LIGHTEN UP, GUSTAV!
It’s an open secret that French music is sometimes considered shallow and lacking in philosophical gravitas, especially compared to German and Russian music, which tends to go to considerable length probing the depths of humanity’s (usually dark) soul. Whatever validity there may or may not be to that debate, I think Gustav Mahler and Dmitri Shostakovich, two of the most angst-laden composers ever, would have benefited from some quality downtime in the City of Light. With that in mind, last year I invited them to join me for dinner at Le Valois, a perky bistro just down the block from our hotel in Paris.
Me: So, Dmitri, how do you like the escargot?
DS: Men are snails. They are trapped, curled up in their little shells, waiting to die.
Me: I see. How about you, Gusty? Enough garlic for you?
Mahler doesn’t respond but, with wild eyes, runs out of the café in a frenzy.
Me (to DS): I wonder what’s his problem.
DS: He is afraid. They are coming for him.
Me: Who is?
DS: Does it matter?
(Later Mahler tells me he ran off not out of fear but out of inspiration. He has composed a symphony movement called “What the Snails Tell Me.” It’s six hours long.)
I manage to convince Dima and Gusty to stay in Paris until the next Boston Symphony tour. When we arrived in Paris today, a year later, I found them again at Le Valois wearing berets and have been joined at their table by none other than Francis Poulenc, the admitted composer of some of the world’s most intentionally frivolous music. Dima is attempting to balance a spoon on his nose. Francis is encouraging him on by singing the famous can-can by Jacques Offenbach, with Gusty clapping his hands in rhythm.
GM (whispering): Jerry, take a look at Dima!
Me: Yes, I see.
GM: Shhh! He’s concentrating.
Me: He looks happy. What’s wrong?
GM: Nothing’s wrong. He is happy. And he’s given up composing.
Me: I can’t believe it! What’s he doing instead?
GM: He’s taking mime lessons. You should see him do the window routine.
As I order my meal, Poulenc does a card trick that throws Mahler into a fit of giggles.
Me (to Mahler): Have you stopped composing, too?
GM: (trying to answer in between guffaws): Oh, no! I still compose everyday.
Me: So what’s your latest? A new symphony? A sequel to Kindertotenlieder?
GM: No, not at all. I’ve gone off in a new direction.
Me: Oh? What direction? Atonality?
GM: Video game music. It’s so incredibly shallow. People love it.
Me (to everyone): Are you going to our concert tonight?
FP: What’s on the program?
Me: Mahler and Shostakovich.
DM: (flipping the spoon up in the air with his nose and catching it in his mouth): Sorry, Jerry. We’ve got other plans.
Me: Another concert?
GM: Better. A Jerry Lewis all-night marathon, starting with The Nutty Professor and Cinderfella!
FP: Lewis was a genius. He is a national hero in France.
DS: And there’s free popcorn.
I shake my head and depart the café somewhat disheartened. Maybe I’d led them astray. Maybe their personal misery had indeed made the world a better place. Well, I sighed, at least we still have their music.
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