Mahler in New York and at Carnegie Hall
Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) first came to New York in December 1907, and while his association with the city was brief—just over three years, and for only a few months each year—his involvement was deep and significant. World-renowned as an opera conductor, the 47-year-old had in his hands a contract to conduct performances for three months a year at the Metropolitan Opera for a salary that was more than five times his former yearly payment in Vienna. Mahler was also in demand as a concert conductor, and on November 29, 1908, he made his Carnegie Hall debut conducting the New York Symphony Orchestra in a program of works by R. Schumann, Beethoven, Smetana, and Wagner.
“Health and strength are in him,” remarked The New York Times’s music critic the next day, with inadvertent irony. No doubt few in the audience were aware of the severe blows that Mahler had been dealt in rapid succession scarcely a year earlier: He was forced from his directorship of the Vienna State Opera; his beloved daughter Maria died from scarlet fever; and he learned of the heart condition that would lead to his death in 1911. Yet Mahler’s conducting received glowing reviews. The Times praised Mahler’s lack of unnecessary gestures and noted, “He has the vision of a poet, but it is clear and never obscured by the mists of sentimentality.”
Although Mahler left his post at the Metropolitan Opera after just two seasons, his role in New York’s musical life deepened with his appointment as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1908. In an interview with Musical America the following year, Mahler declared, “To raise popular musical standards and make the New York Philharmonic the best in this country and the equal of any in the world is what I am striving for.” Altogether, Mahler conducted 72 times at Carnegie Hall—all but three of those concerts with the Philharmonic—and premiered nearly a dozen new works, including the US premieres of his own First and Second symphonies.
Mahler’s workload in New York was much less intense than what he subjected himself to in Vienna, but he still pushed himself too hard for someone with a weakened heart. On February 21, 1911, though sick with an inflamed throat and a fever—and against his doctor’s wishes—Mahler insisted on conducting his regular New York Philharmonic concert at Carnegie Hall. He nearly collapsed, and although he was able to finish the concert, he was forced to cancel subsequent performances. He was never to conduct again. Mahler and his wife, Alma, lingered in New York for a few more weeks, but his condition continued to worsen, and they finally sailed for Europe on April 8. Following unsuccessful treatment at a French clinic, Mahler died of a bacterial infection in Vienna on May 18, 1911, a few months before his 51st birthday.
Mahler never heard live performances of his “song-symphony” Das Lied von der Erde (completed in 1909) or his Ninth and unfinished 10th symphonies; however, all three works received their New York premieres at Carnegie Hall.
- Das Lied von der Erde on February 1, 1922, with contralto Sarah Cahier, tenor Orville Harrold, and the Society of the Friends of Music conducted by Artur Bodanzky
- Symphony No. 9 on November 19, 1931, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Serge Koussevitsky
- Symphony No. 10 (only the completed first and third movements were performed; the symphony remained unfinished at Mahler’s death) on March 13, 1958, with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos
Photography: Mahler portrait and concert flyer courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Rose Archives, Mahler in New York by Alfred Roller.
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