This morning on NPR I heard Scott Simon and Marin Alsop talking about Mahler’s Fifth (you can listen too). Simon began by noting that Mahler was disappointed with the reception it got, and is supposed to have said that he wished he could have waited 50 years and then conducted the premier, when the piece would be understood. Simon’s first question to Alsop was whether Mahler’s wish was “born of great self-knowledge.” I think Scott Simon is great, so I was a little surprised to hear him lead off with this kind of cliche, and even more surprised when Alsop answered that it’s a “tremendously insightful” question, and finally kind of amazed when she quoted her friend John Corigliano saying that “a composer’s work really can’t be judged while he’s alive.” Huh?
Who knows, it could have been an offhand comment on Mahler’s part, wishful thinking in a moment of frustration that got picked up by the myth-making apparatus. If it really was his fervent desire then he was busy working the apparatus himself, which doesn’t seem so unlikely for the man and the times. The music is exceptional, drenched in agony and ecstasy and irony on a monumental scale. So deeply satisfying to hear it as the cries of tragic, misunderstood figure, doomed to die unappreciated. But any composer with an original sound and a strong personality will meet with resistance from parts of the audience of his day—the conservatives, the superficial listeners, the fans of competing composers (think Brahms vs. Wagner or Schoenberg vs. Stravinsky), the people who don’t like the look of his name. If the music is persuasive and is picked up by persuasive musicians, the resistance will fade. It can be frustrating, but it’s not profound. If the misunderstood genius thing gets people into the concert hall, I guess that’s good. I’m afraid these cliches ultimately weigh the music down, though.
Anyways, Mahler doesn’t seem to me all that high up on the list of unappreciated-while-alive composers. What about Schubert? Talk about a man with things to say! He poured so much heart and soul into his music, it boggles my mind that he was so little known when he was alive. I can hardly imagine a sweeter idea than to bring Schubert to life for an evening, 50 years after his death, to hear the premiere of one of his symphonies and bask in the admiration of a big hall full of people who knew and loved his music. I imagine Lizst and Brahms and maybe even young Mahler would have loved a chance to pay their respects. Mahler would probably have been disappointed, if he’d gotten his wish, to find that he was just a link in the chain, right on the cusp but still left at the station by the atonal express. There would be a contingent in the audience that still found him too difficult, another contingent that would thank him for being old fashioned enough to remember about melody and harmony, and another that would write him off as so last century (with all the buzz, Boulez would have had to write “Mahler est plus mort”).
The word Alsop used in paraphrasing Corigliano is “judged,” not misunderstood or unappreciated, so Corigliano may have been thinking along very different lines—that it takes time and perspective to assess the work, even if it is well received during a composer’s life, or that all the work has to be done before it can be assessed. So I’ve been thinking about living composers and how well they can be judged. Steve Reich comes to mind because of all the 70th birthday events last year. He’s not a household name but he sure doesn’t seem unappreciated or deeply misunderstood, and I don’t think that the judgment of him in 50 years will be that different than it is now (and to the extent that it is different, it won’t necessarily be clearer—it will reflect the tastes and prejudices of that time). He may have been misjudged and under-appreciated in some academic and critical circles if he had died in 1980, while the post-Webern aesthetic still had so much prestige. That kind of thing could bother a person who has their eye on history, I guess (I have no reason to think Reich is that kind of a person). But does anyone in this day and age really think that next generation’s audiences will catch up and embrace a bunch of dead composers who, right now, are struggling in obscurity? I find the idea ridiculous.