Commentary Magazine

Mahler in Manhattan

One of the most beautiful pieces of art on display at New York’s Lincoln Center—it can be seen in Avery Fisher Hall, the home of the New York Philharmonic—is the cast of Auguste Rodin’s bust of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Those who know little of the composer’s life could be forgiven for supposing that it was placed there to commemorate Leonard Bernstein’s advocacy of his music. In truth, it honors Mahler himself: the first person to serve as the Philharmonic’s music director once the orchestra was reorganized as a full-time professional ensemble in 1909.

After Dvorák, Mahler was also the first great European classical musician to come to America not as a tourist but as a resident. In 1908 he made his Metropolitan Opera debut with Tristan und Isolde, conducting five more operas there over the next eighteen months before moving on to the Philharmonic, which he led until just before his death in 1911. Yet Mahler’s American years are widely viewed as a mere footnote to his European career, and the role he played in the early history of the Philharmonic is little known save to scholars.

The reason for this is that Mahler is now chiefly remembered not as a conductor or performer but as a composer. In his own lifetime, though, the reverse was true. His symphonies, though performed with some frequency in Europe and taken seriously (if not always judged favorably) by critics, received far less attention than his work as a conductor. In that capacity he was thought to be without peer. On hearing him for the first time, Otto Klemperer “had but one conviction: to give up the profession if I couldn’t conduct like that.” But Mahler died at the age of fifty, when recording technology was barely out of its infancy, and all he left behind was four piano rolls, cut in 1905, in which he can be heard playing the piano parts to two of his songs and excerpts from his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies.1



Is it possible for 21st-century music lovers to know what it was about Mahler’s conducting that left his audiences spellbound? Henry-Louis de La Grange has devotedly tried to answer that question in Gustav Mahler: A New Life Cut Short (1907-1911),2 the fourth and final installment of his monstrously long, endlessly fascinating Mahler biography.

For decades, de La Grange has been collecting facts about Mahler with the ultimate intention of publishing everything that can be definitively known about his life and work. To this end, he has included in A New Life Cut Short lengthy excerpts from the composer’s correspondence, the many memoirs written by his friends and acquaintances, and hundreds of contemporary press accounts of his performances. The result is a book that swerves uncertainly between biography and documentary, often tipping into a kind of tell-all excess that suggests obsessiveness. Perhaps the most comical example of this is Appendix 3-I of the present volume, soberly titled “Recipe for Mahler’s Favorite Dessert: Marillenknödel (Apricot Dumplings).”

Yet, for all its excesses, A New Life Cut Short is quite readable. Not only is de La Grange an attractively straightforward stylist, but he is telling the story of a composer whose personality was unusually complex and contradictory, and who deliberately set out to embody it in his music. Because Mahler saw composing as a way of dramatizing interior conflicts that he took to be of universal interest and significance, anyone who finds his music compelling will likely want to know a great deal about him (if not necessarily his favorite dessert).

Not surprisingly, de La Grange has many axes to grind or, to put it more politely, points to prove. He believes that much of what is “known” about Mahler is untrue, and sets out to disprove it by submitting vast quantities of evidence. Much of this evidence, it turns out, bears on his American career. Did the New York critics dislike Mahler’s interpretations of the classics? On the contrary: most of them (with a few prominent exceptions) were impressed by them. Was the management of the Philharmonic planning to fire him before the collapse of his health rendered the point moot? Apparently not.

Most interesting of all, it turns out that Mahler liked America, whose raw energy and democratic atmosphere he found exciting: “America is really different from Europe. Only there do you feel like a human being, with no master above you.” And like so many later European émigrés, he appears to have grown disillusioned with the continent from which he came. In A New Life Cut Short, de La Grange cites the satirist Karl Kraus’s description of fin-de-siècle Vienna, where Mahler had spent the preceding decade, as an “experimental station for the collapse of mankind.” Had he lived longer, might he have found America a more congenial place in which to engage in his musical conversations with himself? It seems possible.



Yet Mahler was also well aware of the narrowness of America’s classical-music culture at the turn of the 20th century. He understood, for instance, that his fanatical perfectionism was alien to the Metropolitan Opera’s institutional mission, which was to provide expensive entertainment for wealthy Manhattanites. A New Life Cut Short opens with Edith Wharton’s sardonic portrayal in The Age of Innocence (1920) of the fashionable New Yorkers who knew that “it was ‘not the thing’ to arrive early at the opera,” and who were far more interested in examining one another’s jewels than in attending to what was taking place on stage.

It was for this reason that Mahler did his best to keep the management of the Metropolitan at arm’s length throughout his brief tenure there. By that point, though, he was also disgusted with the Vienna Court Opera, which he had directed from 1897 to 1907. Indeed, he had arrived at the pessimistic conclusion that “the idea of a permanent opera company directly contradicts modern principles of art,” and that it was only possible to create artistically serious productions in a festival-like setting. Knowing this, he had taken the job at the Met purely for the money, aware that, even as he gave of his best, it would never be good enough.

The Philharmonic was a different matter. There Mahler was engaged specifically to professionalize the orchestra, and he had every intention of bending its recalcitrant members to his iron will. Furthermore, he believed that audiences could listen to music more thoughtfully in the concert hall than in even the best-run of opera houses. “The public, when it goes to the opera, cannot hear and see and think all at once to its best musical advantage,” he told an interviewer. “At the symphony concert it is different; the people only have to listen.”

