahler world is anxiously awaiting it. The rumour had spread that it would be available this summer but the OUP website announces its publication for January 2008. Would you mind telling us about the actual appearance date?
de La Grange: The English appearance was originally planned for 25 November, a month before that of the American edition, Both are now scheduled to appear on the same day, 3 January 2008.
g-m.es: From the announcements, we gather that the volume includes not only everything that happened during the U.S. period but also a great many appendices which concern Mahler’s life and work as a whole. This must have been a huge challenge! Could we say that we are dealing with your most ambitious and definitive volume? How many years have you devoted to it since finishing your third volume?
dLG: The preceding volume appeared in 2000 and I’m afraid it took me six whole years to complete this one, but it does contain a very large amount of new material.
g-m.es: Could you provide us with a scoop regarding your latest research in this period of Mahler life? Which is or are your most valued findings or pieces of research?
dLG: The most important single item is undoubtedly the letters exchanged by Alma Mahler with her lover Walter Gropius. Less than half of them had already been published in a biography of the architect. Inserting essential material from passionate letters in the text of my new volume was a challenge in itself because they are in complete disarray, because they cannot be photocopied, and because they are nearly all undated. What is most amazing about them is that they contain so much new information about Mahler, his work, his concerts, his great kindness to his wife and the lessons in composition he is giving her. Thanks to these letters, it becomes obvious that the change in Mahler’s attitude quickly bore fruit and that Alma drew nearer and nearer to him, while she never missed a chance of telling Gropius, who was pining away on the other side of the Atlantic, how happy she now was with such a great conductor and an attentive husband. Strange as it may seem, one ends up feeling genuinely sorry for Walter when he writes: “I now feel that he has become the man for you.” It seems that she had only then become fully conscious of Mahler’s greatness, both as a man as an artist.
I believe that I was also able to elucidate the mystery of Mahler’s conflict with the Committee of Grantors of the Philharmonic, a short time before he became ill and took to his bed in February 1911. It had been somewhat over-dramatized by Alma in her book about Mahler and, to my mind, it was largely the result of a misunderstanding.
Many other things in this volume are new. The story of Mahler’s American career had been hopelessly distorted, especially in the American musical literature. It was not at all the sad, the disastrous failure that so many authors have described. Freeing himself from the stage, having an orchestra in his hands, conducting such a large repertory of new and old music, all of that was a very stimulating exciting experience for Mahler.
g-m.es: Are we correct in thinking that you are at present deeply immerged in the revision of the first Volume – the only left in your scheduled four volumes work. Is that true?
dLG: This is a very exciting project for me, and most likely my final task. You may perhaps remember that my old American-English volume (1973) concluded with Mahler’s marriage, while the parallel French version ended with the beginning of the new century: 1900. The new, English first volume will end with Mahler’s arrival in Vienna. Thus the whole set has to my mind the most logical structure:
1: The Road to Vienna
2: Vienna I
3: Vienna II
4: Nueva York
g-m.es: Going back to the beginning of your research. Could you tell us how it all started? I believe it was in New York in the forties.
dLG: Strangely enough it began in 1945 in America with the Ninth Symphony, surely one the most “difficult” of all of Mahler’s works. I had just arrived from France to study in New York and the very next evening I attended a concert conducted by Bruno Walter at Carnegie Hall. I’d been lucky enough to hear Walter’s début at the Met in 1941 and had never forgotten his performances of Fidelio and Don Giovanni. I was so excited to hear him again that I had bought a ticket without even bothering examine the programme. All I then knew about Mahler was that he was often coupled with Bruckner, that both composers were Austrian, and that both had written nine long symphonies. I cannot say that Mahler’s Ninth was for me an immediate revelation, but I was startled, fascinated, probably a bit shocked because the music was so different from anything I had heard before... The amazing amount of grupetti in the Finale of the Ninth are what I remember best: they amazed me, and I wondered how any composer could have selected such a simple motif as basic material for a whole movement...
g-m.es: you decide to study Mahler’s music immediately or only later?
dLG: I very soon bought all the Mahler recordings and books that I could lay my hands on, and soon decided that I wanted to know everything about Mahler. Unfortunately my German was still primitive, but several books, particularly Alma’s, had luckily been translated into English. As my knowledge of German improved, I started searching for the original German versions and then for contemporary newspaper and magazine articles. By that time I had already decided to write about Mahler, but all I dared at first to plan was a short book in French...
Very soon I started following all the traces that Mahler had left on this earth and hunting out all of those friends and relatives who had survived the Holocaust. But the music was of course always present, when and wherever I could hear it. It was indispensable, because it so obviously (for me) justified my choice of such an “unpopular” and little-known composer for what was gradually becoming a big book.
