“Mahler’s enchanted creative night was filled with violently changing
dream-forms; Bruckner’s was dominated by a single lofty vision.”
Bruno Walter, Bruckner and Mahler
One of the most significant areas of classical music is also one of the least explored. It is the area of performance history. The modern conception of a piece of music or, in many cases, the entire body of work of a particular composer is often shaped by a handful of men who shepherd that music through difficult times. Battling a hostile or indifferent public, these courageous conductors persevere in presenting what they know to be great masterworks and wait patiently for their ultimate vindication through critical and popular acceptance. At the beginning of the twentieth century the works of Anton Bruckner and of his star pupil, Gustav Mahler, were championed by two young lions who matured to venerated status and international fame. These two men, Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, had remarkably similar careers. Both worked with Mahler personally, both were forced to overcome severe mental and physical ailments, both were persecuted politically and both left Germany for America where they prospered in the tranquil environment of expatriate Southern California. These two men have had a profound influence on the way we listen to eighteenth and nineteenth century music and an even greater effect on what we listen to when we listen to the music of the twentieth century.
Otto Klemperer was born in Breslau on May 14, 1885. He attended the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt and then moved to Berlin to study conducting with the great Hans Pfitzner, the composer of the significant modern opera Palestrina. At 21 years of age, he conducted Max Reinhardt's’ production of Orpheus in the Underworld by Offenbach. In 1906 he led the offstage band in one of the first performances of Mahler’s Symphony #2. The next year he played the side drum in a performance of Mahler’s Third conducted by the composer. Mahler later engaged Klemperer to help him prepare the vast forces necessary to mount the world premiere of his Symphony #8 (The Symphony of a Thousand). Klemperer’s association with Mahler led to his commitment to conduct the master’s symphonies through the lean years of the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s. During these decades, Mahler was considered a minor and somewhat disturbed composer, but Klemperer programmed his symphonies and conducted revelatory performances in many cities. To know Mahler was to love Bruckner and Klemperer championed his symphonies throughout this diaspora as well.
Bruno Walter Schlesinger was born in Berlin on September 15, 1876. He studied at the Stern Conservatory and was such a prodigy that at the tender age of seventeen became an opera coach and conductor at the Municipal Opera of Cologne. The following year he had his big break, an event which would change the course of his musical life. Walter was hired to be the assistant conductor at the Hamburg State Theater under Gustav Mahler. When Mahler received his dream appointment as music director at the Vienna Opera, he brought Walter, a man of similar ethnicity, along as an assistant. This was too much for the Viennese anti-Semitic press, who characterized Walter’s conducting of the German classics as the work of “Jewish vulgarity and filth”. But Mahler counseled Walter to ignore the critics and concentrate on his art. Walter’s early conducting technique was awkward and his gestures were exaggerated, but under Mahler’s tutelage he became a consummate professional.
Klemperer went on to become the chorus master and a conductor at the German Opera House in Prague. At the age of twenty-five he was appointed first conductor in Hamburg. He then moved on to high positions in Cologne and Wiesbaden, where he became a specialist in contemporary music and conducted new works by Busoni, Janacek and Stravinsky.
Walter became internationally renowned through his association with Mahler. He was encouraged by the composer’s praise and dealt with his budding insecurities by starring in another venue, that of chamber music. Walter became the pianist for Arnold Rose, the concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic and the most famous violinist of his day. Their association lasted fifteen years with annual triumphant concerts. When Mahler died, Walter was entrusted with two historic world premieres, that of the Symphony #9 and Das Lied von der Erde. Throughout his life, Walter’s performances of Mahler’s music were considered as authentic and worthy of the composer’s wishes. Along with Mahler’s great friend, Willem Mengelberg, Walter proselytized for the works of Mahler wherever his global journey took him. His performances were particularly noted for their stressing of the complex architecture of these gigantic orchestral poems. Walter also became the first true Mahler scholar, writing extensively on the symphonies and song cycles and eventually publishing a book on his mentor’s life and work.
It must be remembered, however, that Mahler was still considered a curiosity as a composer. Jascha Horenstein, who would grow into a celebrated conductor of Bruckner and Mahler himself, relates the story of his arrival in Vienna from Russia in 1912 just in time for a weekend of Vienna Philharmonic concerts. There were three concerts to choose from, two Beethoven concerts with the celebrated conductor Arthur Nikisch and the premiere of Mahler’s 9th with Walter. Afraid of spending too much of his student stipend, Horenstein picked the two Beethoven concerts and regretted his absence from the Walter for the rest of his life.
From 1927 to1931, Klemperer was the music director of the avant-garde Kroll Opera in Berlin. From this influential position, he premiered many operatic and orchestral works of composers such as Paul Hindemith, Ernst Krenek, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky and Kurt Weill. He also introduced his assistant, George Szell, to the greater German public. He conducted the Berlin State Opera and the Berlin Philharmonic Choir until 1933 and he received the prestigious Goethe medal for his service to German music.
Walter stayed at the Vienna Opera after Mahler died and in 1913 he became music director in Munich. It was here where he really flowered as a conductor, particularly in the works of Mozart. After Munich, Walter established two high conducting standards, the “Bruno Walter Concerts” with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Salzburg Festival of Mozart’s music where Walter’s classical architecture and profound humanity changed the musical world’s perceptions of the great Austrian prodigy. But there were dark clouds surrounding the conductor’s career. Back in Vienna, Walter went through a period where he couldn’t raise his arm above his shoulder. After consulting several physicians, Walter began seeing Sigmund Freud (Mahler was also a patient), who did cure him of his hysterical paralysis. However, debilitating depression stayed with Walter throughout his life, often paralyzing his ability to lead an orchestra.
