Bruno Walter
Bruno Walter; drawing by David Levine


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

During their five or six sessions together, Freud did not question Walter about any childhood incidents of sexual trauma or try to elicit childhood memories, as Walter had expected. It was Walter himself who suggested to Freud that there might be a possible connection between the near paralysis of his right arm and, as he put it, “a wrong I had suffered more than a year before.”6 In his autobiography Walter was no more open than this about the cause of his ailment, and Ryding and Pechefsky do not pursue the matter; but the events that led up to Walter’s ailment are not hard to identify.

The trouble probably began after vicious critical attacks on Walter for his conducting of Tannhäuser were published in the Neues Wiener Tagblatt. It was evident that the attacks were actually directed against Mahler and that Walter’s performance was denounced because he was Mahler’s protégé. But Walter was devastated nonetheless. “The foundation of my professional existence had been shaken,” Walter remembered. “I began to be doubtful, if not of my musicianship, of my mission as a conductor.”7 At the time, Walter had been offered the post of chief conductor at the Cologne Opera, and he was inclined to accept. He was reluctant to ask Mahler’s advice, but his wife, impatient with her husband’s reticence, decided to consult Mahler herself. Mahler told her that Walter should leave Vienna for Cologne, that once the battle was lost in Vienna, no matter the cause, there was no regaining a victory. Walter understandably felt that Mahler had let him down.

Freud, however, advised Walter to leave for Sicily immediately, where he was to enjoy himself and to forget his affliction as best he could. Later, when he returned to Vienna, he was to begin conducting again, a little at a time. Freud said he was himself willing to take the responsibility for assuring Walter that he would eventually succeed. Freud’s advice was not casual; it suggests, in fact, that he understood it was not the attacks on Walter from the Viennese press that devastated him so much as the disloyalty and betrayal he felt on the part of Mahler, whose staunch loyalty and support Walter must have longed for at such a moment.

In Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, the poet-philosopher Hans Sachs, who embodies the traditional values of art and knows the path aspiring young mastersingers must follow to achieve artistic maturity, draws the young singer Walter von Stolzing to him through his unwavering steadfastness and loyalty. We can imagine that the young Bruno Schlesinger took the name Walter not so much because he identified with Walter von Stolzing as because the relationship of von Stolzing with Hans Sachs was based on the older man’s patient guidance and loyalty. The role of protector that Hans Sachs played in the young conductor’s youthful imagination was eventually taken over more realistically by Mahler; however, now Mahler was not only denying him the support he needed but was advising Walter to leave Vienna, whose musical tradition he had longed to be a part of since his student days.

As Freud no doubt sensed, Walter needed for the moment a temporary replacement for Mahler, to whom he could transfer his need for absolute loyalty and protection. Indeed, Freud as much as said this when he told his patient that he was willing to take full responsibility that no mishap would occur if Walter simply trusted his own capacity to recover and began slowly to conduct again. As for the journey Freud prescribed, one that would stimulate Walter’s mental energies, this had a symbolic value of its own. The permanent, cowardly journey that Mahler had suggested he take away from Vienna was transformed by Freud into a journey of self-cure, one that would lead him back to Vienna, where he would continue conducting.8


In 1913, at the age of thirty-seven, with his appointment as general music director of Bavaria, Bruno Walter took his place among the leading conductors on the European musical scene. In Munich, he held undisputed control over the Nationaltheater, the Residenztheater, and the Prinzregententheater, all devoted, in different ways, to the performance of opera, and the Odeon, the principal orchestral hall where Walter, for the first time in his career, led his own orchestra in a regular series of concerts. In his autobiography, Walter wrote that “those ten years in Munich, with their wealth and intensity of artistic happenings, when I was permitted to live my life as the conductor of operas and concerts untrammelled by any laws but those dictated by my own conscience, seem to me to-day the most prolific period of my life.”9

