by Joseph Horowitz

Culture Clash: Gustav Mahler in New York

In his lifetime, Gustav Mahler was far better known as a conductor than as a composer -- both at the start of his conducting career, in German-speaking lands, and at its close, in New York City.

Mahler arrived in New York from Vienna, where he had been director of the Opera since 1897. Mahler's Vienna regime was historic: He removed the claque, closed the doors to latecomers, and opened all the cuts in Tristan und Isolde. Aligning himself with the Secessionists, he collaborated with Alfred Roller on stagings that overthrew naturalism with symbolic lighting and simplified scenery. In the pit, he was mercurial; according to Bruno Walter, "His every appearance...was preceded by the tenseness with which one looks forward to a sensation...Before the opening of the [last] act, he was invariably received with a hurricane of applause."

But ten Viennese seasons left Mahler frustrated and embattled. He warred with the singers and believed the orchestra conspired against him. Though he had converted to Catholicism, his Jewish birth remained a topic of ugly controversy. He sought time to compose and a comfortable income for his family.

It was Heinrich Conried of the Metropolitan Opera who made Mahler an offer he couldn't refuse: three months' work for 75,000 kronen ($15,000), with all travel and hotel expenses paid. (In Vienna, Mahler's salary had been 24,000 kronen plus gratuities and pension.) Beginning on January 1, 1908, Mahler conducted 54 performances in the course of three New York operatic seasons. His impact was great. But his four-year contract as "chief conductor" was nullified when Conried, in declining health, was replaced by a far more stable and experienced operatic administrator: La Scala's Giulio Gatti-Casazza. And -- more important -- with Gatti came his imperious conductor, Arturo Toscanini. In 1908-09, Mahler led nine Met performances to Toscanini's 68. In 1909-10, Mahler appeared at the Met only four times.

Meanwhile, the New York Philharmonic was in the throes of reorganization. The 67-year-old musicians' cooperative, mired in debt and disarray, yielded to a group of philanthropic socialites determined to give New York an orchestra comparable in quality and permanence to the Boston Symphony, whose New York concerts surpassed all local efforts. The Philharmonic "guarantors," led by Mrs. George R. Sheldon, pledged to make good any deficits for three years, to expand the season, and to tour the orchestra for the first time. They needed a conductor. Mahler, displaced at the Met, was the obvious choice. And so it was Mahler who presided over the Philharmonic's transition until illness forced him back to Vienna, where he died in 1911, seven weeks shy of his 51st birthday. His attenuated regime was a fulcrum between the orchestra's early prime as a part-time ensemble under Anton Seidl and its ultimate consolidation as the city's dominant concert organization.

A heady pace of expansion was dictated by Mrs. Sheldon and the guarantors. Prior to Mahler, in 1908-09, the Philharmonic gave eighteen concerts. Mahler led 46 Philharmonic concerts in 1909-10 and 49 in 1910-11 before a substitute, concertmaster Theodore Spiering, had to take his place. Audiences did not, however, grow apace, and many who came arrived late or left early. The orchestra was considered vastly improved -- Mahler replaced nearly half the players -- but without matching the polish and consistency of Boston's. The final ingredient of this mixed report was Mahler's symphonic interpretations, which proved significantly more controversial than his work in the opera house.

Mahler arrived in New York a conductor of opera. As with Seidl, the New World offered a new opportunity: to conduct an extensive symphonic repertoire. This opportunity was inherent to America because the concert orchestra -- not, as in Europe, the opera house -- was the central institution pursuant to a musical high culture. A central catalyst was the conductor Theodore Thomas, whose itinerant orchestra brought symphonies to big cities and backwater towns beginning in 1869. He called his concerts "sermons in tones" and attributed "character-building force" and "uplifting influence" to "master works." His credo -- that "a symphony orchestra shows the culture of a community, not opera" -- upheld absolute music as purer and nobler than any theater music could be. He disdained popular music as "having more or less the devil in it."

