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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, even among connoisseurs. In rehearsal Walter would plead and cajole, holding out with unyielding stubbornness for what he wanted, but he would never raise his voice to insult musicians. He was probably happiest playing chamber music or accompanying lieder singers; it is no surprise that fellow musicians, singers, and instrumentalists with whom he collaborated praised him with great affection.

I have the impression, and it is nothing more, that Ryding and Pechefsky, in their timely and welcome biography, are not as admiring of Walter as they are respectful, even in awe, of his long and impressive career. Indeed, what they give us is not so much a well-rounded biography of Walter the man and artist as a steady, evenhanded chronicle of Walter’s career—the positions he held, the artists with whom he collaborated, the works he conducted—too much of it dutifully followed by reviews culled from the more than twenty thousand the authors poured through. To be sure, they have also scoured “thousands of letters to and from Walter, and have interviewed over sixty people who had known him personally or worked with him professionally,” but these sources do not leave a strong enough mark on the narrative, especially with regard to Walter’s private and family life.

Bruno Schlesinger was born in Berlin to a middle-class Jewish family. He took the name Walter only later, when, before taking up a post in Breslau, he was told that there were far too many Schlesingers there. Although not a dedicated student academically, he was precocious musically. “My report cards,” he wrote, “never showed an ‘Excellent’ in any subject except singing.”1 He began piano lessons with his mother, quickly exceeding her capacity to teach him any further. When he was eight, he entered the Stern Conservatory, like many an institution in Germany staffed by experienced and dedicated musicians but inexorably antagonistic to Wagner. Walter’s life was changed dramatically after hearing a performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde for the first time, the passion and sensuousness of the music affecting him “with the rapidity and force of a bolt of lightning.”2 From then on his musical education was a mix of the sacred and the profane—profane, that is, in the view of those followers of Brahms and his circle, not to mention his parents, in whose home Wagner was unmentionable.

There followed other experiences of similar effect, all of them connected in one way or another to Wagner and his world. Perhaps none was more significant for Walter’s future as a musician than his hearing the conducting of Hans von Bülow with the Berlin Philharmonic, whose leadership Bülow had assumed in 1887. By then Bülow was near the end of his career, having only a few years left before he retired from the Philharmonic in 1892, and more eccentric and unpredictable than ever. His orchestral performances of Mozart, Beethoven, and others drew on a tradition that extended back nearly half a century. A protégé first of Wagner at Zurich when he was twenty, then a piano student of Liszt in Weimar, where he lived in the Altenburg with Liszt and the Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein virtually as a member of the “family,” he later conducted the premières of Wagner’s Tristan and Mei-stersinger. Bülow was one of the most eloquent standard-bearers of the new, Romantic style of conducting introduced by Liszt and Wagner. Technically meticulous, sometimes even pedantic, he showed, according to Walter’s own account, the young and impressionable boy for the first time how every nuance and detail of an orchestral performance by a hundred musicians of differing temperaments and experience could be brought into being by a conductor with the force of personality and technical assurance to realize his musical vision.

Later, on a stipend, Walter—he was then only fifteen—traveled to Bayreuth, where he heard Parsifal and Tristan under Hermann Levi, and Der fliegende Holländer under Felix Mottl, both conductors having had a close artistic relation with Wagner. From then on formal education gave way more and more to self-education, as Walter studied Wagner’s scores in the Royal Library in Berlin and read and reread the composer’s essays, especially his essay on Beethoven, written for the centenary of his birth in 1870, and “On Conducting,” which remained for him into old age a definitive statement on the art of conducting.3

Two years later, in 1893, Walter left his native Berlin for Cologne, where he began his years of apprenticeship as an opera coach in the Municipal Theater. Before the century’s end he held positions as coach or assistant conductor in German theaters including Hamburg, Pressburg, Berlin, Breslau, and Riga. The work was exhilarating yet exhausting. In smaller theaters there were performances almost every night for six months of the year. Walter immersed himself in preparing productions; eventually he was assigned to conduct them. Enthusiasm often gave way to periods of depression, self-doubt, and self-examination. During his early years at the Stern Conservatory, Walter, considerably younger than the other students when he entered, had experienced a similar elation mingled with feelings of intimidation because of the older and more experienced musicians around him.