Anyone who examines Walter’s accomplishments in Munich even casually will find it hard not to see them as making up one of the most dazzling periods in the history of European musical life. In the very first season, with all the administrative work required of the new general music director, Walter conducted Wagner’s Tristan, new productions of the Ring cycle and Rienzi, and the first performances in Munich of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos and Pfitzner’s Der arme Heinrich in addition to regular repertory works and orchestral concerts. Throughout the decade of Walter’s tenure, audiences would hear, for the first time, Verdi’s Falstaff, Gluck’s Iphigenia in Aulis, Schreker’s Der ferne Klang and Die Gezeichneten, Korngold’s Violanta and Der Ring des Polykrates, Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, Wagner’s Parsifal, and the Gurre-lieder of Schönberg, as well as the world première of Pfitzner’s Palestrina.

The circumstances under which Walter left Munich in 1922 are complex. Here again he only hinted, in typically oblique fashion, at the overriding reason for his departure. “I feel that I must at least hint,” Walter wrote, “at a personal motive that contributed considerably to my decision to leave Munich. Those were for me days of great and passionate involvement, bearing the seeds of tragic development. The thought of leaving Munich, generated by artistic considerations, offered a way out of a tormenting human situation.”10 I think there is little doubt—Ryding and Pechefsky seem less certain—that the “personal motive” Walter alluded to was his love affair with the singer Delia Reinhardt, whom he met in 1915 during preparations for Die Zauberflöte and Der Freischütz, in which Reinhardt, a member of the Breslau Stadttheater, was singing the roles of Pamina and Agathe.

While the full picture of Walter’s relationship with Reinhardt and its effect on Walter’s family will never be fully known, I think it is possible to provide more insight into the relationship than we find in Ryding and Pachefsky’s book. Although there were rumors from time to time about his having other affairs—the British contralto Kathleen Ferrier is often mentioned—they are not only hard to prove but utterly implausible. Clearly a unique emotional and musical bond existed between Walter and Reinhardt that lasted, with long periods of separation, throughout the remaining years of their lives. I know far less about the circumstances than the authors do, but I find it curious that they make no mention of Reinhardt’s recordings, a substantial legacy of the woman and artist that Walter was so attached to. From her recorded work, she was a singer of extraordinary tenderness, delicate and vulnerable, with the refined imagination of the lieder singer and the kind of Innigkeit that reminds one of singers like Lotte Lehmann and Elisabeth Schumann, both of them, like Reinhardt, artists whom Walter admired. Did Reinhardt provide affection, support, and understanding lacking in Walter’s own marriage? It is not hard to perceive these possibili-ties below the surface of the pages of Theme and Variations, Walter’s autobiography.


The history of Walter’s performances in Munich, and in later decades in Berlin, Vienna, Salzburg, and in America, with the New York Philharmonic and with other orchestras throughout the country, reminds us all too painfully of how much of his repertory, especially in the field of opera, is now lost to us, although we have his recordings, both in the studio and in live performances, many of which have been issued. The authors have painstakingly documented his reception by critics and other musicians through the years, but they have not given us the kind of detailed reassessment of his art that one should expect from so serious and dedicated a biography, nor do they provide enough of a guide to his many recordings.

Like all German conductors of his generation, Walter believed that music transcends its sonic surface, always striving toward a world of moral and spiritual values and expressive meanings. These ideals were expressed particularly forcefully in the latter half of the nineteenth century by Wagner and Liszt, whose musical revolution (the Wagnerian music drama and the Lisztian symphonic poem) produced a style of conducting appropriate to its aims. In his On Conducting, Wagner emphasized two formative principles. One is melody in all its aspects. Melody, Wagner wrote, is “the most perfect expression of the inner being of Music….”11 The other is tempo modification, the shifts in tempo around a basic pulse, including even the most minute fluctuations, designed to bring out the special character of melody, the lifeblood of music. Wagner illustrated the meaning and application of such principles with great subtlety, emphasizing their connection to texture, rhythm, and articulation, in short, to virtually all the elements of musical style. Some commentators have tried to reduce the significance of this view of performance, and what it meant for Walter, to his habit of urging musicians to “sing” more, and to his practice of slowing down for the second theme of a first movement exposition. But such views trivial-ize what Walter, along with several generations of performers, tried to accomplish.

