Bruno Walter (1876–1962), one of the twentieth century’s greatest conductors, lived a fascinating life in difficult times. This engrossing book is the first full-length biography of Walter in English. Born in Berlin, Walter began his long and eventful career in provincial theaters; his successes there led to positions at the premier opera houses of Berlin and Vienna. Then for a decade he served as Bavarian music director, conducting opera in three theaters and giving symphonic concerts.
Erik Ryding and Rebecca Pechefsky tell of Walter’s close friendship with Gustav Mahler, his relations with Thomas Mann and his family, and his romantic involvement with the soprano Delia Reinhardt. Ousted from Germany by the Nazi Party in 1933, he returned to Vienna, where he was artistic director of the State Opera until the Nazis again forced him out. He eventually emigrated to the United States, where he led the New York Philharmonic and other orchestras, developed a deep interest in the writings of Rudolf Steiner, and made touchstone recordings with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra.
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About the Author
Erik Ryding is the managing editor of publications at Carnegie Hall. Rebecca Pechefsky is a freelance harpsichordist.
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Bruno WalterA WORLD ELSEWHERE
By Erik Ryding Rebecca Pechefsky
Yale University PressCopyright © 2001 Yale University
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBruno Schlesinger Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg, 1876-1896
A beautiful song, a masterly song-How shall I grasp the difference? Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nursberg
Wagner's Ring cycle received its first complete performance in August 1876. The work's dimensions are huge even by operatic standards, its entire duration sometimes exceeding fifteen hours. A special theater was constructed in the out-of-the-way German city of Bayreuth specifically to stage the tetralogy, and audience members dutifully set aside four days to take in this tour de force, one day for each installment of the cycle. In its richness and scope, the work extended the limits of opera far beyond anything previously imagined, somewhat as Tolstoy's War and Peace, written at roughly the same time, reset the boundaries for the novel.
If Wagner's Ring signified the quintessential romantic deliverance from classical musical constraints, an event that took place shortly afterward-the premiere of Johannes Brahms's Symphony no. 1, presented on November 4, 1876-marked a move in a very different direction. This too was a large-scale orchestral work, employing the melodic and harmonic language of the later nineteenth century, yet it was written with due reverence to classical ideals. Balance, compact motivic development, artfully restrained passion, and an adherence to familiar forms were all among the earmarks of Brahms's first completed effort in the symphonic genre.
Grand in scope, both works demanded a virtuoso leader to keep the large forces together, to mold the thick textures into coherent works of art, and to tease out melodic strands from the rich fabric of sound. Each required an interpreter with insight and imagination, not just a time-beater. Between the premieres of these two nineteenth-century masterpieces fell the birth of Bruno Schlesinger, who would become not only a major interpreter of Brahms and Wagner but also one of the foremost conductors of the twentieth century, capable of both classic refinement and ecstatic surrender.
The son of Joseph and Johanna Schlesinger (nee Fernbach), he was born on September 15, 1876, "not far from Alexanderplatz, at Buschingsplatz and Mehnerstrasse, Corner no. 1." His was a middle-class, Jewish family residing in the northern section of Berlin. He had a brother, Leo, three years his senior, and in 1878 acquired a sister, Emma. While his father, a bookkeeper in the garment industry, had a deep appreciation of music, it was his mother who possessed the actual talent and training, having attended the Stern Conservatory, founded in 185o by the choral conductor and pedagogue Julius Stern. With a mixture of affection and vexation, Johanna Schlesinger recorded in a small collection of memoirs some of her son's earliest accomplishments. These included such irksome habits as stuffing every keyhole he could reach with paper cuttings and yanking pages out of musical scores.
But Bruno also displayed prodigious musical talent at an early age, and Johanna was the first to recognize her son's unusual abilities. At the age of five he gave a hint of his future profession. His mother regularly took him to the National Theater Garden, in which a little band entertained visitors. One day, the band became "the center of interest" to Bruno, "who, to everyone's delight, set himself up before them and imitated every movement of the conductor, without growing weary, and could not be removed before the music had ended." His immovability on this occasion was paralleled by stubbornness on others. It was difficult for Johanna to satisfy her son's curiosity and to control his shifting moods; she could calm the "wild little colt" only by playing for him at the piano. "Then the little man listened, his mouth agape, and sat fully enchanted by it, and one day he asked: 'Mama, does that simply come out of your fingers, or are you doing something as well?' Then his mother placed him on her lap and showed him how the playing was effected; Bruno listened attentively to her words, then attempted to play on the keys. He said: 'Please, mother, let me learn how to play like you."' Thereafter he received daily lessons from his mother and made rapid progress.