I mustn’t forget to tell you that, before writing a single line, I had felt compelled to undertake a long and serious study of Harmony, Counterpoint and Musical Analysis. For five years I willingly submitted to the strict discipline of one of the most famous music teachers of the time, Nadia Boulanger. I will forever remain grateful to her for having understood exactly what I needed and wanted to learn. I think that what impressed her about me was the intensity of my passion for music.
g-m.es: Nowadays, no one challenges the importance of your work, but I am quite sure that, at the beginning, things were not easy. You started to study Mahler long before the revival of his music began. Did you encounter difficulties with some of your fellow musicologists?
dLG: Nadia Boulanger’s musical gods were Bach, Stravinsky, Beethoven... She was not interested in Mahler and she was in fact a bit shocked when she heard that I wanted to write about him. One of the few things I am proud of is to have discovered and loved Mahler’s music at a time when he was practically unknown in France, and remained unpopular even in America.
g-m.es: Your contribution was essential in pointing out the many untruths and distortions that are to be detected in Alma Mahler’s writings. She was then a powerful figure in the United States. Could you tell me about her? You were in touch with her for over ten years and we know that you are grateful to her for her help, but it must not be easy for you to judge her role as Mahler’s wife.
dLG: To my mind, to “judge” is something that a biographer should always avoid doing under any circumstance. In my view, his main task should be to report, to search for reliable sources, but also to tell a story and bring back characters of the past to life. It should also be to describe places, meetings, situations, events as impartially as possible... Even when they differ from each other, the reports of contemporary witnesses should be quoted in full.
Sometimes new documents can change our view of a person and even that of a whole period of the “hero”’s life. The Alma-Gropius correspondence, which I mentioned earlier, is a case in point: It appears obvious, when one reads Alma’s memoirs that behaved like an ideal wife during her husband’s last illness, she knew full well that his disease was deadly and one does suspect that she was probably looking forward to a blissful new life with a young lover. Well, the very opposite is true. She was in fact tortured by remorse for the pain she had inflicted on Mahler during the preceding summer. Furthermore she was greatly enjoying marital life with him in New York. In fact, she did not marry Gropius after Mahler’s death and did so only four years later largely because she wanted a “Christian” child. Fate punished her because the lovely child she did bear died so young.
Strangely enough because Alma was surely not a “kind” woman (Katia Mann called her “ungut”: devoid of kindness), she was very nice to me and also helpful from the start. I was 28 years old when I met her, and she understood right away how earnest I was, and how devoted to Mahler. Of her father, the painter Emil Schindler, she always wrote he was a “monument”. By 1952, when I met her, Alma had also become a monument. She was naturally impressive because of her figure and because of her past, she had lived many more years than her father and had had plenty of time to retouch her image. Unfortunately for me, she had very little to say about her past that she had not written in her books... But and I could never forget when I was in her presence that this was the woman whom Mahler had loved so passionately.
One of Alma’s most fascinating traits was her narcissism which was so intense that, she retrieved and destroyed most of the letters she had written to her husbands and her lover (Kokoschka). Luckily for me, there was only one major exception, her letters to Gropius which he never agreed to return to her. She must have destroyed at least some of Mahler’s letters which she no doubt found unflattering for her, and crossed out passages of others, yet she carefully preserved most of her private diaries which paint a very different, and surely more realistic version of the events of her life than her books and memoirs.
To me, Alma was indeed kind. She allowed me to examine Mahler’s autograph scores of the symphonies which she kept in a steel cabinet next to her bed until she sold them shortly before she died. She also allowed me to photograph most of the letters and documents from her collection, and was standing next to me while I was taking all these photos.
g-m.es: Let’s now speak about Mahler. Nobody knows his life better than you do. You once told me something I’ll never forget, that Mahler was not only a great composer, but also a great human being. Would you mind describing him for our readers?
dLG: To describe Mahler in a few words is something I cannot even attempt. There were far too many different sides to his personality. What I can say is that I have read biographies of many composers and have sometimes found their behaviour deeply disappointing. Mahler, on the other hand, never once disappointed me. I can’t think of a single moment in his life when his behaviour could be regarded as petty or mean. He was always ready to fight for his beloved “Masters” of music, like the armoured Knight in Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, always an idealist, sometimes irritable and hard to deal with, but always with the highest and noblest goals and motives, and this is surely why he exasperated Richard Strauss who was usually disappointingly ready to compromise! It is fascinating in that respect to read the furious annotations that Strauss added in the margin of a copy of Alma’s memoirs.