From the outset, local critics and musicians were struck by three aspects of Mahler’s conducting style. The first was his flexibility of tempo. As Richard Aldrich wrote in his New York Times review of a Mahler performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony:

He made abundant [tempo] modifications, but they were so subtly managed as to be insensible as modifications, and seemed as the inevitable outcome of the musical development. Thus the symmetry and larger proportions of the work were preserved, with the richness and variety of detail that were brought out.

Second was the sheer intensity of Mahler’s conducting. The pianist and critic Samuel Chotzinoff spoke of his “harsh but wildly dramatic interpretation” of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, adding that “its tragic power more than compensated for its want of refinement.” But not everyone agreed with Chotzinoff, and critics were further irked by Mahler’s habit of retouching the orchestrations of certain of the classic works he performed.

At that time, self-consciously insecure about the status of American musical culture, many native critics went out of their way to make it clear to visiting European artists that they knew just as much about classical music as any German conductor. A great deal of the opposition to Mahler during his years in New York was motivated by just this sort of self-consciousness. It reached its nadir with the censorious obituary published in the New York Tribune by Henry Krebhiel, Mahler’s most stalwart opponent:

He was looked upon as a great artist, and possibly he was one, but he failed to convince the people of New York of that fact, and therefore his American career was not a success. His influence was not helpful but prejudicial to good taste.



In fact, Mahler was the best thing to have happened to the Philharmonic since its founding in 1842, and after his death it entered a lengthy eclipse from which it did not emerge until the 20’s, when Willem Mengelberg and Arturo Toscanini restored the orchestra to its former glory. As for the Metropolitan Opera, it remained a “singers’ house” well into the last part of the 20th century. Even now, its productions vary widely and erratically in theatrical seriousness (though James Levine, the company’s music director since 1976, has made its pit orchestra one of the best in the world).

Thus, neither ensemble can claim today to be the repository of anything remotely approaching a “Mahler tradition” in performance. This is true of his own work as well, since Mahler rarely played any of it in New York. To the extent that the Philharmonic now has a “traditional” way of playing Mahler’s music, it derives from the performances of Leonard Bernstein, who program-med it from the 50’s on.

Is it possible, then, to know anything about Mahler’s conducting beyond hearsay? Not really. But the hearsay is often highly specific, and in addition there are a few recordings that may do more than merely suggest what his performances sounded like. In 1939, for instance, Mengelberg and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw broadcast a performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony that was recorded and later released commercially. In preparing his performances, Mengelberg used detailed notes he had made on Mahler’s own interpretation of the piece, as heard by him 35 years earlier. The tempi in Mengelberg’s 1939 recording are often startlingly flexible—more so than in any postwar performance I have heard. This, to judge by accounts of Mahler’s conducting, as well as by his 1905 piano roll of the finale of the Fourth, may indeed bear approximation to the way Mahler played the same work.3

But there is another recording of the Fourth done by Bruno Walter, Mahler’s devoted protégé, with the New York Philharmonic in 1946. This latter version is both sweeter in overall tone and considerably less arbitrary in its use of rubato than Mengelberg’s. It also varies greatly in timing: Walter’s third movement is fully four minutes shorter than Mengelberg’s. When it comes to the finale, the discrepancies are even greater: Mahler’s own timing, on the 1905 piano roll, is 7:19 minutes; Walter is close at 7:24, but Mengelberg clocks in at 9:53.4



All of which tells us . . . what? Next to nothing—and everything that matters.

No one, not even Henry-Louis de La Grange, can turn back the clock to allow us to hear how Mah-ler conducted. This is a great pity, since Mahler considered his work as a performer to be complementary to his work as a composer: “I need a practical activity for my musical capabilities as a counterweight to the tremendous things which go on inside me when I am composing.” To hear the way such noted composer-performers as Benjamin Britten or Sergei Rachmaninoff performed the music of others is to suspect how similarly illuminating a recording of Mahler conducting Beethoven would have been.

Yet Mahler’s own music has survived, and who can doubt that we are far more fortunate to have the scores of his ten symphonies than the records he did not live to make? “My time will come,” he assured his wife Alma, and time proved him right: today he is one of us, a modernist avant la lettre whose music, as Leonard Bernstein put it, is “almost cruel in its revelations: it is like a camera that has caught Western society in the moment of its incipient decay.” Next to the anguish of the Ninth Symphony or the transcendence of the last bars of Das Lied von der Erde, what does it matter that we cannot know how Mahler interpreted Elgar’s Enigma Variations or Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony?

While de La Grange is more interested in setting the historical record straight than in telling us of Mahler’s greatness as a composer, there is no doubting how he feels about it. In his words:

Like [Goethe’s] Faust Part II, Mahler’s monumental, all-inclusive [musical] novel in ten chapters reaches far beyond the comédie humaine to deeper and loftier truths which stage works can never touch. His symphonies reflect his vast and complex inner world, both his visions of humanity and his awareness of the fragility of human nature, in music that can veer in a few bars from the sublime to the commonplace.

Only music as great as this could possibly justify a book as long as A New Life Cut Short. Even if de La Grange has inevitably failed at telling us what kind of conductor Gustav Mahler really was, it is a tribute to both the composer and his biographer that one puts down this volume feeling both exhausted and sated, and eager to listen for oneself.




1 Modern transfers of these rolls can be heard on Mahler Plays Mahler: The Welte-Mignon Piano Rolls (Golden Legacy 790202).

2 Oxford, 1,759 pp., $140.

3 Mengelberg’s Fourth is out of print but can be downloaded at

4 Walter’s Fourth is out of print in the U.S. but is available in England on Naxos 8.110876, which can be ordered from

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