Anti-Semitism haunts the great musicians

September 8, 2012
Gustav Mahler.

Bruno Walter ― The Early Recordings
EMI 679 0262 (Nine-CD set)
Bruno Walter Conducts Mahler
Sony 88691 920102 (Five-CD set)
Mahler ― Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5
Naxos 8.110876 & 8.110896

“My time is yet to come!” Austrian composer, conductor and pianist Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) famously declared in response to the mixture of incomprehension and hostility that greeted his musical compositions.

Mahler's greatness as a conductor was never seriously disputed, but his standing as a composer certainly was.

His orchestral song cycles and his sprawling, exotically scored symphonies were beyond the understanding of most of his contemporaries. They were full of emotional extremes, with the issue of death never very far away, but with life affirming love of nature and beauty also present.

Yet Mahler had some loyal young disciples, one of whom ― Bruno Walter (1876-1962) ― is the conductor in these reissued recordings. In the late 19th century, both Mahler and the German-born Walter were drawn to Vienna, then the centre of European music. Both were Jewish in a city noted for frequent upsurges of anti-Semitism.

In order to be appointed director of the Vienna Imperial Opera in 1897, Mahler had converted to Roman Catholicism. When in 1898, Walter was appointed director of the opera house in Riga, Latvia ― part of the Russian empire ― he was compelled to do likewise. Jews were not permitted to travel within the empire.

Two years earlier, he had changed his family name from Schlesinger to Walter to meet a condition of his taking up an appointment in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland).

Walter had been enthusiastic about Mahler's music since hearing the “First Symphony” and in 1901 he accepted the composer's offer to become his deputy in Vienna. In Riga, the local music critics had praised Walter's conducting, but now some of their Viennese counterparts were not slow in attacking him and he became discouraged.

Mahler tried to reassure Walter that the attacks were really directed at himself and were part of a press campaign (motivated by professional envy and his religious background) to have him removed.

Although Mahler's period at the Imperial Opera was, in the words of The Oxford Dictionary of Music, “a glorious decade during which he set standards still scarcely surpassed”, by 1907 the press attacks had become so intense he resigned.

From 1909 to 1911, he was principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, but a congenital heart defect brought about his premature death in the latter year. Consequently, it fell to Walter to give posthumous premieres of both the “Ninth Symphony” and the song-symphony for two voices and orchestra, “The Song of the Earth”.

Later, when based in Munich, Walter opposed the short-lived left-wing revolution that broke out in November 1918. However, after the assassination of its leader and the defeat of the socialist government in the city, a section of the press campaigned against Walter alleging that, as a non-Ayrian, he was incapable of interpreting German art.

In reaction, more than 2500 citizens from all walks of life signed a letter of appreciation, urging him to stay.

When the Nazis took power in 1933, Mahler's music was banned and Walter was compelled, by overt physical threats, to cancel his conducting engagements in Germany. Like countless others, famous and obscure alike, he had no choice but to flee the country ―in his case to Austria.

After five years in his old base Vienna, the annexation of Austria by the Third Reich forced him to flee again, this time to Paris. He was compelled to leave there when the Germans occupied the city in 1940.

Finally, he settled in the United States and took out US citizenship.

Despite his first-hand experience of Nazism, Walter was thought to be right-wing inclined. Yet in 1952, he refused to support Eisenhower, the Republican candidate for the US presidency, because his vice-presidential running mate was the hard-line conservative Richard Nixon. Walter backed Adlai Stevenson, the relatively liberal Democratic candidate.

As for Mahler's music, after the suffering of two world wars, economic depression and the Holocaust, a new generation in the 1960s was ready to hear its message in a way earlier ones had not been.

Mahler's music had seemed to foretell such catastrophes. Half a century of neglect came to an end.

Walter's pioneering Mahler recordings helped build this revival. The EMI set includes the composer's “Ninth Symphony”, “The Song of the Earth”, “the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony” and his five “Songs of the Death of Children” (sung by the contralto Kathleen Ferrier).

The conducting is characteristic of Walter's style at this time, spontaneously combining expressiveness and drama to fully convey the emotional power of the music.

In the mid-1940s, Walter recorded the “Fourth” and “Fifth” symphonies for American Columbia with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. These are benchmark performances by one of Mahler's own orchestras and have been issued on Naxos CDs in excellent transfers.

These same performances are included in Sony's new boxed set, in addition to Walter's stereo recordings of the “First”, “Second” and “Ninth” symphonies and “The Song of the Earth”, made in the period 1957-61. The orchestras are the New York Philharmonic and the Columbia Symphony.

It is arguable that, by the time Walter made his stereo recordings, his interpretations had changed and were rather less emotionally charged, more reflective and in a sense “above the fray”.

For these reasons, his earlier recordings may be closer to the true spirit of Mahler. Still, the stereo performances are never less than noble conceptions, faithfully executed and the sound quality is excellent, with few allowances being needed on account of their age.

While the recordings from the '30s and '40s inevitably do not offer high fidelity sound, many of them sound more recent than they actually are and the quality throughout is generally clear, full and well-balanced. The ear soon adjusts to the “old” sound, allowing the listener to enjoy a feast of Austro-German masterpieces interpreted by a conductor with an unsurpassed affinity with this music at the time.

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