Practice makes perfect

More WAM ethnography:

Brass players enjoy, even flaunt, their hooligan image (more “licence to deviate from behavioural norms”)—or at least, UK brass players in a befuddled heyday from the 1960s to the 1990s, still an ongoing hangover today.

Becoming a musician (or indeed a household Daoist) is about far more than “learning the dots”; aspiring musicians also look to the lifestyles of their role models. The intoxicant du jour changes—Chinese shawm players have moved from opium to amphetamines, for instance. But both in jazz and WAM, many musos have learned to their cost that adopting the, um, recreational pastimes of Charlie Parker or John Wilbraham doesn’t necessarily help them play the way their heroes  did.

The trumpeter John Wilbraham (“Jumbo”) was legendary. This is a beautiful site well worth exploring—an insider’s ethnography. I came across him when he was trumpet tutor for the NYO, and later in the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

There are also some fine stories on this site, not least about two of my most admired conductors (more maestro-baiting):

“The one thing we do know about Bach for certain, is that he didn’t want it to sound fucking awful!” —John Wilbraham to John Eliot Gardiner.

(a succinct critique of the Early Music movement?), and

“If I’d wanted to play in front of a clown, I’d have joined the fucking circus.” —John Wilbraham to Gennadi Rozhdestvensky.

Learning to perform—in any tradition!—requires endless hours of practice (again, it’s the stories about jazzers, rather than WAM musos, that inspire me here). There’s another famous story, which strangely I haven’t yet found among all the online anecdotes:

Before Mahler 5 at the Proms, a music critic was having a drink in the 99, favoured hostelry of Prom-goers. He watched in amazement as Jumbo downed pint after pint, and then picked up his trumpet case to stagger off to the gig. Expecting the worst, the critic took his place in the audience. The symphony opens with a scary exposed trumpet solo, and is challenging throughout. Jumbo played the whole symphony perfectly.

After the concert the critic returns to the pub, to find Jumbo already propped up at the bar, more pints lined up. He walks up to him and says,
“You must excuse me, Mr Wilbraham, but may I ask how you manage to play so perfectly when you’re pissed?”
“It’sh perfectly simple,” Jumbo smiles back at him conspiratorially, “I practice pissed!”

Stories like this belong to the treasury of orchestral myth-making.

Mahler: quintuplets, and gender

I’m so permanently immersed in Mahler 2, 5, 6, and 9 that I sometimes neglect the 3rd symphony:

Here, apart from the overwhelming overall effect, I’d merely like to zoom in on a tiny detail (as I did with the syncopated percussion cadential pattern in the hymns of Yanggao Daoists): the use of quintuplets, often informed by Mahler’s instruction nicht eilen! (“Don’t rush!”). An example from the finale (fig.22 from 1.34.30):

Mahler 3

The figure returns at 1.40 18, and then with the full orchestra led by blazing trumpets at 1.41.16.

Quintuplets play a similar role in climactic moments of the 9th symphony:

like this passage (from 1.06.09):

Mahler 9——and just dig all those string glissandos. Such a rhythm creates a quite different effect from the more conventional alternative, like this magnificent recapitulation on the horns:

Mahler 9 horns

It is as if the quintuplets are struggling to emerge from the stone like Michelangelo’s Slaves.

While I’m on Mahler, here’s a fine comparative post about the climax of the 2nd symphony.

*Historical note: I chose these versions mainly for Bernstein, but it won’t necessarily strike the casual listener/viewer that there’s something else remarkable about them. The Vienna Phil is one of several orchestras that haven’t exactly led the way in gender equality: permanent posts were only given to female musicians in 1997, and even by 2013 the orchestra only had six female members. Historically authentic, sure, but…

The Li band in France: notes

It’s worth rounding off these vignettes of the Li family on tour with some of my daily notes, as a little contribution to the ethnography of one, um, caravanserai on the global bazaar—and also as a further illustration that Daoists are Real People, not mere Faceless Paragons of Ancient Wisdom.

