Me, Gustav Mahler, Delphine de Vigan and the Ghost of Lydia Tár
On taking the Fifth with the Orchestre National d'Île-de-France
Hi everyone. The following – and the GIF above – might spoil Tár for those who haven’t seen it yet, but barely. If it offends for other reasons, please know that this was not intended. And, word to the wise: it is best to read these things online or on the Substack app, as they tend to… evolve.
The main concert hall of the Philharmonie de Paris, the Grande Salle Pierre Boulez, pictured above, is not a room so much as a scattering of cloud-like balconies, suspended or cantilevered in such ways that no seat in the 2,400-seat house is more than half a hockey rink away from the conductor.
The acoustics throughout the space are pin-drop sharp. Even where we were last Tuesday – in the cheapest seats, just behind the concert stage.
That’s the three of us at the end of the concert – me applauding between T. (in green) and C. (in pink), so close to the percussionists below that were T. to have held me by my feet, I could have hung upside down and banged the gong with both fists.
Hockey, fists. Obviously, I do not belong in a symphony hall. But, then, did the poet Paul Verlaine? In Epigrammes, he writes of having once “thrown a punch for Wagner” at a concert in Paris. An 1861 performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser in the Salle Le Peletier of the Paris Opéra, conducted by the composer himself, was interrupted during the “orgiastic” ballet in Scene 1 by spectators “who behaved like men possessed… hissing, laughing [and] brawling.” At another Wagnerian donnybrook, this time at the Cirque d’Hiver, Gagnière, a character based on Cézanne in Zola’s 1886 novel L’œuvre, emerges from the raucous concert hall with a black eye. And 40 people were arrested at the premier of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring at the Theatre du Champs-Élysées in Paris in 1913. According to its conductor, Pierre Monteux, “everything available was tossed in our direction, but we continued to play on.” The New York Post’s drama critic Carl Van Vechten wrote that the person behind him got so carried away he “began to beat rhythmically on top of my head.” I experienced something similar Tuesday night: if the man behind me had tapped his foot just once more into the back of my seat during the performance, I swear I would have turned around, grabbed him by the collar, pulled his jersey over his head, and started pummelling.
I obviously need professional help. Which will be expensive. Please subscribe now.
I, of course, did nothing. Didn’t even turn around and say something to the fidgety miscreant. Something clever, suitably high-brow, suitably civilised. Lay into him, for example, with these lines from Henri Michaux:
Le Malheur asseois-toi, Repose-toi Reposons-nous un peu toi et moi, Repose Tu me trouves, tu m'éprouves, tu me le prouves. Je suis ta ruine. Misfortune sit down, Take a rest Let us rest a little you and me, Rest You find me, you test me, you test it on me. I am your ruin. – Henri Michaux, "Repos dans le malheur" (1930)
Instead, I just sat there and fumed.
You see? Please.
Perhaps there is just something inherently brutish in the orchestral beast itself. Fashioned in human flesh, forged in metal, crafted from wood, hair and skin, articulated through mouths, hands, fingers, feet, wires, pipes, tubes, hammers, drums, bars and valves: of all our machine-age monsters, the symphony ensemble is by far the most awesome. Especially a late/post Romantic era version like that required to pump out a Mahler No. 5. And especially in light of the Fifth’s newest and most uncanny incarnation yet, at the haunting core of Todd Field’s film Tár, starring Cate Blanchett as the world’s greatest conductor of Mahler.
The score of Tár, however, only doles out tantalising fragments of the symphony, mainly the darker bits, eschewing most of the lusher parts. We get a few seconds of the fourth movement, the adagietto, that Luchino Visconti used so powerfully for the non-diegetic soundtrack of Death in Venice (1971). A few more of the brass chorale, and just over half a minute of the ebullient final.
We wanted more. So when the Philharmonie tickets became available, we jumped. And then, to prepare, we read: about how Mahler, having almost bled to death from a massive haemorrhage, composed the symphony while convalescing at his new summer villa; how it was a love poem to his new wife Alma Mahler, née Schindler, who was pregnant with their first child; how Gustav never took Alma’s music seriously, which, postpartum, contributed to her depression; how that first child died of scarlet fever the year the symphony unsuccessfully premiered; how Gustav called No. 5 a “cursed work” that “nobody gets”; how he then spiralled into depression; how the marriage foundered and Alma left him for Walter Gropius; how Gustav patched things up with Alma, published and publicised five of her compositions, and, having finally achieved a state of shared contentment, mutual respect and bliss, suddenly died.