In school he was an intelligent but not exemplary student, his imagination already rebelling against the shackles of routine as it would, in a different way, later in his career. "The dreamer in him made him forget his pencil to day, his tablet or notebook the next day," his mother wrote; yet when he learned to read, he would devour books, relishing works like Robinson Grusoe and the Leather-Stocking Tales, as well as legends of the ancient Greeks, which he knew well enough to identify scenes from ancient mythology depicted in works of art at the museum.
Aware that her son had talent beyond the ordinary, Johanna told her husband one day that she thought Bruno would "develop into a great musician"
He laughed. "Your maternal vanity is too great. I certainly think very highly of my children and will be proud and satisfied if they become competent, good people, but I don't envision anything like that."
"Time will tell," she replied.
Joseph's attitude toward his son changed soon enough. The occasion was a family wedding. The professional piano player, when asked by Bruno's uncle to let the boy play, shrugged his shoulders and unenthusiastically made room for him. Though unable to reach the pedals, Bruno played Mendelssohn's Song Without Words in I+ Major from memory. It was a "ravishing" performance, according to his mother's partisan account, and the professional pianist, predicting that the boy would indeed "become great," recommended taking him to the pianist and pedagogue Robert Radecke, one of the artistic directors of the Stern Conservatory and a conductor at the Berlin Royal Opera (as well as the composer of numerous lieder). Radecke tested his ear, confirmed his mother's declaration that he had absolute pitch, and admitted him to the conservatory. Radecke's assessment of Bruno Schlesinger would remain with him for the rest of his life: "Every inch of this boy is music."
The conservatory was now developing and expanding under the directorship of Jenny Meyer, his mother's former voice teacher, who took a special interest in Johanna's son. Entering the conservatory at the age of eight, Bruno became known there as "the little Mozart" and soon enjoyed the attention of the young ladies, who "pampered and spoiled him, popping candies into his open mouth"; he would in fact enjoy the attention of female admirers for much of his life.
At the age of nine, Bruno decided to try his hand at composition. His mother asked her children to think up a "surprise for their father's approaching birthday. Without reflecting long, Bruno shouted: 'I shall compose a sonata for violin and piano and perform it with Leo [who had recently begun violin studies].'
"'But you have no idea how it's done,' his mother said.
"'You'll see; I'll be able to do it.'
"And indeed, without having any idea of theory or training in composition, he wrote a charming little duo. Unfortunately," his mother added, "the little piece has been lost, probably destroyed as a worthless thing by Bruno himself." She knew her son well.
He made good progress at the conservatory, though at first he needed "a special elevating contrivance" to allow his feet to reach the pedals. After a brief preparatory period under Franz Manstadt, he was assigned to the advanced piano class taught by Heinrich Ehrlich, at that time the most eminent piano and music-history teacher at the conservatory and a critic for the Berliner Tageblatt, one of the city's most prestigious newspapers. Ehrlich's course of study, to judge by his published technique manual, How to Practice at the Piano, was both careful and rigorous, giving Walter a secure technique that would stand him in good stead throughout the years to come.
Indeed, by 1889, the twelve-year-old Bruno appeared destined for a career as a concert pianist. Not long after the Stern Conservatory had moved to a more spacious building on Wilhelmstrasse, Ehrlich informed Herr Schlesinger that his son was ready to play in public and arranged for him to take part in a concert with the Berlin Philharmonic. According to the reviews, the debut was a complete success; the Vossische Zeitung reported that he "made an especially impressive appearance, playing a movement from Beethoven's Concerto in B-flat Major with graceful polish and a robust, almost manlike tone." The Berliner Tageblatt was hardly less effusive, reporting that "the boy Bruno Schlesinger" played his first movement "with full assurance and a freedom of expression reaching far beyond his age."
In the year that followed, the young pianist continued to develop, driven by his desire to interpret the great literature for the piano and inspired by a concert he heard in Berlin by his contemporary, the prodigiously talented Josef Hofmann. "His brilliant Berlin success, which I witnessed, and his exceptional performance encouraged me in my own plans and hopes and kindled my zeal," Walter related in his autobiography. In February 1890 he performed again, this time in a concert that included both solo works (the first movement of Bach's Italian Concerto and Chopin's Variations in B Major) and ensemble (Moscheles' Concerto in E-flat Major, once more with the Berlin Philharmonic). The National Zeitung praised his passagework, the reliability of his memory, and-significantly for a musician who would achieve fame for his work with others-the assurance of his ensemble playing, while the Vossische Zeitung commented on his natural phrasing and rhythm; he gave no appearance of being "drilled." He was passing beyond the stage of mere student diligence and was already displaying the originality of interpretation necessary to a true concert artist. Yet despite his serious desire to excel as a musician, he lost none of his "childlike nature" while preparing for his recital; "when he finished work and his diligent practice, he could jump and romp like a playful child."
