Mahler: Songs and Symphonies

A Portrait of Mahler in New York

Caricature by Hans Boehler, circa 1906. Courtesy of Carnegie Hall Archives
Caricature by Hans Boehler, circa 1906. Courtesy of Carnegie Hall Archives Caricature by Hans Boehler, circa 1906. Courtesy of Carnegie Hall Archives

Caricatures by Hans Boehler, circa 1906. Courtesy of Carnegie Hall Archives

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“People here are unbelievably vigorous,” marveled Gustav Mahler of New Yorkers, having arrived on the winter solstice in 1907 to conduct the Metropolitan Opera. Waving away “their coarseness and bad manners” as but “childhood diseases they will grow out of,” he saw the United States as “an unruly youth whose boorishness one can readily forgive as arising from an excess of vitality.” Where most Europeans saw callowness, Mahler appreciated the energy. What seemed to some uncouth or uncultured struck him as endearingly naive. His own health being fragile, Mahler envied the robust constitution of the city and its denizens.

New York musicians and audiences were slow to come around to the music of Mahler (truth be told, no slower than the Viennese) and heard only a handful of his works in concert. Mahler himself did little to promote his own music in America. Success came much later when the quintessential New Yorker, Leonard Bernstein, championed Mahler’s cause both stateside and abroad. In time, listeners embraced his epic symphonies with the same enthusiasm as the composer did the city.

After suffering a sorrowful summer—his eldest daughter suddenly died and Mahler was diagnosed with a heart condition—he sought a fresh start in New York. Vienna had worn him down with petty scandals involving disgruntled singers at the Court Opera, anti-Semitic attacks in the press, and myriad run-ins with imperial censors. Relocating for a few months each year was to spare him such frustrations (and, in later years, spare his marriage to the faithless Alma by separating her from her paramour, Walter Gropius).

The Mahlers settled in to the Hotel Majestic on Central Park West and 72nd Street, taking a suite on the 11th floor with a commanding view. (In subsequent seasons they would reside closer to Carnegie Hall at the Hotel Savoy on 59th Street and Fifth Avenue.) Mahler immediately set to right critical accounts in the press of his ill-temper and autocratic manner. “I am the most amiable man in the world,” he promised, proving his preemptive critics wrong by working patiently with everyone in rehearsals.

His debut performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde on January 1, 1908, was a success: The critic for the New York Times credited the “remarkable” and “superbly effectual” performance to Mahler’s direction. Yet sour notices in the German and Austrian émigré papers needled the conductor. Old grudges had rooted in fresh soil. “Everything here is generous and healthy,” he wrote to a friend, “but spoiled by the immigrant gang.”

Just as young and bold as New Yorkers themselves was the Metropolitan Opera, the palatial new house that offered cultural refuge for those shut out of the shabby boxes at the Academy of Music. Only the old-moneyed, Knickerbocker gentry were welcome at the Academy on 14th Street and Irving Place, but the new hall between 39th and 40th streets on Broadway and Seventh Avenue was built by and for Manhattan’s business royalty. Supposedly designed “to present operas under the best possible conditions,” the Met actually flattered its patrons more than the musicians. (Nearly a quarter of the seats had only a partial view of the stage; seeing was less important than being seen.) From the start, the opera world was abuzz at Mahler’s arrival and floated the notion he would take over the directorship at the Met permanently. Ultimately, however, he was squeezed out by another marquee conductor—Arturo Toscanini—and spent only two seasons at the helm.

That suited Mahler just fine because he truly longed to conduct a symphony orchestra. In the fall of 1908 he led both the New York Symphony and the Philharmonic, rival ensembles with equally precarious balance sheets. With the former, Mahler premiered his Second Symphony at Carnegie Hall on Saturday, December 8, 1908. The music proved too much for the musicians—as for many listeners—and Mahler found the experience disappointing.

Professional pains were tempered by personal pleasures, especially for Alma, whose “circle had become so large that [her] day was filled up and organized.” Over the years she and Mahler grew increasingly comfortable in New York. The couple traveled the Long Island Railroad to Oyster Bay, where they visited with Laura Roosevelt, cousin of Teddy Roosevelt. Back in Manhattan, the Mahlers explored the city in all its splendors, dining at the home of Louis Comfort Tiffany on Madison Avenue, visiting an opium den in Chinatown, and touring the tenements on the Lower East Side. They even sampled the latest fad, participating in a séance with one Madame Palladino.

Mahler in New York, circa 1910. Photo by Alfred Roller

Mahler in New York, circa 1910. Photo by Alfred Roller

Despite persistently mixed reviews of his performances, Mahler relished the opportunities in America, writing an ebullient letter to friend and musicologist Guido Adler in January 1910. “Throughout my life, I have always wanted to conduct a concert orchestra,” he confessed. “I am happy that for once … I am able to enjoy this … Furthermore, I need a certain kind of luxury, a comfortable lifestyle … Thus the fact that America offered me an activity suited to my inclinations and abilities, and a sufficiently large salary [he earned $25,000 with the Philharmonic] which in the near future will enable me to enjoy with dignity my forthcoming retirement, was a welcome solution.” He defended America against charges of materialism while appreciating its pecuniarypotential. “The dollar isn’t king here—it’s only easy to earn.” Still, he dreamed of retiring peacefully with Alma outside Vienna, “where the sun shines and beautiful grapes grow.”

Such was not his fate. Mahler spent February 1911 battling a cold that developed into a protracted fever, forcing him to turn the remainder of the season over to the assistant conductor. Although he left the Philharmonic in much better shape (musically and financially) than he had found it, a rift with the administration spurred rumors of a search for his successor, even before the grievous nature of his illness was revealed. Mahler intended to keep his post and considered relocating permanently to America, but the illness proved fatal. He died in Vienna that May, just 50 years old, leaving his Tenth Symphony incomplete.

At the time of his death, New York audiences had heard only the First, Second, Fourth, and Fifth symphonies. Posthumous American recognition came when conductor Leopold Stokowski took up the monumental Eighth Symphony with The Philadelphia Orchestra. After nine sold-out performances in Philadelphia, Stokowski brought 1,200 musicians, including a children’s chorus, to New York for a performance at the Met. The audience “let itself go,” according to one critic, even while reviewers remained subdued.

New York would have to wait some 50 years for Bernstein, another composer-conductor, to champion Mahler’s symphonies. Along with Dimitri Mitropoulos and Bruno Walter, Bernstein led the Philharmonic in a Mahler cycle at Carnegie Hall in 1960, commemorating the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s birth and the 50th anniversary of his first season as music director of the New York Philharmonic.

—Elizabeth Bergman
Reprinted in edited form courtesy of Playbill®

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Elizabeth Bergman earned her PhD in musicology from Yale University, and has authored numerous award-winning books and articles.