Then we listened. First, to Leonard Bernstein – who rediscovered and lionised Mahler in the mid 20th century – conducting the adagietto with the New York Philharmonic at Robert Kennedy's funeral:
And talking about it at Harvard:
And rehearsing the full symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic in German, Yiddish and Italian, with musicians that barely knew it:
And then playing it with them, to perfection, live:
The Orchestre National d'Île-de-France is not Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic or Vienna Philharmonic. Nor is Lydia Tár’s Berliner Philharmoniker. But it is an impressive machine. I cannot say enough about the music and musicianship. Moving, troubling, jubilant, from the funeral march through the frenzied, accelerating rondo to its massive tutti death-chord finish: these were moments of ecstasy, of collective joy normally only experienced at World Cup finals, tent revivals and MAGA rallies, but here brought forth by art, by a 121-year-old piece of music masterfully executed.
After, the audience and musicians were literally reeling, swept up in waves of emotion, everyone grinning and applauding, those on stage clapping, bowing to each other, tapping their bows on their music stands, those in the balconies whistling and shouting each time the charismatic young conductor – who had never conducted the orchestra before and had been called in as a last-minute replacement – singled out a soloist or a section for individual praise, bringing them to their feet to bathe and bask in our undivided admiration.
And there we were, right on top of it, in front-row seats a goal length from the gong, and barely a hockey stick from the trumpets and French horns.
Playing a horn in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, especially for the soloists, is among the highest-pressure gigs in classical music. The stakes are extreme. So, too, are the decibel levels, especially when you’re sitting right next to them. The trumpeters on Tuesday played rotary-valve trumpets, as is common in European orchestras. They have bigger bells than their piston-valve counterparts, and thus a wider tonal spectrum. They also have narrower bores, which means they can be played louder. Significantly louder. The Trauermarsch trumpet solo that starts the symphony rose quickly from coolly restrained to vehemently ear-piercing. And then the cymbals crashed and the bass drum banged and the entire orchestra jumped in.
Listen to the first half minute of this and you’ll understand why percussion and brass are conventionally positioned at the back of a concert hall, and strings, singers and audiences, at the front. That said, our seats had advantages – not just the low price and proximity to the fray, but the view they afforded of the conductor’s gestures and expressions. And that, in many ways, was what we had really come to see.
As Nicholas Spice pointed out in last month’s LRB piece (paywalled here) on conducting, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is a late Romantic masterpiece of what he calls, citing Adorno, “conductors’ music”: “grand in conception, intensely expressive, declamatory, scored for a large orchestra to be performed in imposing concert halls for a mass audience – music which, to be fully effective and to have maximum impact, required a co-ordinating mastermind to run the show.”
Now, the conductor on Tuesday was not, like Lydia Tár, pictured above, a sociopathic mastermind, a serial abuser who grooms and preys on the young women under her sway. The scheduled conductor was Case Scaglione, who studied under David Zinman, who was once the assistant of the above-mentioned Pierre Monteux, who conducted, in Paris, not just the world premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, but also his Petrushka and The Nightingale, Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé, and Debussy's Jeux. But Mr Scaglione was ill, so he was replaced by his fellow young American, Eugene Tzigane, who studied at Julliard under the late James DePreist, who was once assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic under Bernstein. Tzigane also studied at the Royal College of Music, Stockholm under the Finnish conductor Jorma Panula, who caused a flap a decade ago when, in response to a journalist’s question about whether women should be professional conductors answered:
“No! What the hell, we have men already. It is such a limited profession… No! They can try, but that's a completely different story. I can’t comment on media or public opinion. But women… Of course they are trying! Some of them are making faces, sweating and fussing, but it is not getting any better – only worse! They can come [to my masterclasses] and try. It’s not a problem – if they choose the right pieces. If they take more feminine music. Bruckner or Stravinsky will not do, but Debussy is OK. This is a purely biological question.”