Less idiosyncratic or unconventional than the styles of Celibidache, Knappertsbusch, or Mengelberg, for example, Walter’s own approach to music—moderate and sane, warmly luxurious—is easily taken for granted and rarely elicits the detailed response reserved all too often for Toscanini and Furtwängler. Take, for example, Walter’s performance of Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony, recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1936. Walter does slow down somewhat for the first movement’s second theme, but that is only a small and isolated part of his interpretation. The slowing down is accomplished gradually through the dramatic shift of texture from full orchestra to the measures that prepare us for the new theme for strings alone. In other words, Walter is careful here not to introduce a change in tempo coincident with the beginning of a well-defined section. In this way, he makes the change less obtrusive. Moreover, Walter ever so slightly brings out theme-like qualities of the small three-note motivic figure in those cadential measures, the motive that becomes the basis for the softer, more lyrical second theme. As a result, the second theme suffuses the musical atmosphere, so to speak, before its actual arrival. The shift in tempo is thus only one means among many Walter employs to effect a dramatic change of scene, or in operatic terms, the entrance of a new character. This is the sort of thing that Walter did with extraordinary and often unparalleled subtlety.

On the other hand, Walter succeeded far less well with Haydn. Indeed, it is painful to listen to his performances of Haydn symphonies, as in an effort to dramatize the music, he bends and rushes the more abstract motivic and rhythmic logic of the lines, and the precision of articulation and duration too often goes awry. Nor does Walter, to take another example, succeed very well, in an otherwise dramatically vital performance, with the first movement of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. Right at the start there are signs of what is to come. The repeated eighth notes in the second violins and violas that support the opening, triadic theme lack the rhythmic precision needed to give the syncopated Gs in the first violins their full effect. This rhythmic flabbiness robs the sforzando A-flat in the first violins, toward which the syncopated Gs lead, of sufficient weight. Typically, Walter softens the contours of whatever is not melodically prominent.

Once one considers Walter’s performances of the nineteenth-century repertory, of course, one finds that he is everywhere more consistent. Among the most significant interpretations that survive is the studio recording of the first act of Wagner’s Die Walküre, with Lotte Lehmann and Lauritz Melchior, a performance of revelatory incandescence.12 On the same level of achievement are Walter’s performances of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony. There are lovely performances, too, of the First, Third, and Fourth Symphonies of Schumann, in which the thematic episodes are so charged with lyric intensity as to seem like nothing so much as orchestrated lieder. Predictably enough, Walter seems to have had little interest in the Second Symphony, whose symphonic argument depends far more on tightly organized motivic logic and long-range thematic coherence.

Much of the dubious conventional wisdom about Walter as a conductor goes unchallenged, I’m afraid, in Ryding and Pechefsky’s biography, for example his alleged affinities with the music of Mahler. Now, after decades of Mahler mania that continues without any sign of moderation, it’s time to reexamine Walter’s interpretations of Mahler. We should not allow historical privilege to stand in the way of renewed assessment. Here I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that Walter is temperamentally and musically far more suited to Bruckner’s music than to Mahler’s. That Walter would not conduct Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, and gave only two performances of the Seventh Symphony during all of his career, is symptomatic of a broader unease with the darker, fatalistic side of Mahler’s music. While hardly any interpreter responded so naturally to Mahler’s feelings for the world of nature as Walter, he stopped well short of identifying with the terrifying, manic, hallucinatory elements in Mahler’s music. In matters of musical texture and counterpoint, too, Walter’s sympathies lay far more closely with Bruckner’s than with Mahler’s music. Although the authors do not take a firm enough stand on such matters, their diligence and enthusiasm will encourage readers to clarify their own views of an artist about whom the young Leonard Bernstein said: “He was so kind, so gentle and so authoritative at the same time—I couldn’t believe that a conductor could combine those qualities of warmth, tenderness, and absolute authority to this degree, and I was rather in love with him, an ardent admirer.”

This Issue

February 14, 2002