Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler

by Bruno Walter, Ernst Krenek

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Conductor, composer, and writer Bruno Walter (1876–1962) worked closely with Gustav Mahler as the composer's assistant and protégé. His revealing recollections of Mahler were written in 1936, marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the composer's death. Walter first encountered Mahler more than 40 years earlier, when he served as the composer's…  See more details below


Conductor, composer, and writer Bruno Walter (1876–1962) worked closely with Gustav Mahler as the composer's assistant and protégé. His revealing recollections of Mahler were written in 1936, marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the composer's death. Walter first encountered Mahler more than 40 years earlier, when he served as the composer's assistant conductor in Hamburg. He worked with Mahler again at the Vienna Opera, and after the composer's death conducted the debut of the Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde.
A staunch supporter of Mahler's genius and defender of his dour personality, Walter cites the pressures faced by a gifted artist striving for perfection. This edition of his tribute to his friend and mentor features supplemental materials that include a biographical sketch of Mahler as man and artist by Ernst Krenek, the composer's son-in-law and musical heir, and a new Introduction by Erik Ryding, author of Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere.

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Gustav Mahler

By Bruno Walter, James Galston

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2013 Erik Ryding
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-78236-2



First Meeting

From the depths of memory I call up the picture of Gustav Mahler as he first appeared to me, then a youth of eighteen. A shout of indignation had gone through the musical press in June 1894, as an echo of the performance of the First Symphony—called at that time Titan—on the occasion of the Musicians' Festival of the "Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein," in Weimar. To judge by the criticisms, the work had justified indignation by sterility, triviality, and an accumulation of extravagances. It was, above all, the Funeral March in the Manner of Callot which was rejected with anger and scorn. I recall distinctly with what excitement I devoured the newspaper reports on the subject. I admired the daring author of so strange a Funeral March and felt a burning desire to know this extravagant man and his extravagant work.

It was but a few months later that a letter of introduction to Pollini, the theatrical manager, took me as coach to the Hamburg Opera, whose first conductor was the same Gustav Mahler. And there he stood in person, in the office of the theater, when I left Pollini's sanctum after my first call upon him: pale, thin, small of stature, with longish features, the steep forehead framed by intensely black hair, remarkable eyes behind spectacles, lines of sorrow and of humor in the face which, when he spoke, would show the most astonishing change of expression—the very incarnation of that Kapellmeister Kreisler—interesting, demoniac, intimidating—as he would appear to the imagination of youthful readers of E. Th. A. Hoffmann's fantastic tales. Pleasantly and kindly he inquired as to my musical ability and knowledge—to which I replied, to his visible satisfaction, with mingled modesty and self-reliance—and left me in a kind of stupor and deep emotion. For my previous experiences, gained in homely surroundings, had taught me that genius was to be met with only in books and musical literature and in the art-treasures of museums, but that living human beings were more or less commonplace and that everyday life was prosaic.

And now I felt as if a higher realm had been opened to me. In his aspect and manner Mahler appeared to me both as a genius and a demon: life itself had all of a sudden become romantic, and I know of nothing that could more aptly characterize the elementary effect of Mahler's personality than the irresistible power with which his entry into a young musician's life brought about a complete change in the latter's views of life.

My next recollection shows him to me at one of the early rehearsals of Hänsel und Gretel, a new work then in preparation at the Hamburg Opera. Never before had I seen such an intense person, never dreamed that a terse word, a commanding gesture, and a will directed solely towards a certain goal, could frighten and alarm others and force them into blind obedience. An unsatisfactory piano accompanist tried Mahler's patience; suddenly—what luck!—he saw me, a fascinated onlooker, standing in the wings, and he asked me whether I dared to accompany at sight the opera which was unknown to me. My proud "Why of course!" elicited an amused smile and the request that I should replace the unfortunate colleague who had been removed by a motion of the hand. The often-repeated sung echo in the forest scene was unsatisfactorily shaded; Mahler turned to me with words to this effect: "I trust that you know how things happen in a forest—go and rehearse the echo for me." Thus, one of the very first rehearsals furnished me with a thorough impression of Mahler's manner as a conductor: guiding and commanding, filled by the work, sure of his goal, irritable and harsh when confronted with an insufficient performance, kind, trusting, sympathetic when he thought he could feel ability and enthusiasm.

The third recollection: Together with Mahler I left the building by the stage door and was about to take leave of him when he detained me with the words: "Come with me for a bit." What I recall of our conversation is merely that I started by making a remark concerning the Humperdinck work which he said was "fashioned in masterly manner, but not really fairy-tale-like." From explaining what fairy-tale-like meant he changed to other subjects, and again I was fascinated to observe how the same intensity, the same spiritual tenseness, that had previously filled his rehearsing was now manifested in his conversation. The vehemence with which he objected whenever I said something that was unsatisfactory to him—and how timidly I said it!—his sudden submersion in pensive silence, the kind glance with which he would receive an understanding word on my part, an unexpected, convulsive expression of secret sorrow and, added to all this, the strange irregularity of his walk: his stamping of the feet, sudden halting and rushing ahead again—everything confirmed and strengthened the impression of demoniac obsession; and I should hardly have been surprised if, after saying good-bye, he had gone faster and faster, and then flown from me finally as a vulture, in the way in which Archivarius Lindhorst left the student Anselmus in Hoffmann's Golden Pot.