These attitudes, connecting to Puritanism, produced a distinctive style of symphonic performance. Eschewing display, rejecting interpretation, Thomas deferred to the score as holy writ. His sincerity of purpose and powers of discipline produced a polish and precision that amazed such European visitors as Anton Rubinstein, and set standards for America. The impact of Thomas helps to explain why the pre-World War I Boston Symphony favored conductors of notable sobriety -- Wilhelm Gericke and Karl Muck -- and why the mercurial Arthur Nikisch's brief tenure was found less satisfying. In New York, too, the Thomas Orchestra was a great influence; concurrently, Thomas led the New York Philharmonic beginning in 1877. But by the end of the century New York concert and operatic fare was much less inbred, much more exploratory than that of Brahmin Boston. Thomas seemed an anachronism, a "human metronome," beside Seidl -- who in 1891 displaced him at the helm of the Philharmonic.

Like Nikisch in Boston, Seidl represented a new breed. Espousing a freer play of tempo and rubato, faster Allegros, slower Adagios, he was a dramatic subjectivist. And yet Seidl was at the same time every bit the meliorist Thomas was. Wagner, not Beethoven, was his religion. If Thomas was a fundamentalist circuit preacher, Seidl was a high priest; a hypnotic combination of libidinal intensity and sphinx-like composure. His Wagnerized Beethoven challenged conventional wisdom and yet remained comprehensibly aligned with an evolution in performance style paralleling an evolution in music itself: toward romantic extremes of feeling and expression. It was Mahler, conducting Beethoven, who was the non sequitur. High-strung, vulnerable, he contradicted earlier American embodiments of podium authority. In fact, he seemed to embody no authority higher than his own. He seemed blasphemous.

What did Mahler's New York concert performances sound like? There are no recordings. But there are reviews, hundreds of them, by writers long familiar with the repertoire as rendered by such eminent conductors -- all active in New York before Mahler -- as Seidl, Nikisch, Toscanini, Muck, Mengelberg, Mottl, Steinbach, Strauss, and Weingartner. Here, for instance, is the composer/critic Arthur Farwell, in Musical America, on a Mahler performance of Schubert's C major Symphony, D. 944, given November 1, 1910:

The great Schubert symphony was the feature of the evening. Mahler gave it a big reading, albeit one characterized by many of the personal touches, not a few of them unsympathetic, which mark all his best work. It is a late date at which to praise this symphony, but now, even more than ever before, one realizes that this is music for high Olympus...It is, withal, spontaneous and naïve, and despite the big outlines in which Mahler drew the work, it is with these qualities of spontaneity and naïveté that the sophistication of Mahler interfered. This appeared in the very first bars of the symphony, for the solo horn [sic], where an exaggerated effect of dramatic contrast was given to the different phrases of the first melody... Again the second theme of the allegro for the woodwind instruments in thirds, seemed to be accentuated in a degree unbefitting its character. So, also, the lyric beauty of the melody in the andante was somewhat marred by the persistent staccato. However, to many of these little perverse personal elements the great spirit of the symphony shone forth...[sic] Despite the fact that the imp of the perverse pursued Mahler throughout his interpretation of the work, it was a most memorable event. It must be said that his readings are always alive at every point.

Reading Farwell, one can readily imagine how much Schubert's symphony could sound like one of Mahler's own. Also, Mahler retouched Schubert's orchestration; of the same performance, Krehbiel complained of "brass ornaments" added by the conductor. Mahler was by no means the first conductor to retouch symphonies by dead composers. But, at least in New York, no one before had done it so blatantly -- whether in pursuit of lucid textures, or in consideration of modern instruments, or for other reasons less scrutable. In the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth, there is a mini-cadenza for solo oboe, inviting a free play of expressive nuance. Mahler's rendering of this passage, in December 1909, astonished Krehbiel:

Mr. Mahler phlebotomized [the cadenza] by giving it to two oboes and beating time for each note -- not in the expressive adagio called for by Beethoven, but in a rigid andante. Thus the rhapsodic utterance contemplated by the composer was turned into a mere connecting link between two parts of the movement. Into the cadence of the second subject of the third movement, Mr. Mahler injected a bit of un-Beethovenian color by changing the horn part so that listeners familiar with their Wagner were startled by hearing something very like Hagen's call from Götterdämmerung from the instruments which in the score simply sustain a harmony voice in octaves. In the finale Mr. Mahler several times doubled voices (bassoons with cellos) and transposed the piccolo part an octave higher. Here he secured sonority which aided him in building up a thrilling climax, but did not materially disturb Beethoven's color scheme. The question of the artistic righteousness of his act may be left to the decision of musicians.

To Krehbiel, Mahler's editorial hand broached "a question of what might be called moral aesthetics."

All this notwithstanding, Mahler's readings were acclaimed for their freshness, intensity, and acuity. No one found him boring. But there was a "moral aesthetic" gap. The critical reception of Mahler's own symphonies -- he performed the First, Second, and Fourth in New York -- underlines the issues at hand. That Mahler was himself a composer of stature put him on an easy footing even with a Beethoven or Schubert. He interacted creatively, compositionally, with their scores; he felt no impulse to worship on bended knee. But Mahler the composer was not considered a candidate for the pantheon. When Krehbiel proclaimed him "a prophet of the ugly," he knew exactly what he objected to. The problem, again, was profanation:

It was a singular paradox in Mahler's artistic nature that while his melodic ideas were of the folksong order his treatment of them was of the most extravagant kind, harmonically and orchestrally. He attempted in argument to reconcile the extremes by insisting that folksong was the vital spark of artistic music, but in his treatment of the simple melodies of his symphonies...he was utterly inconsiderate of their essence, robbing them of their characteristics and elaborating them to death.

Mahler's signature juxtaposition of the quotidian and the sublime flew in the face of attitudes fostered by the likes of Thomas and John Sullivan Dwight, the influential Boston critic who railed against popular music and raised the symphony onto a high and unsullied altar. The American penchant for sacralization -- the European tendency was less extreme -- may be faulted as a puritanical excess, or a symptom of insecurity. And the concomitant emphasis on textual fidelity -- on objectivity, versus subjective interpretation -- may be partly understood as a defense against claims that only Germans could understand Beethoven. But these American traditions were also strengths, signifying a musical high culture more distinctive and evolved than Europeans, unless they visited, could possibly imagine. Worldly New York music critics like Krehbiel and W. J. Henderson of the Times took a reasonable pride in American achievements. They could be hypersensitive towards those who didn't. In Mahler, they encountered a wall of misunderstanding.

Even if it was money that lured him to the United States, Mahler cannot be accused of cynicism or indifference. He diligently learned scores he had never before conducted, even a few -- too few -- by Americans. In rehearsal, his concertmaster later recalled, he "always worked flat out. Every minute counted. There were no breaks." He complained to Bruno Walter that the Philharmonic was "a real American orchestra. Untalented and phlegmatic." (In fact, the Philharmonic Mahler inherited was an inferior American orchestra, judged by the standards of Boston or Chicago, or by its own prior estate.) But Mahler was also seduced by America. "The people here are tremendously unspoilt -- all the crudeness and ignorance are -- teething troubles," he wrote to Roller weeks after his Met debut. "Here the dollar does not reign supreme -- it's merely easy to earn. Only one thing is respected here: ability and drive!"