18th May
After a long journey from Yanggao via Beijing, the Daoists reach our hotel at 7.30am. Alas, despite my blandishments at the desk, they have to wait all morning for their rooms to become available, but I catch up with them as they rest on sofas in the foyer, letting Li Manshan sleep in my little room.

I take Li Bin, Golden Noble, Erqing, and Wang Ding round the corner to Rue de Rome, helping spendthrift Li Bin buy a preliminary round of gifts for his guanxi network back home: he asks me to help him choose four bottles of olive oil and ten bottles of vin rouge. Confessing my ignorance, I try to muster a little bon goût. He wants to splash out on more posh bottles, but I choose vin pretty ordinaire, trying vainly to control his reckless spending.

A friend of Erqing has even asked him to buy him a particular vintage of Château Lafite. I tell him to forget it. Still, imagine—twenty years ago the average annual income for a Yanggao peasant was still only around £100.

We do splash out on an adapter, though. This has become a touring ritual, since they never bring the ones we have bought on previous trips. They keep it very busy with recharging their mobiles and i-pods.

At midday we go round the corner to Rue Budapest for Sichuan noodles. They drink Erguotou liquor. We chuckle over our hosts’ quirky arrangement over expenses: 20 kuai each per meal for them, a mere 15 kuai for me. This causes much mirth: do I get less because I’m too fat?! After lunch, after a meeting with Teacher Wang, now abbreviated to “hold meeting” (kaihui), their rooms are available—three doubles (sociable types that they are, they wouldn’t even want singles).

It’s so great to be on tour with a brilliant sextet who have been doing rituals together for thirty years, and who are now in the rhythm of touring abroad too. Li Manshan is a wise laissez-faire (wuwei?!) leader, Li Bin an able fixer, Golden Noble and Wu Mei best mates, and Erqing and Wang Ding are cool too. We slot into our secret language, always laughing, dusting off old stories, devising new takes.

At 6pm our hosts Adeline Herrou and Yan Lu, with her assistant Alessandra, come to our hotel to guide us to the conference banquet. Arriving a bit late in a downpour, we are fortunately siphoned off to another quieter restaurant nearby so we can get to know our hosts in peace. Yan Lu is géniale, petite, full of joi de vivre. We give her our favourite ritual couplet written by Li Manshan, and local dried apricots from Yanggao. It’s been a long first day (and their travel from Yanggao itself took nearly 24 hours before that), but after taking the metro home, Li Manshan and I have our usual sweet chat outside the hotel.

19th May
We have a good breakfast; they eat plenty of everything, with lashings of coffee. I no longer have to help—they’re even experts with the egg-boiling contraption.

I end up in Golden Noble and Wu Mei’s room, where we have a nice chat. I mention the Wang family Daoists of Shuozhou just southwest of Yanggao. Wu Mei knows Wang Junxi’s guanzi-playing and likes it, having seen his videos online; he has appeared in a secular show with them, but there was nothing much for them to talk about!

Now that my film and book are out, we can relax without my constant pedantic questions. But I’m always in fieldwork mode—I just can’t help taking notes. Li Manshan tells me more about the Temple of the God Palace in the southeast of his village—site of the original settlement Dazhaizhai 大寨寨.

53 GN and WM amused cropped

Relaxing in the scripture hall between rituals, Golden Noble and Wu Mei amused by my notebook, 2011.

The Daoists busy themselves preparing for our first gig at the Nanterre conference: while Li Bin packs all the stuff to take, Golden Noble checks their sheng mouth-organs, Wu Mei works on his reeds. Their rooms are scattered with the debris of touring: shavers, battery chargers, mobiles, i-pods, cymbals, a solder (to tune their sheng), fags, pot noodles just in case, gifts of dried apricots…

We take the train to Nanterre, and after a canteen lunch the splendid Hélène Bloch takes us on a reccy of our pre-concert route to and through La ferme du bonheur circus on campus—it’s just like being back in Yanggao, as it really is a farm, with sheep, a peacock, and lovely laidback warm people. I dream of running away to join the circus; there’s a new release of La strada just out. The peacock displays for Li Manshan but not for me, a typical show of xenophilia (chongyang meiwai)!

edf

La ferme du bonheur. Photo: Hélène Bloch.