Bruno Schlesinger was displaying other talents as well, drawing acclaim as accompanist for Jenny Meyer's students. If that was not enough, he continued to compose, though he was later to dismiss his compositions from that time as "wholly lacking in originality." Developing concert pianist, accomplished vocal accompanist, and budding composer, the young musician seemed set in his path. But a momentous experience soon changed his musical plans forever: he saw Hans von Bulow conduct.
Until that time, Walter admitted later, he had scarcely noticed the conductors of the Berlin Royal Opera and the Philharmonic. But now he was seated on the stage, behind the timpani, with a full view of Bulow's facial expressions, and as he listened to the orchestra's expressivity, it became clear to him "that it was that one man who was producing the music, that he had transformed those hundred performers into his instrument, and that he was playing it as a pianist played the piano. That evening decided my future. Now I knew what I was meant for. No musical activity but that of an orchestral conductor could any longer be considered by me, no music could ever make me truly happy but symphonic music."
Walter, of course, was not the only one upon whom Bulow's conducting made a deep impression. If Richard Wagner is to be believed, conducting earlier in the nineteenth century left much to be desired; orchestra directors were merely time-beating hacks, and some orchestras were even led by the concertmaster (though, as various orchestras without conductors have demonstrated, this in itself does not necessarily imply a lack of precision or interpretive subtlety). Even competent conductors like Mendelssohn, Wagner maintained, were too concerned with hurrying the music along; they lacked the rhythmic flexibility necessary for an expressive performance. Wagner's opinions of his predecessors must certainly be taken with a grain of salt. Since he credits himself with being the first truly creative conductor, he surely exaggerates the defects of those who came before him, and Wagner's prejudices (racial and musical) with regard to Mendelssohn are well known. Nevertheless, Wagner must have infused his orchestras with a remarkable intensity of expression, for those lucky enough to hear him conduct came away at once dazed and enlightened. Amy Fay, a young pianist from Boston who saw Wagner conduct in Berlin in 1871, described how he "controlled the orchestra as if it were a single instrument and he were playing on it. He didn't beat the time simply, as most conductors do, but he had all sorts of little ways to indicate what he wished." By all accounts, Wagner is at least justified in claiming to be one of the first orchestra leaders to take the burden of musical interpretation upon himself, and Hans von Bulow was his self-styled heir.
Both Walter's and Felix Weingartner's recollections of Bulow's conducting accord with descriptions of Wagner's method, in that the "orchestra seemed to be a single instrument, on which Bulow played as on a pianoforte." Weingartner, whom Walter would later encounter as Mahler's successor in Vienna, went on to describe how valuable Bulow's concert tours with the Meiningen orchestra in the 1880s were for both players and public: how, as a result of hearing them, other conductors and orchestra members realized that "it would not do to go on simply beating time and playing away with the old reprehensible carelessness and thoughtlessness, for that would certainly lower them in the eyes of the public, which, after once having nibbled dainties at the table of the great, would no longer be content with canteen-fare."
Weingartner's estimation of Bulow's musical choices, however, was far from adulatory. In his essay on conducting, he described at some length what he considered the harmful features of Bulow's conducting, first and foremost of which was what he called Bulow's "pedagogic element." In his desire to make his interpretations audible to the listeners, Weingartner believed, Bulow deliberately exaggerated his tempo modifications, took overall tempi that were either too fast or too slow, and was prone to give excessive prominence to details. Weingartner admitted that these exaggerations became more pronounced at the end of Bulow's life, but that was the time when Walter would have heard him, and Walter himself reported that "a sublime artistic purity shone from [Bulow's] interpretations. They were never marred by disturbing liberties."
Excerpted from Bruno Walter by Erik Ryding Rebecca Pechefsky Copyright © 2001 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Bruno Schlesinger: Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg, 1876-1896 1
Kapellmeister Walter: Breslau, Pressburg, Riga, Berlin, 1896-1901 23
Mahler's Second-in-Command: Vienna, 1901-1907 41
Composer and Conductor: Vienna, 1908 -1910 68
Premiere Performances: Vienna and Munich, 1911-1912 86
Generalmusikdirektor: Munich, 1913-1915 102
Delia: Munich, 1915-1922 121
New and Old Worlds: USA and Berlin, 1923-1925 152
A New Opera Company: Berlin, 1925-1929 175
Gewandhauskapellmeister: Leipzig, 1929-1933 201
Nomad Again: 1933-1936 229
Dies Irae: Vienna and Paris, 1936 -1939 249
Guest Conductor on Two Coasts: New York and Los Angeles, 1939-1947 269
Musical Adviser: New York, 1947-1949 303
Gains and Losses: Los Angeles, New York, Europe, 1949-1956 329
Mostly Mozart: 1956-1957 364
Columbia Symphony Orchestra: Los Angeles, 1957-1962 381
Recommended Discographies 413
Filmography Charles Barber 415
What People are Saying About This
A lucid and graceful biography of a legendary interpreter of music.
Curator, Harvard Theatre Collection