The last time I had heard the Trauermarsch before that evening was the scene in Tár where Lydia hides backstage in a toilet stall. With her, we listen to the first notes of the trumpet soloist, who is also backstage, hidden from the audience – Lydia had insisted on this before (spoiler alert) her fall from grace. As the third phrase starts, we exit the toilet with her, and watch, in horror, as she starts conducting next to the trumpeter, who keeps playing, paying her no notice, as if she isn’t there, as if she were a ghost. Then the cymbals and the bass drum crash and the orchestra goes full tutti, all the instruments together, and she storms onto the stage.
It’s a helluva moment. Imagine our surprise then, Tuesday night, when, before the trumpet started, the lights dimmed and, instead of Eugene Tzigane, a tall, lithe blonde woman – Lydia Tár’s ghost, her sosie, her doppelgänger – crossed the stage in almost total darkness and stood at the podium, haloed in light.
“Il attend…” she said.
“What the hell is this?” whispered C.
This, we discovered upon reading the hand-out for the first time, was the writer and filmmaker Delphine de Vigan.
Delphine de Vigan writes novels and memoirs in the autofiction vein. She is one of France’s best-selling writers, and, deservedly, the winner of many of the country’s most prestigious literary awards. However, despite her success – she has sold millions – her work is not grand publique: it is searing, harsh, difficult, brutally honest, intensely powerful.
Rachel Cusk wrote at length about her “taboo breaking” writing just last week in her remarkable NYT piece on this year’s literary Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Annie Ernaux:
In this literature-loving country, Delphine de Vigan became a modest sort of rock star, yet the aims of her book were in a sense challenging or undermining the tenets of that culture and the story it told about itself. Among other things, what de Vigan — and the powerful response of her public — testified to was the personal cost exacted by life in this exalted, beautiful yet patriarchal nation.
De Vigan is also the partner of François Busnel, one of France’s best-known literary critics, and until recently, the presenter of “La Grande Librairie”, which Cusk accurately described in the NYT piece as:
a weekly 90-minute television show about books, [which ] had often been cited to me as the emblem of France’s exceptional relationship to literary culture. Once a week, the country sat down to watch a special-effects-free sequence of interviews and debates with the writers of the moment. The prestige and sales figures of these writers were considerably advanced by an appearance on “La Grande Librairie” – an invitation was among the most fiercely desired laurels for the contemporary French writer.
De Vigan’s connection to Busnel ruffled feathers a decade ago when he invited her to appear on the programme, and praised her work effusively, but did not mention their relationship. And when asked by Busnel during the interview, “what does your current companion do for a living?” de Vigan cheekily replied, “I prefer not to say.” A few days later, the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo went after them.
An indiscretion, perhaps, but more an example of the insular snobisme of the French cultural milieu than anything else: those in the know of course already knew of the relationship, and so could smirk along with the joke. At any rate, hardly a conflict-of-interest issue. Decrying the “petits Saint-Just” attacking them, Busnel responded thus: “I am wary of the dictatorship of transparency. Should I penalise the woman I love because she is the woman I love?” Surely not. Few French writers are more popular than de Vigan, or more worthy of being showcased at centre stage of the French literary scene.
But should she be centre stage at Mahler’s Fifth Symphony?
“Il attend” de Vigan repeated, after a deep breath and a long pause. And then she delivered a 12-minute text, written for the occasion, a short story of sorts about a young man waiting for the arrival of the woman he loves, tickets in hand, before a concert of Mahler's Fifth. The woman doesn’t show – the idea of attending such a work is too much for her, too revealing of a longing for closeness and connection. So, disappointed, he gives the extra ticket to an older woman, and the text switches to her point of view, and ends with the young man and the older woman sitting next to each other in their seats, focussed entirely on the moment as they listen to the musicians warm up (as the actual musicians pretend to warm up), and the woman, excited, joyful, prepares “to witness this little miracle, the birth of music”.
Polite applause. De Vigan exits, the lights come up, the conductor takes the podium, the trumpet sounds, the little miracle begins.
Why this prelude? It was weird. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for opening art to broader circles. This is precisely why there are cheap seats at the Philharmonie, and why it was built on the populaire edge of Paris’s 19th Arrondissement. And why Verlaine was in a punch-up at the Cirque d’Hiver, at a “Concert Populaires de Musique Classique” where the cheapest tickets cost 75 centimes – roughly the price of a movie ticket today.