After my film screening, the Daoists are waiting outside to lead the audience through the campus to the farm, where we all take a tea-break, and then to the concert hall.

The hall is small, but the gig is amazing, as always. Our encore of the Mantra to the Three Generations, with me joining in, goes well.

As Ian Johnson observes in his book The souls of China (pp.37–40), the progression of the Li band to minor international celebrity has been a gradual process, from Chen Kexiu’s research to the 1990 Beijing festival, through to our foreign tours (cf. my book, ch.18).

For what it’s worth, such northern ritual styles do perhaps lend themselves better to the concert format than many southern Daoist groups, the entrancing wind ensemble supplementing the vocal liturgy and percussion.

We take the train back to our hotel, then go for supper. Li Manshan has given me two bottles of lethal Fenjiu white spirit from Shanxi, which we (all except him—he’s not a drinker) polish off with our meal. I’m TP again. I stagger back to my room to take stock, then around midnight Li Manshan knocks on my door for another “meeting” outside. First we gravitate to my bathroom for me to explain how the taps work, and he tells me his story about a Chinese guy who brought back the hotel soap as a present, and his mate says “Uurgh, this foreign white chocolate tastes disgusting!”.

We adjourn outside for more jokes, and fond reminiscences of Li Qing. As always, our most intimate moments are late at night, tranquil, alone together. These tours just get better and better. Yan Lu and all our hosts love this, and so do we.

My two rules for when the time has come to leave China:
1) when I begin to enjoy drinking baijiu white spirit;
2) when I begin to like Chinese pop.

In the old days such tours were inevitably accompanied by a gaggle of superfluous apparatchiks on a freebie trip abroad. Now the Daoists have their own private passports, and I look after them on my own.

It’s also amazing how much Chinese food abroad has improved over the last couple of decades. “Long gone are the days when” we have to endure sweet-and-sour pork—though even that has a certain nostalgia for me. With a busy schedule, and several good Chinese restaurants on our doorstep, I feel no great need to educate the Daoists in the richesses of French cuisine.

20th May Saturday
By 5am I’m chatting with Li Manshan again outside the hotel over a fag. After a quick breakfast we all take the new line 14 to Gare de Lyon. Streetwise Erqing is useful on the metro, noticing our route, watching out for signs—I no longer need to marshall them so closely, but the spectre of losing a national treasure in New York in 2009 still haunts me.

SanskritWe’re in plenty of time for the 8.59 to Clermont-Ferrand—whose Chinese name Kelaimeng Feilang, preceded by Aofoni (Auvergne) reminds me of one of the Li band’s pseudo-Sanskrit codas, such as the one at the end of the hymn Diverse and Nameless!

I go off with Li Bin to buy lunch for the band to eat on the train.

The lunch-pack of Notre Dame

(How could I resist? Just in case you’re not familiar with this one, it’s the answer to “What’s wrapped in cellophane and goes DONG?”)

Wu Mei and Li Manshan soon nod off, the latter tapping out drum rhythms even in his sleep. Later as I try to photo him chatting with Golden Noble, he tries to mess up my photo with his smelly sock.

They get excited seeing a field. To me it’s just a field. Wisely, they’ve long given up asking me technical questions about European agriculture. Golden Noble and Wu Mei have a beautiful chat—relaxed, thoughtful.

Our train is late, but hey. Valérie Bey-Smith and Wu Yunfeng, our keen Confucian hosts, meet us on the platform. Clermont-Ferrand feels pleasantly remote and eccentric—a bit like one of those Hunan mountain towns (where I’ve never been, BTW). We make hasty preparations for the gig in the conservatoire. After intros from the Confucius Institute and the Chinese consul in Lyon, my talk goes fine, with Valérie translating for me. I’m getting better at this. The gig is great—the audience goes wild.

