For classical musicians, few things are so uncertain as the prospect of posthumous fame. Some celebrated performers of the comparatively recent past, like the conductor Arturo Toscanini, are still remembered widely and vividly, while others, like the violinist Mischa Elman, are largely forgotten save by connoisseurs. The reasons why posterity may favor one artist over another are numerous, but in the 20th century three seemed to be of special importance. A musician was far more likely to be remembered if he had stayed active into his eighties, had made numerous recordings of large-scale, standard-repertoire works, and had spent a significant part of his career (preferably the last part) in the United States.

The conductor Bruno Walter fulfilled all three requirements to perfection. Although he achieved prominence early on, eventually becoming artistic director of the Vienna Staatsoper in 1936, he was only one of many gifted Austro-German conductors who helped to shape European musical life between the wars; had he not been forced to flee Europe after the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938, he might be no better remembered than such now-obscure contemporaries as Clemens Krauss or Franz Schalk. Instead, in 1939 he moved to Hollywood and promptly emerged as a major force in American classical music.

Among other things, Walter would be one of the Metropolitan Opera’s most prominent guest conductors and a regular guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic, where he would also serve for two years as “artistic adviser”—in fact, the orchestra’s music director, though he declined the official title. By the time of his death in 1962, he had recorded and re-recorded virtually the whole of his repertoire, much of it in stereo. As a result, he is ranked today with Toscanini, Sir Thomas Beecham, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Serge Koussevitzky, and Leopold Stokowski among the best-known conductors who first came to prominence in the prewar era.

But outside of vaguely worded tributes emphasizing his kindness and generosity—qualities not often noted in famous conductors—surprisingly little of interest has been written about Walter. Except for his own books, the autobiographical Theme and Variations (1946) and Of Music and Music-Making (1957, trans. 1961), there was no full-length biography until 1999, when an Italian-language study of his life and work appeared. Now there is Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere, by Erik Ryding and Rebecca Pechefsky, the first such book, incredibly, to appear in English.1

For a subject who was born six weeks before the premiere of Brahms’ First Symphony, it is very late in the day for a comprehensive treatment. No one who knew Walter well in his youth or middle age is now alive, and even those musicians who worked with him in the 1950’s are few and far between. In addition, he kept no diary, and his 7,000-odd surviving letters, while interesting, tend with some exceptions to be guarded and opaque when it comes to personal matters. As a result, Ryding and Pechefsky have had to rely on contemporary newspaper and magazine pieces—they claim to have examined some 20,000 reviews of Walter performances—augmented by 60 face-to-face interviews.

Given all this, it is perhaps inevitable that Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere should itself be a bit opaque, at least with respect to Walter’s private life. Moreover, readers not already familiar with Viennese cultural history are likely to miss a sufficient context for the events described here. Yet for all its obvious inadequacies, this soberly written biography, when supplemented by Walter’s recordings—as well as the films and tape recordings of his rehearsals that were made late in his life—does help bring alive a long-lost style of music-making of which Bruno Walter is a shining exemplar.2

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In 1946, a half-century after the fact, Walter would recall his first visit as a young man to the city with which he is most closely identified. “I felt that I belonged in Vienna; that I had not found it, but had re-found it,” he wrote. “Spiritually, I was a Viennese.” Be that as it may, he was born in Germany in 1867—and the actual last name of the conductor who would spend so much of his career leading the notoriously anti-Semitic Vienna Philharmonic was not Walter but Schlesinger.

Bruno Schlesinger was the second of three children of a Berlin bookkeeper and a music-loving, conservatory-trained housewife who began giving him daily piano lessons when he was five years old. “Every inch of this boy is music,” said the teacher who admitted him to the Stern Conservatory three years later. He began composing at nine, appeared as soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic at twelve, and resolved shortly thereafter to become a conductor.

Like most European conductors, Schlesinger began his career as an opera coach, joining the staff of the Cologne Stadttheater in 1893. He conducted in public for the first time just seven months later; not long after that, he moved to Hamburg where he began working with the composer-conductor Gustav Mahler, already acknowledged as one of Europe’s leading interpreters of opera. The two men became close, and Mahler’s new protégé knew he had found his model at last:

Never had I encountered so intense a human being [as Mahler]; never had I dreamed that a brief, cogent word, a single compelling gesture, backed by absolute clarity of mind and intention, could fill other people with anxious terror and compel them to blind obedience.

As a direct result of Mahler’s patronage, the Breslau Stadttheater, a regional opera house located in what is now Poland, offered Schlesinger the post of second conductor. But a condition was attached: there were so many Schlesingers in Breslau, the company’s director explained, that the promising young coach would have to change his name. Whether he was reluctant to hire someone with so obviously Jewish a surname is not known, but whatever his reasons, Bruno Schlesinger became Bruno Walter. The transformation was completed when Walter converted to Christianity two years later in order to become chief conductor of the Riga Opera. (At the time, the Latvian company was subject to Czarist Russia’s strict anti-Semitic code.)

