The Modest Maestro

Bruno Walter, born in Berlin in 1876, had one of the longest and most distinguished careers of any conductor who became prominent in the period between the two world wars. Before he was forty, he was entrusted with the posthumous premières of both Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and his Ninth Symphony, his last completed works, having been close to the composer personally and artistically for nearly two decades. By the time Walter settled in America, in 1939—because he was Jewish he had been driven out of Germany and finally Austria—he had been principal conductor at virtually all of the important musical centers of the German-speaking world, Munich, Dresden, Berlin, and Vienna among them. During the early Forties at New York’s Metropolitan Opera he conducted memorable performances of operas by Beethoven, Verdi, and Mozart. In 1947, already seventy-one, he became the principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Although he suffered several heart attacks late in life, he continued to conduct, in Europe as well as America, and to make recordings until his eighty-fifth year. He died in 1962.

Erik Ryding and Rebecca Pechefsky, the authors of Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere, the first biography of the conductor in English and only the second in any language, argue that the absence of any serious study of Walter’s career in English since the publication of his autobiography in 1946 “is extraordinary…given the wealth of primary sources available, which could furnish material for a study many times the length of the current volume.” In view of Walter’s preeminence as a conductor during the first half of the twentieth century, one can hardly disagree with them.

Were an explanation needed for this long neglect, it would not be hard to find. More so than other musical personalities, conductors invite mythmaking, becoming, in a process that is often erratic and unpredictable, cult figures. Toscanini’s courageous stand against fascism, his colorful and often outrageous fits of temper and cruel tirades at rehearsals, and his promotion by NBC as the authoritative voice of classical music for American audiences did much to create his legend in America. Otto Klemperer was resilient not only in dealing with misunderstanding and rejection as a musician but in enduring severe accident and illness, including chronic bouts of manic-depression. All this gave a heroic character to his eventual musical triumphs in Europe when he was nearly seventy. As for Wilhelm Furtwängler, what has contributed to his legendary status half a century after his death is not only the intensity and power of his musical personality but his complex and troubling decision to live and to conduct in Hitler’s Germany, a decision his admirers are repeatedly forced to explain and defend, often citing his attempts to save Jews.

By nature mild-mannered, soft-spoken, benign, Bruno Walter was not caught up in controversy or touched by scandal; nor did he have the kind of charisma or eccentricity that encourages worshipful followers or cult-like defenders …

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