The concerts only last an hour, but the Daoists are soaked in sweat. Still, it’s no big deal compared to their long rituals in Yanggao. The two sheng players, little trumpeted, have to work especially hard. In the trick sequence, even the way Erqing stays still for Wu Mei to slot the bell of his curved trumpet onto the pipe and then at once starts twirling it, playing all the while, is virtuosic. Wu Mei sometimes gets in a bit of trouble balancing the cymbal on his head, or the false eyes (walnut shells) coming loose, which all adds to the excitement—I observe to him that such little hitches should be a deliberate part of his routine, so as to show the audience how difficult it is, and keep them on edge.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

Nanterre. Photo: Nathalie Béchet.

CF congratulations

Congratulations from the Chinese Consulate General in Lyon.

I get the usual erroneous compliments from the Chinese about me “discovering” them, and about the Chinese not knowing their own culture. OK, urban educated Chinese may not (I’m no great authority on Morris dancing either), but there has long been a wealth of research from native scholars, which is ongoing; and The Plain People of Yanggao have always been perfectly clear about their local Daoist culture.

CF group

After a nice meal with our hosts and innocent young students, they take us for a little tour of town, but we’re all completely knackered, and soon retire to our quaint hotel—next to the Hotel Ravel, I note.

Valérie, like our other hosts, is understandably ému (not Emu, or Rod Hull).

21st May Sunday
Up again by 5, I take a little walk near our hotel with the band, admiring the market, and the murals on the wall next door.

murals CF.jpg

In a nearby square we find five little posts, correctly arranged for a bonsai Hoisting the Pennant ritual (my film, from 44.21) on a future fantasy visit of Li Manshan’s 5-year-old grandson and his schoolmates.

CF posts

Doing daily travel with a gig is tough—but like my former orchestral life, it incites camaraderie. Our previous tours have been less frantic, but this one is pleasantly condensed.

Jpeg

The touring life. Photo: Wu Yunfeng.

Valérie and Teacher Wu take us to the station, with thoughtful gifts of Gitanes (!) and food for the train. We were also happy to receive Clermont-Ferrand Confucius Institute umbrellas.

Jpeg

Valérie sees us off on the train.

The train ride is fun again. It’s much faster today, so we arrive early at midday, and take the metro to find the Centre Mandapa, a splendid venue for world music since 1978, led by the splendid Milena Salvini.

With Mandapa technician Milou we try out my film for a most successful screening; my intro goes well, and at the end Li Manshan and I take a bow. The Daoists love watching our film too.

It’s a lovely little area, so we have plenty of time to relax. They find the amazing antique emporium over the road. A succession of beggars ask us for fags, which they give gladly. Intriguingly, the Centre Mandapa is also right opposite the 1913 church of the Antoinist cult:

Deviation

The state stance on “heterodox cults”? Photo: Stephen Jones.

We set up the stage during a tea-break for the audience, then the Daoists do yet another amazing gig. Though it’s a small room, my fears that the concert will be deafening turn out to be unjustified—it’s a great acoustic. I join them again for the encore.

It’s always good to see friends at our concerts. Several Shanxi people introduce themselves, excited to find the band performing in France; and today fine scholars like Jacques Pimpaneau, Robin Ruizendaal, François Picard, and Nicolas Prevot come along too.

One cultural difference: after a gig, sure we all want to get away, but the Daoists only drink with food, not before or after (usually), whereas we WAM musos make a beeline for the pub as soon as we have taken our final bow.

Our secret language (“black talk” heihua) is as arcane as ever, with all our inside jokes. Recalling a filthy joke that Guicheng told at a hotel party in Leipzig, I only have to say “Can you sew this up for me?” for Li Bin to burst out laughing (I can’t possibly tell you that one). We giggle again at Tian Qing’s “Eat a young monk” joke.

22nd May
We have a free day at last before the Daoists’ evening flight home. Last night Old Lord Li had a bath, slept till 1am, watched TV, slept again, and got a call from a family in Pansi village to determine the date for a funeral, so he was up before 4. Meeting up at 5 yet again, I take him to the bar down the road, where Tweety McTangerine comes on TV—Li Manshan hasn’t even heard of him, how enviable! Back to my room together to read Yan Lu’s draft article on the Nanterre events.

Li Manshan calls the Pansi family again at 6am. It’s a village that he likes best, and they most trust him. Then we have a good breakfast.