g-m.es: In the course of time, Mahler’s life and personality have given birth to quite a number of legends which you have destroyed in your biography. He is so often described as a sad man, obsessed with death and unable to enjoy life’s happier aspects. Particularly in his last years, he is usually depicted as exhausted, lacking in authority, relentlessly obsessed by the fear of death. In any case, this is the image of him one gains when watching Bernstein’s documentary on the Ninth Symphony, “Four ways to say goodbye”. Is that view correct? Or can we on the contrary think of him of having always a powerful impulse to live?
dLG: To this question I’d like to answer, not in my words but in those of my late and revered friend, the Austrian psychoanalyst Erwin Ringel. He never ceased to emphasize and admire Mahler’s heroic strength of character which he ascribed to the two forces that inhabited him: his “knowledge of death” acquired during childhood, when several of his brothers had died in infancy on the one hand, and his equally powerful “consciousness of the future”.
g-m.es: By the way, did you ever meet Leonard Bernstein? He has often been credited for being responsible for Mahler’s revival. Do you agree with this?
dLG: I certainly do. He never was my favourite Mahler conductor and I don’t share many of his views on Mahler as a man, but in my opinion he is perhaps the man and the conductor who contributed most to the change in status of Mahler’s music. Those who don’t acknowledge this fact are unfair unfair to him and to his memory.
Did I meet Bernstein, many times? I certainly did, and he never ceased telling me that he would like to have a “long talk” with me… Quite soon I realized that these were only kind words. He had formed his personal image of Mahler, an image that was modeled, I believe, on his own personality. Thus he had no interest in being confronted with someone who might know more about Mahler than he did.
g-m.es: I am sure you met some of the conductors who were close to Gustav such as Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer? We have many of their recordings of Mahler. Do you think they may have derived some sort of benefit from their close contact with him?
dLG: Unfortunately I did not meet either of them! When Anna Mahler called up Bruno Walter in Beverly Hills in 1958 to ask him if she could bring me to visit him, he flatly refused but I cannot hold this against him because he had just had a stroke and in fact didn’t survive for a long time afterwards. Klemperer I didn’t meet either, and that is really sad because his daughter Lotte later became one of my closest friends: she told me that he had asked her to read some of my early Mahler articles to him and she much later gave me her father’s score of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, from which he had always conducted the work, together with the visiting card that Mahler had given him at a time when he badly needed his recommendation to find a job.
g-m.es: This might be an embarrassing question for you, but I will dare to ask it: which conductors do you think best understand Mahler’s work?
dLG: That is a difficult question for me to answer, especially at this stage of my life. After spending twenty years reviewing every Mahler record issued for the French magazine Diapason, I no longer compare versions and single out any one of them as “the best”. There are many ways of conducting Mahler, none of which is “right” or “wrong”. I know whether a performance interests me; or moves me, or captivates me, and that is for me what matters most. The number of Mahler performances available nowadays on records is so huge that it is practically impossible to hear them all. I know that I consider Boulez a top level Mahler conductor. For me he has a huge quality: he neither adds nor subtracts anything from Mahler’s scores, he plays them as they are and has the best ear for balance between sonorities that I know. Some people still find him cold and “mathematic”, but I think they don’t really listen to his performances, and merely repeat an old, tired cliché… I just heard him in Berlin conduct one of the most moving Mahler Thirds I have ever heard.
But I also greatly admire Christoph Eschenbach who is a superb musician and one of the greatest Mahlerians in our epoch.
Perhaps what I know even better what I dislike in a Mahler performance, but I will not be giving you any names… Among the early pioneers I still think Bruno Walter is probably the greatest and I still adore his Fourth Symphony which was the second Mahler work I heard, in January 1946. But I also love Mitropoulos, Klemperer, Horenstein, and many others. Willem Mengelberg was also very close to Mahler, yet I find his live recording of the Fourth very unconvincing. I’m sure that he never would have conducted such a caricature of this wonderful work in Mahler’s presence…
g-m.es: We have spoken about Gustav and Alma, but what about Justine? The recent publication of the whole Mahler family letters both in English and German demonstrate how close was Gustav to her sister. How would you describe this connection?
dLG: Justine undoubtedly had qualities and defects, like every human being. I don’t think she was clever, but I find the way Alma speaks about her in her Mahler book is shocking. Alma’s jealousy of any woman who has preceded her in Mahler’s life was pathological and also pathetic… How insecure she must have been deep down to be so jealous!
g-m.es: A very controversial question around Gustav is the religious question. Jewish, Christian, pantheist, atheistic…? What did religion mean for Mahler?