Walter was not the only Jewish musician of his era to become a Christian. Mahler himself did so, as did his other great protégé, Otto Klemperer. Nor were these particular conversions undertaken purely, or perhaps even primarily, for professional reasons: by most accounts, all three men took their new religion seriously. Unlike Mahler and Klemperer, though, Walter seems to have turned his back on Judaism permanently, so much so that in later years he was unwilling to talk with a close colleague about the well-known fact that Mahler had incorporated elements of Jewish popular music into his symphonies. Some Jewish members of the New York Philharmonic were even heard to complain about the emotionalism with which Walter would speak of the crucifixion of Jesus while rehearsing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

Ryding and Pechefsky supply no details concerning Walter’s religious practices after his conversion, nor have they anything to say about the extent to which the Schlesinger family had adhered to Jewish ritual observances.3 But in a more general sense, Walter’s religious beliefs permeated his professional life. He constantly spoke of music as a “moral force,” capable of ennobling mortals and bringing them closer to God. For him, Mozart’s last three symphonies were an “intellectual, spiritual, and musical confession,” while the music of Anton Bruckner was “a bridge to transcendental regions; only those longing for higher spheres will respond to the apostolic calls sounding forth from his work.”

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Walter joined Mahler in Vienna in 1901. There the older conductor had taken charge of the Hofoper (now the Staatsoper), then as now one of the world’s leading houses. Vienna was also a center of the international cultural ferment out of which emerged the modern movement in art. Mahler’s own symphonies, like the sexually charged plays of Arthur Schnitzler, the elaborately expressionistic paintings of Gustav Klimt, and the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud, were important and influential products of the German-speaking wing of that movement.

Not surprisingly, Walter was afraid of being overshadowed by his larger-than-life patron. His soft-spoken personality made him incapable of dominating an orchestra with Mahler-like terror tactics. Instead, he opted for “psychological methods appropriate to and in conformity with my nature.” In the event, his firm yet good-humored rehearsal techniques proved as effective as Mahler’s willingness to embarrass individual musicians in order to get the results he wanted. Unlike Mahler, Walter was a teacher, not a tyrant, and would remain so throughout his career.

Walter came to be recognized as a major artist in his own right after Mahler’s death in 1911. Though he conducted all over Europe, Vienna served as his home base. Between 1934 and 1938, he recorded extensively with the Vienna Philharmonic (which also plays in the pit of the Staatsoper), and these recordings suggest something of the extent to which music-making was being changed by the invention of the phonograph and the resulting “internationalization” of classical performance style.4 The orchestra’s idiosyncratic sound—dark and “woodsy” in color, mellow rather than brilliant—is still immediately identifiable on these recordings. So, too, is Walter’s rhythmic flexibility: he typically slows down for the “lyrical” second subjects of sonata-allegro movements, underlining other transitional points with additional fluctuations in tempo, many of them spontaneous. “I myself do not know why at one time I take a tempo faster, another time slower; why my expression may change from one performance to another; and so on,” he once said. “I do not approach music with reason.”

Such flexibility, common enough in classical recordings of the 20’s and 30’s, was more than usually pronounced in Walter’s case (as it is said to have been in Mahler’s). A particularly memorable example is the recording of the Mozart D-Minor Piano Concerto that he made with the Philharmonic in 1937. It is among the first recorded Mozart concertos to have been led from the keyboard, and Walter proves to be a highly accomplished pianist; nevertheless, the most memorable aspect of his interpretation is its rhythmic freedom. As Ryding and Pechefsky describe it:

In this performance the Vienna Philharmonic follows Walter’s articulation, phrasing, and rubato with breathtaking closeness. . . . When he slows slightly for the second theme [of the first movement], the orchestra follows him exactly.

A less sympathetic description of Walter’s prewar style came from Arturo Toscanini, one of the first modern conductors to maintain constant tempos throughout a symphonic movement. Toscanini is supposed to have said, “When Walter comes to something beautiful, he melts.” For listeners accustomed to later, more direct performance styles, this “melting” can indeed be disconcerting.

After the war, significantly, Walter would opt for more consistent tempos. But the warm lyricism of his earlier performances with the Vienna Philharmonic would remain constant. Time and again in his recorded rehearsals from the 50’s, he can be heard urging his instrumentalists to “sing”—that is, to play with a vibrantly expressive tone and to sculpt their phrases in the shapely manner of an opera singer. To this end, he tended to smooth over musical contrasts, softening sharp staccatos and dynamic extremes; where a non-German conductor like Toscanini was apt to be taut and intense, even aggressive, Walter was more likely to be relaxed and spacious.