A fourth recollection completes the initial impressions: following Mahler's invitation to call upon him I entered his study and my first glance was arrested by a reproduction of Giorgione's "Concerto" which hung on the wall. Who is the monk, I asked myself, who, his hands on the keys, seems to have stopped in his playing and turns around? What has he to do with Mahler whom he so strangely resembles? And I recall that, for a long time to come, I mysteriously identified the ascetic monk of the painting with Mahler. As a matter of fact, there is a "family resemblance," but not only to Mahler; every real musician somewhat resembles that monk, although hardly another so closely as did Mahler. The miracle has occurred here that a genius of a painter, with the prophetic anticipation characteristic of genius, has created the musical type; created him and not conceived him from experience; for at the time of Giorgione there was no music yet in our sense of the word; and so the musical type existed even before music itself. The painting furnished the initial subject of our conversation; I have retained no memory as to whether or not there was, at that very first visit, an endeavor on my part to trace the phenomenon of Giorgione's vision; I distinctly recall that we talked about it frequently and I also know that the resemblance to the devout player strengthened my impression of the mysterious element in Mahler's appearance which, in pre-existence, seemed to have been portrayed in the fifteenth century. In the course of that visit and the one which followed it I finally succeeded in turning the conversation towards his creative work and in getting him to the piano, and thus the aweinspiring impression which dominated me was sublimated into a force that stirred up all my faculties of feeling and sympathetic conception, for there was then disclosed to the seeking young musician a magnificent insight into the soul of a creative man. In addition, I was able to participate in the re-creative work of a conductor at home in the very depths of masterpieces and to add to my store of knowledge through the teachings and emotional communications of a universal mind—indeed, it would not have been surprising if, in view of the onrush of great experiences, I had spiritually completely lost my head. That it did not happen I ascribe today to the very fact of my unbounded admiration and devotion: without thought or puzzling, I had made up my mind to follow, to be sympathetic, to collaborate, and since this mental attitude was as natural and congenial to me as Mahler's music and musical activity itself, I fortunately, in spite of all my Mahler worship, did not have to lose my own self. And even if, years later, the unavoidable inner conflict with Mahler's influence led to serious spiritual crises, I am able to confirm what I then felt in my innermost soul: that this influence was a blessing upon my entire life.


I spent two years in Hamburg. A few weeks after entering upon my duties, the training of the chorus was entrusted to me at Mahler's instigation, so that in two capacities, both as director of the chorus and as coach, I was able to avail myself of the privilege of collaborating in the performances under the guidance of Mahler, thus becoming familiar directly and actively with his intentions. Very soon I also conducted operas, and when, at the close of my first season, Otto Lohse went to America, I was permitted to shed the snake's skin of chorus-director and coach and don the longed-for and more brilliant garment of the "real" conductor; it goes without saying, however, that I continued as coach of the operas put on by Mahler.

The anxiety of the singers to satisfy Mahler's demands for the utmost both in rhythmical correctness and obedience to dynamic and other precepts communicated itself to me, and led to an intensified exactitude and care in my rehearsals, which were of immeasurable advantage to me later; for my natural inclination was to place emotion in musical activities, dramatics and poetic feeling in delivery, and complete attention to the spiritual contents of the work above musical precision, and to neglect strict accuracy in favor of vitality. Now, however, when rehearsing with Loge or Fricka for Mahler's Rheingold presentation, I endeavored most carefully to attain a combination of the most vital expression with that painstaking correctness which Mahler demanded of the singers. How far might I have gone astray in view of my dangerous inclination towards exaggerated sentimentality if I had not learned through Mahler's demands and example how, in the presence of ideal declamation in the works of Wagner, the very fact of rhythmical exactness becomes the surest aid to dramatic expression, and how the co-ordination of the spiritual element with strict musical precepts works altogether to the advantage of a vigorous expression of sentiments!

The rubato, i.e. the loosening of the exactness in time and rhythm in favor of holds or accelerations inspired by sentiment, was frequently the subject of exhaustive discussion; even in Italian operatic music, in connection with which Mahler considereda somewhat more accentuated rubato an important element of the style, he was against any of the exaggerations which German musicians and singers often advocated. He set the best example of a restrained rubato, removed from the arbitrary inclinations of the singer and dictated solely by enthusiasm and passion, in an ever-memorable presentation of La Traviata.