We stroll down together past the Opéra to the amazing Chinese department of Galeries Lafayette, brilliantly rendered as Laofoye (“Old Buddha Elder”). Li Bin and Erqing buy loads of perfume (“Hey guys, how many lovers have you got?!”)

Laofoye

Later Li Manshan and I buy toys for his young grandson: a trumpet and maracas, to go with the, um, Ming-dynasty instruments I bought him before.

We store our luggage and go for lunch, washed down by Leffe. Old Lord Li is drumming on his chopsticks again. Delightful mood over lunch, as always—everyone chipping in with stories, jokes, reflections. Over delicious Yuxiang qiezi, I ask Li Manshan if he has an aubergine tree. Often the subject turns to their hymns, as well as the Zouma suite and funky Yellow Dragon percussion piece, and the whole calibration of the trick sequence—how to improve them, tempi, and so on.

They rest on sofas at the hotel, and I film Li Manshan telling another sh-sh-sh-shikuaiqian joke.

Notre Dame

Later we take line 14 to Châtelet, and wander round the little islands. I choose different flavours of Bertillon ice-cream on Île de la Cité for them. After a little guided tour of Notre Dame, we return home for a quick supper of  noodles and beer before Adeline and Yan Lu arrive, Lu thoughtfully giving them posh French chocolates. I have to go off to catch the last train back to London, but their taxi for the airport arrives early, so I can wave them off after all, but it’s a hasty parting.

If it’s a quick hop back home to London for me, their journey was not so simple:

22nd: 23.20 flight from CDG to Beijing,
23rd landing at 15.20, 21.40 train from Beijing station,
24th arriving in Yanggao at 03.44! But both Li Manshan and Li Bin had to rush off almost immediately to attend to village clients.

I’ve been out of love with Paris for a while; the romantic image is hard to square with its gritty realities (rather like China, perhaps?). But this trip with the Li band naturally made me fall in love with it again. In this supposedly homogenised age—as with other cities like Leipzig, VeniceSeville, or Lisbon—we must delight in Parisian culture too!

As I write these notes up, Haitink conducting Mahler 9 comes on Radio 3, live from the Barbican; and then next evening, another live broadcast of Turangalîla! Perfect. I hear echoes of the Li family rituals in both: all the contrasts of monumental tutti and intimate chamber styles that we find in a Daoist ritual. But that’s just me… If only Messaien were still around to hear the Li family in Paris!

Posted at 5am to commemorate daily sessions with Old Lord Li.

Vignettes 1: Li Manshan

Li Manshan is as adorable as ever.

I was determined to get to CDG to meet the band off their Air France flight from Beijing, but it arrived early at 5.30am, so in the end I just had to wait for them at our hotel right by Gare Saint Lazare. We met up there at 7.30, Li Manshan giving me a big grin and a hug.

Now 72 sui, he is gradually giving way to his son Li Bin, only doing nearby rituals. But he still can’t turn down requests to go and determine the date, and he still decorates coffins. This process of handing over must always happen, but no-one ever describes it. Personalities within a ritual group, the transmission from father to son as the latter gradually takes over—all such detail is absent from both historical records and most fieldwork reports. If only we could document it in detail for ancient Daoist masters like Du Guangting.

Li Manshan has new headgear, now a more trendy baseball cap, not as sweet as his old one, but hey. He only takes it off, reluctantly, when we enter Notre Dame. He also has a new mobile, the same old make, but with a new ringtone that sounds like The magic roundabout, so another of my names for him is Zebedee—who would have liked the Daoist Pacing the Void. I miss Li Manshan’s old kitsch ringtone of The little wicker basket.

After his lovely gift to me of the old folding stool he made, I gave him a digested translation of The good soldier Švejk, a copy I must have bought in Beijing in the early 1990s. I inscribe it to him:

踏罡步斗的明星李老君
Old Lord Li, superstar Stepping the Cosmos and Pacing the Dipper

“Old Lord Li” references one of our favourite ritual couplets pasted up at the gateway of the scripture hall, hard to translate elegantly:

穩如泰山盤腿座
貫定乾坤李老君
Seated in lotus posture firm as Mount Tai,
Old Lord Li thoroughly resolves the male and female elements.

