Friday, 27 January 2017

Henry-Louis de La Grange, a heartfelt personal tribute

Henry-Louis de La Grange (26 May 1924 - 27 January 2017) 
Henry-Louis de La Grange died this morning. He was such a vivacious personality, so full of positive energy, that even though he'd been unwell for a long time, it just doesn't seem possible that he's gone.  His monument will be his encyclopedic scholarship on Gustav Mahler: a lifetime's  devotion in the service of knowledge.  Mahler interpretation would be in the dark ages were it not for HLG's insights into Mahler the man, his ideas and his influences. Yet HLG was also a Renaissance man, fascinated by many subjects, always open to new perspectives. Whole books could be written about him, and his family, yet HLG was always self-effacing. Despite all the honours around him, what meant most to him was receiving his honorary doctorate for services to others. There will be many public tributes, but for me, HLG was a very special person because he always cared about other people, no matter what their standing in the world.  His unselfishness and idealism made him what he was.

HLG's father, Amaury de La Grange, was an early aviator and later a Senator who campaigned for aeronautical innovation. He was a minister in the French government in 1940, detained by the invading Nazis until 1945.  HLG's mother, Emily Sloane, was an American heiress, who threw herself passionately into the artistic milieu of early 20th century Paris.  HLG had a  photograph of a toddler in a sailor suit, hidden behind coats behind his bedroom door. "Man Ray", he said, "my mother commissioned this when Man Ray was unknown and penniless." The kid in the photo was HLG himself.  The family's chateau in the Nord was appropriately bequeathed by HLG's father, becoming in 1962 a pilot training school named after Amaury: the family believed in noblesse oblige, the idea that a person's true worth depends on how life is lived.  Returning to Paris after the war, HLG studied with Alfred Cortot (and became Cortot's executor). His Damascus moment, however, was hearing Mahler's Symphony no 9. From then on, Mahler, though not to the exclusion of other pursuits. Forty year later, the Mediatheque Musicale Mahler acquired the manuscript of the symphony.  It was kept in an underground storeroom, behind many iron security doors. A few of us were invited to view it. Everyone wanted to have a close look, but I held back. My reward was being above to see HLG's face light up with unalloyed bliss as the volume was brought out and the pages  opened.

HLG was a gregarious man, who made everyone feel special: that was part of his charm. But he was also a very private person, who didn't reveal himself easily. On HLG's 80th birthday, he was in his living room when his secretary, Anne, came in.with a phone. "I don't take calls here," he said.  "You will take this one," she said. "It's Elliott". Elliott Carter.  Next thing a jovial voice came from the other end of the line: "How are you doing, young man!"  Some years later, HLG wanted me to meet Elliott Carter so he wrote a letter of introduction, in the old fashioned way. Carter was surrounded by BBC big wigs etc. but he pushed them aside and kissed me heartily. "Any friend of HLG is a friend of mine!" A whole world of graciousness that seems lost today.

Although HLG was a celebrity, there were only 100 people at his 80th birthday party, not at all a big public bash, and these included his personal staff, including his cook.  Guest of honour was Pierre Boulez. They'd been close friends since the late 1940's even before Domaine Musicale days.  Boulez's Mahler came direct from source, long before HLG's books were published, long before Boulez's recordings were made. Neither man was given to surface appearances: both had that French thing for white-hot intellectual intensity, a trait which Mahler himself seems to have had too, even though he wasn't French.  Incidentally, it was at that party, over Le Chatelet. overlooking the Seine, where I caught an equally private side of Boulez. A difficult piece had been commissioned for the occasion, which required great technique. Afterwards, the young musician and I were chatting, half hidden in an alcove. Who should pop up but Boulez, making a point of congratulating the young player and offering encouragement.  No one else was there, but the player and me, we'll never forget.

So much more, but HLG was so private. But I owe him. Without his kindness and support I would not be doing what I'm doing today, in several ways.  He was a father figure to me and a mentor. Sometime back, I was invited to the Paris launch of Jason Starr's film For the Love of Mahler . I couldn't go and the DVD didn't play region 2. But  a dear friend got it for me, and I wept.  It's a wonderfully moving portrait of HLG, exactly as he was, someone so unique that there'll never be anyone like him again.






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