Klemperer also had to overcome severe psychological and physical problems. A lifelong manic-depressive, he squandered his high salaries on parties and gambling, picked fights with street toughs, and even participated in a War and Peace style episode wherein he eloped with an already married soprano. These periods were inevitably followed by long intervals of inactivity and hypochondria. In 1933 during a rehearsal in Leipzig he leaned back too far at the podium and fell from the stage, landing on the back of his head. For years after he endured periods of disorientation, sometimes wandering the streets with no idea of who or where he was. In 1939 he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had to undergo surgery, which left him partially paralyzed. He also had to endure a public reputation of unreliability (a New York newspaper once described him as an escaped mental patient). Amazingly, he persevered to earn a reputation as perhaps the greatest choral conductor of modern times. His classic recordings of the Bach B Minor Mass and the Mahler Symphony #2 are unsurpassed and his opera conducting, like Walter’s, is the stuff of legend.
Both Klemperer and Walter were forced to leave Germany at almost the same time. Walter had received several death threats during the years before the Nazis came to power and in 1933 he was forced to abandon his position with the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig. A few days later, he was told not to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic, as the authorities could not guarantee his safety. Richard Strauss, who later became a high-ranking official in the Nazi music ministry, replaced his Jewish counterpart. Walter fled to safety in Austria but after the Anschluss he settled permanently in America. Klemperer thought that he was above such politics, and conducted a famous performance of Tannhaeuser at the Berlin State Opera in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Wagner’s death, an anniversary which also saw the creation of Thomas Mann’s great essay, delivered in the form of a speech, on the differences between nineteenth and twentieth century thought, but in 1933 he also abandoned his further plans to conduct there when the Nazis passed a law terminating the employment of all conductors who were considered racially unfit. It is ironic that Hitler, who worshipped Bruckner, and wanted to make his birthplace, Linz, into the cultural capital of the new Reich, should oust from his realm the two greatest exponents of the Austrian master’s music. The unspeakable treatment of Jewish musicians and the horrors of the camps had a profound effect on Klemperer’s already delicate mental state. These same atrocities, as well as the murder of his daughter by the Nazis, increased the devastating hold of Walter’s depression.
But there was a new life and new freedom in America. Klemperer accepted the post of music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and built the orchestra into a first class institution, largely with the infusion of Central and Eastern European Jewish refugees. In Los Angeles there was a prominent community of intellectuals who had fled the Hitler regime. These men, including Thomas Mann, Arnold Schoenberg, Felix Slatkin, Franz Waxman and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, encouraged Klemperer to rebuild his life and career. Out of this feeling of community came the great Schoenberg transcription of Brahms’ Piano Quartet # 1, a project suggested and premiered by Klemperer. Although he later returned to Europe, the conductor established his roots in California. His son, Werner, became an actor and is most famous in the comic part of the Nazi Colonel Klink on television’s “Hogan’s Heroes”, and in later life began a second career as a dramatic narrator in performances of classical music including Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder and Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the tranquil atmosphere of his new country, Klemperer began composing again and from then on he was able to revise and complete several interesting works, including the opera Das Ziel, six symphonies, nine string quartets and about 100 lieder. He also wrote two books, one about his association with Mahler and one entitled Minor Recollections.
In 1959, disaster struck again. In Zurich, he fell asleep while smoking a cigarette and awoke on fire. Hoping to dowse the flames, he reached for the nearest liquid and poured it on himself. The liquid was spirits of camphor and the flames became more intense. His injuries were severe and his survival was uncertain. However this giant of a man (he towers over his colleagues in various famous photos) survived and went on to reorganize the Philharmonia Orchestra of Britain and establish it as one of the premiere orchestras on the world stage. He died in Zurich in 1973. Klemperer left a vast legacy of recordings and his Mozart, Beethoven, Bruckner and Mahler are deserving of special praise. He introduced many great performers to the world, most notably George Szell and Lucia Popp, and raised the listening standards of all of the musicians who had the privilege to work with him and of the listeners who enjoyed the fruits of their labor.
Walter had visited America many times before his ouster from Austria. He was a close friend of Mann’s and so embraced the life of the Southern California expatriates, although his musical life centered in New York. He was principal guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic and the NBC Symphony and a frequent guest at the Metropolitan Opera. In 1960, he returned to his beloved Vienna and conducted one of the greatest concerts ever recorded, the Bruno Walter Farewell Concert, with the Vienna Philharmonic and the soprano, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. The program was quintessentially Viennese, consisting of the Schubert “Unfinished” Symphony, some Mahler songs, and the charming Mahler Symphony #4. “As long as I can lift a baton, I shall persist in standing up for the works of Mahler and Bruckner. I consider it one of life’s tasks to uncover the sources of exaltation flowing from their music…” he wrote in his autobiography, Theme and Variations. Walter was extremely committed to a high standard and, like Klemperer, his Mozart and Beethoven performances have now shaped the ways of interpreting these timeless classics for several musical generations. He died in Beverly Hills in 1962 and left behind a world much enriched by his brilliant, dedicated and humane presence.
The listener at the beginning of the twentieth-first century has a sense of the structure and classical grace of Mozart, the awesome power of the design of Beethoven, the religious fervor of Bruckner and the kaleidoscopic view of the human condition that is the essence of the symphonies of Mahler in large part due to the scholarship, dedication and leadership of these two great men. Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer have left us a joint legacy of respect for classical music and taught several generations to appreciate these magnificent works as pinnacles in the history of Western civilization.
Frederick L. Kirshnit