And Stepping the Cosmos and Pacing the Dipper are rituals in the family’s manual collection.

Old Lord Li is immediately hooked on Švejk. I knew it would be just his cuppa tea—the innocent common man muddling his way jovially through an irrational state machinery. He can’t put it down. Later, suitably, I also give him my old spare toothbrush to use, as he hasn’t brought one.

After catching up together and working out our day, I go off with Li Manshan for the first of many meetings with Teacher Wang, now abbreviated to “hold meeting” (kaihui).

How amazing to be on tour again with this brilliant sextet who have been doing rituals together for thirty years, and who are now in the rhythm of touring abroad too. We use our secret language, always laughing.

In the concerts, the others (like Wu Mei for his amazing tricks on the wind instruments, or Golden Noble with his solo recitation) may attract more attention, but Li Manshan is right at the heart of everything, drumming unerringly, singing intensely, subtly directing. Even the twisting route he improvises on the tiny stage as he leads the final Chase round the Five Quarters, unsheathing the “precious sword” to sketch talismans on the ground, is magisterial.

LMS on train to Nanterre

On the train to Nanterre.

Late at night we have our usual sweet chat outside the hotel. It’s been a long day, but they’re troopers.

Li Manshan is always tapping away on his fingers (even while sleeping on the train) or on his chopsticks as we wait for our meal to arrive.

LMS at Hotel Ravel

Clermont-Ferrand: two of my favourite masters.

Following a quick weekend flit to Clermont-Ferrand, after our last gig back in Paris he had a (rare) bath—the concerts are hot work, and they’re all bathed in sweat. He then slept till 1am, watched some TV, slept again, got a call from Pansi village to determine the date after a death, and was up by 4am.

We meet up in the foyer at 5am for fags outside, lovely. I take him to the bar down the road, full of workmen on the early shift, so I can have a café and orange juice as we chat with the Wenzhou people behind the bar. Trump comes on TV—Old Lord Li hasn’t even heard of him, how enviable. Back to my room together to read through a draft article by our wonderful Confucius Institute host Yan Lu that she has just sent me.

Li Manshan calls Pansi again at 6am with more guidance. It’s a village that he likes best, and they most trust him.

After our hectic schedule, we’re all glad to have a final day free for sightseeing and buying gifts. While his son spends a fortune, Li Manshan just wants to find a couple of toys for his young grandson.

LMS and WD

With his pupil Wang Ding.

A quick farewell hug, and they embark on their long journey back to Yanggao to resume their busy ritual routine. Hardly had they got back home when both Li Manshan and Li Bin had to rush off to separate villages to determine the date for more funerals, which is the start of another sequence of tasks for them over the next couple of weeks.

Private Passions

Radio 3’s Private Passions is always good. Great edition with Philippe Sands, showing that he too “delights in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse”(see Muzak)—Leonard Cohen, Michael Chance singing Erbarme dich

(see also here and here), Bruno Walter conducting Mahler 9 in 1938, and Let’s pretend we’re bunny rabbits. Actually, the latter isn’t such a kitsch choice as its title suggests, but hey.

Note Sands’ film My Nazi legacy. Trailer here:

 

Men behaving badly: Freud and Mahler. And Alma

Mahler’s only meeting with Freud was their famous consultation in Leiden in 1910, when Mahler’s marriage and health were in crisis. [1] The day after Mahler’s funeral in May 1911, Freud sent the bill to his executor—“unabashedly” or “somewhat tactlessly”, I read online. “Somewhat”??

I hope Mahler’s widow Alma told Freud where he could stuff it.

***

There’s so much online about Alma studies and “the Alma problem” that I hesitate to enter the fray. Even Mahler’s notorious enjoinder to her, before their marriage, turns out to be controversial: [2]
[Alma writing:]
“. . . we had our first major conflict. I once wrote more briefly than usual, explaining that I still had to work on a composition, and Mahler was outraged. Nothing in the world was to mean more to me than writing to him; he considered the marriage [on more or less equal terms] of Robert and Clara Schumann “ridiculous,” for instance. He sent me a long letter with the demand that I instantly give up my music and live for his alone . . . I cried all night . . . [but he then] moderated his demands.”