Only seventeen when he went to Cologne, he learned quickly enough that he did not have Bülow’s commanding will and autocratic spirit in front of an orchestra. Gradually he found his own style of leadership and a more lasting self-confidence. On the other hand, like Bülow, he had, while relatively young, the good fortune of meeting in Gustav Mahler an older and more experienced musician who, recognizing his extraordinary promise, became his mentor, friend, and a willing subject for hero worship.

The importance of Gustav Mahler in Walter’s life can hardly be overestimated. They met for the first time in the fall of 1894, when Walter took up a position as coach and assistant conductor in Hamburg, where Mahler was head of the Opera. Their relationship developed quickly, with Mahler eventually assigning the young man to conduct productions on his own, light operas at first, Lortzing’s Zar und Zim-mermann and Flotow’s Martha among them, then Verdi’s Aida. In 1901, after several invitations, Walter agreed to become Mahler’s assistant in Vienna, where they worked together until Mahler’s departure for America in 1907. Both professionally and personally, Mahler’s influence on Walter was decisive. He was present during the preparation and the first performances of all but one of Mahler’s symphonies from the “Resurrection” through to the première of the Seventh Symphony, discussing the works with Mahler and listening to him try them out at the key-board. No other musician of Mahler’s circle had such firsthand and intimate knowledge of Mahler’s music as Walter did.

No less significant was Mahler’s influence as a conductor, particularly as a conductor of opera. At Hamburg, and more importantly at Vienna, Mahler swept away routine, trying to create the coherent and unified vision that Wagner had projected for the performance of opera, in which musical performance, stage direction, scenery, lighting—in short, every element that goes into operatic performance—derived from a central conception of the work’s dramatic core. Alongside Mahler, Walter grew enormously, and not only as a musician. Introduced to Mahler’s broad culture and to his circle of friends, Walter found himself challenged on the deepest intellectual level. As he later wrote in his book about Mahler and his music, “…I am able to confirm what I then felt in my innermost soul: that this influence was a blessing upon my entire life.”4

Of course, with Mahler not everything was smooth going. He could be quixotic, quick-tempered, and demanding, for long periods withdrawing from any kind of contact with even his closest friends or allies, periods during which Walter must have suffered acutely. Walter’s own recollections about Mahler, in both his autobiography and his book on Mahler, are so ardent in their admiration, and the “spiritual crises” brought about by Mahler’s influence are expressed in so vague and general a way that we can catch little more than a glimpse of the emotional complexity of their relations. One crisis that arose between them, however, seems unusually revealing. Shortly after the birth of his first child, Walter began to experience rheumatic-neuralgic pain in his right arm, severe enough so that he was not able to conduct or play the piano. “I went from one prominent doctor to another,” Walter later wrote. “Each one confirmed the presence of psychogenic elements in my malady. I submitted to any number of treatments, from mudbaths to magnetism, and finally decided to call on Professor Sigmund Freud, resigned to submit to months of soul searching.”5

  1. 1

    Bruno Walter, Theme and Variations, translated from the German by James A. Galston (Knopf, 1946), p. 10.

  2. 2

    Walter, Theme and Variations, p. 39.

  3. 3

    There is an English translation of Wagner’s treatise on conducting, Wagner on Conducting (Dover, 1989), a slightly corrected republication of On Conducting (Ueber das Dirigiren): A Treatise on Style in the Execution of Classical Music (William Reeves, 1887); the Beethoven centenary essay, “Beethoven,” is in Wagner: Actors and Singers, translated by W. Ashton Ellis (University of Nebraska Press, 1995).

  4. 4

    Walter, Gustav Mahler, translated from the German by James A. Galston (Greystone Press, 1941), p. 9.

  5. 5

    Walter, Theme and Variations, p. 164.

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