And I’m all for cross-cultivating the arts, sticking contemporary works in the Louvre and whatnot, widening, expanding, deepening. Etcetera. But.
“How can one write about Gustav Mahler's Fifth Symphony if one is not a musician?” de Vigan asked us in the hand-out. “I cannot explain the work, but I would like to describe the emotion. The imprint that music leaves on our bodies, on our memory… I hope that these words will allow us to break with the noise of the outside world and open our senses, our ears, our receptivity, our availability.”
And elsewhere: “Ever since I started writing, beyond feelings, I've been trying to name sensations. To find the right word... the right note. Writing about Gustav Mahler's Fifth Symphony is an attempt to express the emotion, the imprint that the music leaves on our memory, on our bodies. To try to understand why a work composed more than a century ago crosses time and continues to tell us a story.”
Laudatory, I suppose, and even successful: the sound of the violinists and cellists tuning their strings as de Vigan reached the final phrases was stirring, even though we knew the musicians were faking. The story, too, was engaging – or would have been, for me, in a different context, if I read it on the page, or if I heard her read it at a reading. But, there, before the Mahler, where I sat excited, joyful, prepared to witness this little miracle, I thought it wrong-footed. Unnecessary. Irksome.
Why it had this effect on me (and those around me) will require some unpacking. If, say, instead of Lydia Tár’s ghost coming out on stage to say a few words, it was Leonard Bernstein’s? Would I have been any less irked? Yes. Why? Because he is a musician? Yes. A man? No. If, say, the actual composer of Tár, Hildur Guðnadóttir, the first woman to win an Oscar for best original score (Joker, 2020) had come out and discussed the piece beforehand, I’m sure we would have found that fascinating. Or Caroline Shaw. Or Jessie Montgomery. Or Chen Yi. Or many others.
So is it because de Vigan is a writer? Writing about her feelings, how the Mahler affects her emotionally? Maybe. Maybe I don’t want my feelings prefaced and programmed by someone else’s. Though of course that happens all the time. Right now, for example. Or any time you’re in an art gallery, faced with an artwork that just sits there, dumbly, before you, and doesn’t come to life until you read its title, or the gallerist comes over and explains it to you.
Except no. It is not at all the same, is it?
I read about Mahler beforehand. Did this deepen my appreciation? Yes. But not the story of his life. It was interesting but in no significant way contributed to my understanding of the music. This, I know, is complicated, and controversial. I am swayed by an artist’s biography. I feel guilty when I listen to Michael Jackson. Guernica bugs me in a way it didn’t a few decades ago. Patti Smith’s refusal to stop using the N-word stops me from going anywhere near her books. I find it hard to appreciate Céline purely for his craft and style.
I will read de Vigan’s text again, when it becomes available. At home, or in a cafe, and then maybe put on the Mahler, and have a good think. Let her imprints imprint mine. But I resented having them imprinted upon me while I was seated in 207A. Contrary to what she wrote in the hand-out, it is the music, not her words, that “allow us to break with the noise of the outside world and open our senses, our ears, our receptivity, our availability.”
Nor is it these words, I can hear you thinking. Fair enough. Except you’re not sitting in 207A.
Listening to the music.
When the first trumpet note sounded, all was of course immediately forgotten. And forgiven. What preceded became instantly pointless, meaningless – the text, the 12 minutes of irksomeness, the bike ride on the canal to the Philharmonie, the hockey playoffs, my income tax declaration, the pain in my Achilles, the black sheep munching on the grass in the park outside, Lydia Tár, the dark, shining swirl of soaring aluminium birds –
– all of it disappeared in the unfilterable immediacy of the music, in its ineffable unfolding in the moment.
I think that’s it. But I’m not at all sure. To be perfectly honest, I haven’t a clue. Perhaps some of you might have an idea? As you can tell, as plaintively and nakedly expressed in my pathetic, brazen appeals for subscriptions above, I need your help.
Thanks for reading.
N.B. If you only click on one video, make it the Bernstein rehearsal. It is a marvel.
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Chris, every week I look forward to reading Hexagon, what will you write about this week? what story will you weave with your talented voice? your uncanny way of steering us along, with twists and turns, leaps of imagination, information, laughs, gasps, and surprise! To land, shaking my head and shaking my hand to you! Amazed!...I don't know how you do it, how you weave this magic ..But..please don't stop! your friend and fan Julie