Norman Lebrecht [3] attempts to mount a hopeless rearguard action for the defence, brushing aside feminist accusations. Citing Mahler:

In your letter you write of “your music” and “my” music. Forgive me but I cannot remain silent. On this point, my Alma, we must set things straight and I mean right now, before we meet again. Let me speak in general terms. A husband and wife who are both composers: how do you envisage that? Such a strange relationship between rivals: do you have any idea how ridiculous it would appear, can you imagine the loss of self-respect it would later cause us both? If, at a time when you should be attending your household duties or fetching me something I urgently needed, or if as you wrote you wish to relieve me of life’s trivia—if at such a moment you were befallen by “inspiration”—what then?
Don’t get me wrong! I don’t want you to believe that I take that philistine view of marital relationships which sees a woman as some sort of diversion, with additional duties as her husband’s housekeeper. Surely you wouldn’t expect me to feel or think that way? But one thing is certain: if we are to be happy together, you will have to be “as I need you”—not my colleague, but my wife!

Lebrecht comments, his adulation for Mahler (which I entirely share; I like his writings too, otherwise) rather complicating his vision:

He goes on to say such blustery things as “you have only one profession: to make me happy”, and “this makes me suffer just as much as you”, affording future feminists all the ammunition they need to depict Mahler as a brute and Alma as his victim. Starting with a tendentious biography by the French politician Françoise Giroud, Alma and her thwarted creativity will be cited as an admonitory case history in the future academic study of “feminist aesthetics” [SJ: fine use of scare-quotes!]. Mahler, however, is not asserting male dominance. He specifically denounces “Nietsche’s utterly false and brazenly arrogant theories of masculine supremacy”, assuring her that he is not seeking a submissive wife. On the contrary, he loves her combative nature. [SJ: “Don’t you just love a filly with a bit of spirit?” Pah] What he seeks to avoid is a professional rivalry that might offer his enemies a chink of vulnerability. There can only be one composer in this marriage. If there were two, his work might be vaunted at his expense and he might be attacked for promoting, or suppressing, it. If both composed, both would lose and the marriage would fail.
These are not unreasonable considerations, given the disparity of their achievements. Mahler is a famous composer. Alma has written ninety-five songs, piano pieces and sketches, none of them published or performed. She is not, by any reckoning, a professional composer, nor is she convinced that this is what she was born to do. He does not forbid her to compose. What he demands is that she should not compete.

Sure, we should interpret phenomena (like Daoist ritual!) within the social context of their time. But Mahler’s values can’t somehow be validated by belittling feminism.

Mahler’s aim is to negotiate a pre-nuptial accord with a young woman who is headstrong [SJ: another classic sexist term], desirable [sic], and by her own account, superficial [sic]. His final demand is that she
surrender yourself to me unconditionally, make every detail of your future life completely dependent on my needs, in return you must wish for nothing but my love. And what that is, Alma, I cannot tell you—I have already spoken too much about it. But let me tell you just this: for someone I love the way I would love you if you were to become my wife, I can forfeit all my life and all my happiness.
Taking Mahler at his word—in a letter that is not revealed until 1995, by which time feminist prejudices are set in stone—he offers to “forfeit all my life” for Alma.

Given the previous history, how does that letter challenge those “feminist prejudices”? How does his airy claim that he would “forfeit all my life” override his demand “Surrender yourself to me unconditionally“?

Some kind of defence may be worth presenting, but it surely deserves short shrift by now. Lebrecht seems to dig an even larger hole in which he can join Mahler—a concept that might interest Freud (as long as he got paid…).

All this may just have to remind us that great (male) artists don’t necessarily behave in an enlightened way. Don’t let it put you off Mahler’s amazing music…

[1] Lebrecht, Why Mahler?, pp.207–13.
[2] https://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/The-other-Mahler-7126. Source not cited; not same as Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler: memories and letters, p.22.
[3] Why Mahler?, pp.128–30.