Though Walter was long regarded as the most “authentic” interpreter of Mahler’s music—he conducted the premieres of the Ninth Symphony and the symphonic song-cycle Das Lied von der Erde—some listeners thought his performances over-sentimental. Asked what he thought of Walter’s renditions of Mahler, Otto Klemperer quipped, “Too Jewish for me.” This characteristic remark points to the very different ways in which Mahler’s two great disciples, both of them Jewish, performed his music: the one, Klemperer, wryly and even sardonically, the other, Walter, bringing out the nostalgia and pathos.5

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Walter’s lyricism was decidedly to the taste of Viennese audiences, as was his strong preference for the Austro-German classics (though he also performed a good deal more modern music—all of it tonal—than is generally realized).

But one increasingly powerful segment of the public had never accepted Walter as a legitimate spokesman for the Austro-German tradition. Almost from the outset of his conducting career, he was the subject of virulent attacks in the anti-Semitic press of Germany and Austria, whose writers invariably made a point of the fact that he had changed his name. When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, he was forced to stop conducting in the Third Reich.

Walter responded by strengthening still further his ties with Vienna, and acclaim for his performances continued to grow. But Vienna was itself infected with the anti-Semitic virus, and not even its most beloved conductor could escape the resulting plague. In March 1938, just two months after Walter had made the first recording of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, Hitler was marching in triumph through the streets of the city. The Philharmonic fired all of its Jewish musicians, and Walter and his family ran for their lives. “If you think of the most beautiful woman, whose beauty has been destroyed by smallpox or a more terrible disease and now she wanders about like a caricature of herself, resembling herself but giving horror at the same time—this is the fate of Austria and Vienna in particular,” he wrote to a friend.

A year later, he moved to the United States, where he had first conducted in 1923. American musical life had long been dominated by German-trained composers and performers, but by 1939 the conductors of virtually every major orchestra in the U.S. were non-Germans: Toscanini at the NBC Symphony, Stokowski at the Philadelphia Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky at the Boston Symphony, John Barbirolli at the New York Philharmonic. As a result, Walter stood out in high relief, and he soon became a fixture on the American musical scene.

Almost at once, he began recording for the Columbia label, first with the New York Philharmonic and then with specially organized pickup ensembles, known collectively as “the Columbia Symphony Orchestra,” whom he taught to play in something not unlike the Viennese manner. After the war, he resumed his European career on a smaller scale, but even though his willingness to work with the Vienna Philharmonic at the 1947 Edinburgh Festival helped bring about that disgraced orchestra’s “de-Nazification,” it was in the United States that he performed most often for the remainder of his life.

In 1957, Walter suffered a heart attack and cut back sharply on his public appearances. By then, stereo recording had been introduced, so Columbia put together a Los Angeles-based version of the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, making it possible for him to re-record his repertoire (including complete cycles of the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies) without traveling far from his California home. It is through these frequently reissued performances, most of which are more rhythmically straightforward than his prewar recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic, that Walter’s conducting is known to the majority of present-day listeners.

Walter gave his last public performance in December 1960 and made his final recordings three months later. His failing heart gave him no choice but to retire. He died on February 17, 1962; in breaking the news to a New York Philharmonic audience that evening, Leonard Bernstein called him “one of the saints of music—a man all kindness and warmth, goodness, and devotion.”

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To call Bruno Walter a saint, of music or of anything else, is to overstate the case. Like all successful conductors, he was ambitious and capable of ruthlessly self-interested behavior; when it came to musical matters, his genial manner on the podium masked an iron will. “He was just as much an autocrat in his gentle way as Toscanini was in an explosive way,” the violinist Isaac Stern has astutely remarked. Nor is saintly the word for his personal life: married and the father of two children, he became romantically involved with at least one of his singers, the soprano Delia Reinhardt, and it appears likely that he had similar affairs at other times in his life.

But Walter was certainly no more hypocritical than most artists. Indeed, perhaps more than any other great musician of the 20th century, he believed in the ethical power of music—a conviction to which he hewed even after the Europe of his youth was put to the torch by a Wagner-loving madman who believed no less passionately in music’s moral force, which he sought to bend to his own perverted ends.

Fashions in musical interpretation have changed radically over the past few decades, and it is possible that Walter’s soft-edged approach to Mozart and Beethoven will never again be in vogue, or at least not soon. But many of his recordings have remained in print almost continuously since his death, and one doubts that their enduring popularity is accidental. In our age of standardized interpretation, they offer a precious glimpse of the lost world of gemütlichkeit and grace that Hitler murdered, and it is not hard to hear in their yearning, idealistic lyricism something of what Walter meant when he wrote, apropos of Mahler: “Music is no daytime art; it does not yield its secret roots or its ultimate depths to the unshadowed soul.”