In our frequent conversations on the subject of Wagner, my Wagner-frenzy became purified and strengthened through contact with Mahler's Wag-nerianism which was inspired by practical experience and deep thought. Thus, my strongest impressions of his activity as a conductor in Hamburg were the Nibelungen and Meistersinger, to be followed later by his presentation of Tristan in Vienna; and the whole of the performances and many details of them will for all time cling to my ear and to my heart. The personality of Wagner, too, furnished an inexhaustible subject of conversation; Mahler never grew tired of defending him against the "Philistines' charge" of ingratitude and disloyalty and, as an explanation of human insufficiencies, of pointing to the fact that the man of genius was wrapped up in his creations. Not only Wagner, however, but every artistic task that happened to present itself became for him a subject for discussion, although never with any intention of exerting an educative influence upon one who was his junior by sixteen years. After all, Mahler was not an educator—he was too much centered in himself, in his work, and in his strongly-agitated inner life, and he gave little thought to other persons and things.

Systematic influence, the most important element of education, was foreign to his wholly ungoverned and impulsive character. Nothing in his life—as I quickly realized—was systematic; his style of living resembled a river with cataracts, like the Nile in its middle course, and not a uniformly flowing stream. In the judgments of his personality, therefore, no epithet appeared even at that time more frequently than the word "desultory." He impressed me, too, as being desultory but not in the sense of a lack of thoroughness—he was ready for the next mental jump only when, in the cataract of thought and feeling, all that had been set in motion had flown forth and come to rest again. To be sure, quiet only lasted until his being effervesced again under a new impulse.

Hardly ever, therefore, did he impart conscious instruction to me, but what I did gain through my living experience of a personality that without premeditation and because of an inner overabundance spent itself freely in word and music, is truly immeasurable. Mahler's impulsive outbursts are a possible explanation of the agitation I was able tonotice in almost all the people who came in contact with him. They included those who were nearest to him, but especially, of course, singers and members of the orchestra. He spread about himself an atmosphere of high tension out of which were born performances filled with his intentions and pulsing with the fervor of his enthusiasm which gained for the Hamburg Opera its leading position in the musical life of Germany. While those of higher caliber were attached to him in profound admiration, bitter feeling and hatred issued from the less gifted and arrogant, who felt maltreated by the stern taskmaster. But, willingly or unwillingly, they all bowed to his will.

His inward vitality was at that time the source of a violent outward agility: I can still see him, at an orchestra rehearsal of Götterdämmerung: rushing towards the trumpets and trombones in a far comer of the orchestra pit, to impress upon them especially a passage in the Funeral Music; or quickly using a double-bass stool to climb up to the stage in order to give directions there, the issuing of which from the conductor's desk would have been less convenient or entailed a loss of time, as, for instance, in connection with the shading of a distant chorus or of music on the stage. The orchestra would, meanwhile, remain in hypnotic silence, under the spell of the master who, himself spellbound by the intrinsic conception of a work of art, seemed urged by a compelling force to make his co-workers comply with the irresistible dictates of his innermost self. At no time during the two years which I spent with Mahler at the Hamburg theater or the six years at the Vienna Opera did I notice a lessening of that high-tension spell. "The magic, too, remained unbroken" at all times and the work was accomplished, from beginning to end, in that rarefied atmosphere which was the element of his life.

The counterpart to such absorbing concentration was bound to be a proportionate absent-mindedness in all things that lay outside the momentary sphere of interest. Many were the comic occurrences resulting from this absentmindedness. One day, for example, at a stage rehearsal with orchestra, the stage manager asked him to have a little patience because certain matters on the stage needed his immediate attention. Impatient at first, Mahler was soon in deep thought, while the stage manager toiled to put things right. When this was done, however, repeated calls that everything was ready and that he might continue were quite unable to awaken him. Suddenly, aroused by the general quiet and expectation, he looked about in bewilderment, tapped his desk with the baton, and called out: "Zahlen!" (My bill, please!) There were peals of laughter from all sides, in which he finally joined heartily himself.

When he had gradually become convinced of my passionate interest in his creative work, it began to give him pleasure to make me familiar with it at the piano. The grotesquely-quaint sounds still linger in my ear as he sang for me St. Anthony's Sermon to the Fish, and I recall his high spirits in the rendition of To make naughty children be good and Self-Reliance, and his passion and sorrow in the Songs of a Traveling Fellow; I still feel the deep emotion which shook me when I at last became acquainted through him with the anxiously awaited First Symphony. More and more his creative work occupied the foreground of our relations and conversation, and in the study of his works, in our discussions about them and about the books he read, the poets and philosophers he loved, in the ever-deeper view of his soul, my initial impression of Mahler as a fanatic-demoniac nature belonging to the sphere of E. Th. A. Hoffmann broadened into a more correct and inclusive picture, though one more difficult to understand.


Excerpted from Gustav Mahler by Bruno Walter, James Galston. Copyright © 2013 Erik Ryding. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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