dLG: The best “spiritual” description of Mahler is the one given by Oskar Fried’s in a magazine article published in the 1920s. He portrays Mahler as a “God seeker”, a man who sought God throughout his life. Pantheism was already at hand in his first works, as early as the Third Symphony, but it is also present at the end of his life in Das Lied von der Erde… The leading spiritual influence on Mahler, his “Guru” so to speak, was Siegfried Lipiner and he remains our best source to understand Mahler’s religious and philosophical outlook. The figure of Christ, and the Christian religions as a whole, meant a great deal to him, more, I believe, than Judaism. But I don’t think he ever could have embraced a traditional, organized religion as his own, either Christian or Jewish, occidental or oriental.
g-m.es: And the matter of his conversion. Do you think Mahler suffered any kind of remorse as has been claimed by some?
dLG: I think Bernstein is totally mistaken in that respect and I wrote a ten-page passage in my Fourth Volume to explain why I disagree with him so strongly. Mahler himself explained his conversion: “I do not deny that it cost me a great effort, indeed one could say it was an instinct for self-survival that prompted me to such an action. But inwardly I was not averse to the idea at all.”
g.m.es: We have a few more questions to ask you. For example about your summer holidays in Toblach. We know that for years you have been irritated, so to speak, by the state of the composing hut now surrounded with a zoo. This is something I find disgraceful. Has the situation been improved?
dLG: Alas, the situation in Toblach, with the zoo and the Häuschen has not improved. But you are speaking of my time in Toblach as a “summer holiday”… I’m afraid that you are using the wrong word. I don’t think I have ever worked harder and accomplished more that I have in the South Tyrol. This year was the climax, with 1800 pages of proofs of my Volume IV read and corrected!
g-m.es: Our readers from Spain or Latin America would be interested in knowing your links to our countries. Have you any tie with them? For the Spanish people it would be nice to know that you love Falla’s music and, if I am not wrong, you know well his niece.
dLG: I can think of no direct link, although every Frenchman who loves music worships the country which inspired so many towering masterpieces of French––and of course Spanish––music, Carmen, Debussy’s and Albeniz’s Iberia, Chabrier’s España, Falla’s El Amor Brujo, and many others. The niece and heiress of the great Manuel is indeed one of my closest and dearest friends. Thanks to her, I gave two lectures several years ago in Madrid, They were very well attended, and soon followed by the publication of a few articles in Scherzo. Maribel de Falla also directed my attention towards an extraordinary and little-known article by Felipe Pedrell, who turns out to have been one of Mahler’s “prophets”. I have also enjoyed the frienship of the composer Luis de Pablo.
I wrote most of my French Volume II in Granada but worked so hard there that I had not visited the two other historic cities of Andalusia until this year, when I celebrated my birthday in Seville and Cordoba. Of Latin America I know only Mexico where I was invited to lecture twice four years ago in San Luis Potosi by one of the most passionate Mahlerians I have ever encountered, Samuel Romo.
g-m.es: A Mahlerian friend of mine bought this summer in Amsterdam a second hand version of Edo de Waart’s Mahler cycle. He was quite surprised to find out that all the commentaries, in English, German and French, had been written by you. Were you especially interested in this cycle which is no longer available, even in Amsterdam?
dLG: The texts were commissioned by the Dutch Radio and I also published a small 100-page book in Dutch. It was on sale during the Mahler Festival of 1995, but I am afraid that it has also vanished from view, like the recordings.
g-m.es: Last but not least we would like to mention the Bibliothèque Musicale Gustav Mahler, quite an exemplary project. Is it only a research centre, or can anyone visit?
dLG: It was indeed meant as a research centre, but the small staff is always happy to show visitors round if they arrange for an appointment beforehand.
g-m.es: One last question, please. After devoting so many years to research with the purpose of establishing the true facts concerning Gustav Mahler’s life and works, what are the domains that still need to be investigated or studied? Are there features in the fore or background that you think would really deserve a more thorough study so that we would get a much clearer picture about his life and works?
dLG: If I had more time, I could find many! But I can now think of one to which I was planning to devote an appendix in my Volume IV, but finally had to give up because I was unable to collect enough material: “Mahler’s instruments!” How different were they from ours? Did they differ very much from one country to another? Should one attempt to reconstruct a typical Mahler orchestra and to revive its original sound? Should one separate the first and second violins? Was vibrato really a late tradition, unknown in Mahler’s time as some conductors seem nowadays firmly to believe?
I devoted a lot of time and energy to a long appendix on the Welte-Mignon piano rolls because they preserve the one and only remaining testimony to Mahler’s interpretation of his own works, with two symphonic movements and two Lieder. I am glad to have done so because a lot of valuable new scholarly work has now been done on these rolls and it deserved to be summarized.
Henry-Louis de La Grange © 2007
ver 'entrevista con Henry-Louis de La Grange' en castellano (Spanish)