It is no coincidence that even now, Walter is best remembered for his performances of the music of Gustav Mahler. To be sure, Otto Klemperer had a point—there are other ways than Walter’s to play Mahler, some of which may well bring out more of his emotional complexity—but few will deny that Walter’s way is profoundly moving, and at its not-infrequent best it is capable of silencing all criticism. To hear him conduct the hushed farewell to life at the end of Das Lied von der Erde, with the strings of the Vienna Philharmonic playing as softly as the lightest of spring breezes, is to be reminded of his own eloquent words: “I feel, more deeply than ever before, music as a connection to the divine.”

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Walter on CD: A Select Discography

Most of Bruno Walter’s commercial recordings have been transferred to CD. Here are ten of the most representative:

1935: The only extended operatic excerpt Walter recorded in the studio was the first act of Wagner’s Die Walküre, featuring the soprano Lotte Lehmann, the tenor Lauritz Melchior, and the Vienna Philharmonic. Matchlessly sung and played, this famous performance throbs with passion (EMI CDH 7 61020 2).*

1936: Perhaps the most frankly “Viennese” of Walter’s many recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic is that of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, a work he liked to program in tandem with Das hied von der Erde (Pearl GEMM CD 9445).*

1937: The Walter-Vienna Philharmonic recording of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466, is an indispensable document of pre-modern Mozart style (Pearl GEMM CD 9940).*

1938: Walter and the Philharmonic performed Mahler’s Ninth Symphony on January 16, 1938—their last concert prior to the Anschluss and the last time the orchestra played the music of Mahler until after the war. The performance was recorded for commercial release, and despite various technical imperfections, it remains extraordinarily compelling (EMI CDH 7 63029 2).

1945: Walter’s only studio performance of a work by an American composer was the premiere recording with the New York Philharmonic of Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1 in One Movement, Op. 9. This fine performance, powerful and fully comprehending, is included on a CD of 78-era “creator recordings” of early works by Barber, including Toscanini’s interpretation of the Adagio for Strings (Pearl GEM 0049).

1945: “My dearest Alma,” Walter wrote to Alma Mahler, the composer’s wife, “I recorded the Fourth [Symphony] with the New York Philharmonic . . . and believe it will turn out well. I have been trying for years and years to record Mahler’s symphonies, so that there is a point of reference for the next generation of young conductors.” It did turn out well, and it did provide a point of reference. For many collectors, this beautifully played, utterly sincere version of Mahler’s most popular symphony is the Walter recording—the one that best conveys his special quality (Sony Classical SMK 64450).

1952: Walter did three commercial recordings of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, of which the second, with the tenor Julius Patzak, the contralto Kathleen Ferrier, and the Venna Philharmonic, is generally regarded as the best Ferrier was dying of cancer when this performance was taped in Vienna’s Musikvereinsaal, and her singing of the concluding Abschied is harrowing in its contained intensity (Decca 289 466 576-2 DM).

1958: Walter also recorded Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony three times; the last of these performances, with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, is a widely circulated and greatly loved example of his old-age style at its most engaging (Sony Classical SMK 64462).

1959: Similarly affecting is the Columbia Symphony version of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, a work particularly well suited to Walter’s Viennese lyricism (Sony Classical SMK 64483).

1961: Walter recorded Dvorák’s Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88, during his final sessions with the Columbia Symphony, making the most of the episodic, loosely structured second movement. It is hard to believe that this glowing interpretation is the work of an eighty-three-year-old man (Sony Classical SMK 64484).

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Note: CD’s marked with an asterisk can be ordered from amazon.com’s English branch, www.amazon.co.uk. All others can be purchased on line by viewing this article on COMMENTARY’s website:

www.commentarymagazine.com

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1 Yale University Press, 487 pp., $35.00.

2 Currently available CD versions of some of Walter’s best recordings are listed in the selected discography at the end of this piece. Also of interest is Bruno Walter: The Maestro, the Man (VAI Video 69407), an hour-long Canadian TV documentary combining film footage shot at a 1958 rehearsal of the Brahms Second Symphony with an interview of Walter conducted by the music critic Albert Goldberg.

3 It is not even known to which Christian denomination Walter converted (though he was buried in a Roman Catholic cemetery). Late in life, he became an adherent of anthroposophy, a syncretic quasi-religion with New Age-like features.

4 For a discussion of this phenomenon, see my article, “What Killed Classical Recording?,” in the May COMMENTARY.

5 Oddly, Klemperer’s quip is omitted from Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere, though it is well-known and has been authenticated.

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