A while back on NPR, I heard Scott Simon interview Marin Alsop about Mahler’s Fifth. Simon kicked it off with a nice quote from Mahler about how a symphony should be like a whole world, then there was this exchange:
SS: …but when Mahler introduced [his Fifth] to the world in 1904, conducting the symphony himself, he apparently was disappointed with its reception. He’s reported to have said, “nobody understood it. I wish I could conduct the first performance fifty years after my death.”… [the music swells, then he introduces Marin Alsop]… Thanks very much for being back with us.
MA: Great to be here, Scott.
SS: And were those words born of great self-knowledge, did it take fifty years for audiences to appreciate this?
MA: Well, that’s tremendously insightful. A good friend of mine, John Corigliano, always says a composer’s work really can’t be judged while he’s still alive, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that.
Though it could be that Alsop was misrepresenting him, the implication is that, by “judged,” Corigliano meant “understood”–composers aren’t understood until they’re dead. And you can’t be appreciated if you aren’t understood. So there it is–death as the ultimate career move.
OK, there was a pattern in the 19th century of the major figures being maybe a generation ahead of their audience–I can see how Mahler might have expected the same thing, and it’s fun to think about how that fifty-year-late premier would have actually gone over. But it’s really just a matter of time. The dying part is a romance that comes from the ones who were tragically cut short in their prime. Van Gogh is the ne plus ultra, but there’s also poor Schubert, and Mozart, sort of, and a few others. It’s great 19th-century mythification, but these day? Are we still expecting big collective ah-ha moments in the 21st century, when audiences finally really get Ligeti, or Reich, or Babbitt, or Corigliano?
I don’t exactly have my finger on the pulse, so I’m wondering. Does anyone else find it, let’s say, over-dramatic for a living composer to be thinking in terms like this? And bizarre for a sophisticated classical music person to take it seriously? Even in a general-public discussion of Mahler it seems like a very tired cliche, doesn’t it? I have a few more thoughts about it on my blog, but I’m still curious to hear other reactions.