These impressions and others like them, however, were acquired willy-nilly -- not from any concentrated effort of exploration or understanding. Compared to Seidl or his New York friend Anton’n Dvorák -- and this comparison mattered, because it mattered to many who remembered -- Mahler exhibited a self-absorption indistinguishable from arrogance. He knew the New World as he encountered it -- not, like Dvorák, as an avid student of plantation song and Native American chant; or, like Seidl and Dvorák both, as a mentor to the American composer. His offenses were not malicious, merely tactless. In October 1909 -- by which time he should have known better -- he told Musical America: "The best orchestra in the world today is, to my mind, that of Vienna. Munich, Dresden, Berlin and Paris have splendid organizations, but that of Vienna attained under Hans Richter a perfection that I know of nowhere else." It would have cost him nothing to have mentioned Boston.

When Mahler performed his own First Symphony in December 1909, Krehbiel, who was the Philharmonic's program annotator, requested permission to reprint a letter in which Mahler described aspects of the work. Mahler responded by prohibiting Krehbiel from writing anything at all about the symphony. Eventually Mahler found himself in conflict not only with members of the press, but with the Philharmonic guarantors. Unlike the trustees of the Chicago Orchestra or Cincinnati Symphony, the guarantors insisted upon something akin to ultimate artistic authority. In January 1911, they formed a subcommittee to supervise what music Mahler would program. In her memoirs, Alma Mahler described the climactic blow-out, at which "the ladies had many instances to allege of conduct which in their eyes was mistaken...A document was then drawn up in legal form, strictly defining Mahler's powers. He was so taken aback and so furious that he came back to me trembling in every limb."

Days later, Mahler's health took a turn for the worse. In May, by which time he was back in Vienna, Alma told an American interviewer that she held the Philharmonic responsible for her husband's decline: "You cannot imagine what Mr. Mahler has suffered. In Vienna my husband was all-powerful. Even the Emperor did not dictate to him, but in New York, to his amazement, he had ten ladies ordering him about like a puppet." The guarantors, the article continued, denied these accusations, "insisting that [their relations with Mahler] were always agreeable, and that the illness of the conductor came about through his extreme nervousness."

May 18, Mahler was dead. Vienna gave him a hero's funeral. In New York, Krehbiel's 50-inch obituary, in the Tribune, ignited a firestorm of controversy. It began:

Gustav Mahler is dead, and his death was made to appear in some newspaper accounts as the tragic conclusion of unhappy experiences in New York. As a matter of fact [he] was a sick man when he came to New York three years ago. His troubles with the administration of the Philharmonic were of his own creation...He was paid a sum of money which ought to have seemed to him fabulous from the day on which he came till the day when his labors ended, and the money was given to him ungrudgingly, though the investment was a poor one for the opera company which brought him to America and the concert organization which kept him here. He was looked upon as a great artist, and possibly he was one, but he failed to convince the people of New York of the fact, and therefore his American career was not a success.

Krehbiel's Mahler obituary has perplexed and offended Mahler's various biographers. His exceptional animus towards Mahler cannot be defended -- but can be understood. Two grievances permeate his post-mortem analysis. The first was that Mahler neglected to appreciate the importance of New York, that "it is a fatuous notion of foreigners that Americans know nothing about music in its highest forms." Krehbiel's second grievance -- a subtext -- was that Mahler neglected to appreciate the importance of Henry Krehbiel. And Krehbiel was very important, the acknowledged "dean" of a critical community that -- unlike New York music critics of today -- meshed seamlessly with the musical community it reported upon and assessed.

To scan Krehbiel's career is to glean how two relationships conditioned his disappointment in Mahler. Anton Seidl had accepted Krehbiel as one of his few New York intimates. And Seidl was a Mahler antipode: he projected a serene authority; he bonded fraternally with his musicians; he interacted amiably and productively with the ladies of the Seidl Society, which presented his Brooklyn concerts; he embraced America. Concurrently, Krehbiel was Antonin Dvorák's chief mouthpiece and advocate in the press. He supplied Dvorák with plantation songs and Native American chants; he undoubtedly perceived himself as a creative consultant on the "New World" Symphony. Krehbiel was accustomed to his eminence. Mahler sought no advice and cultivated no graces.

Gustav Mahler was not the man to champion American music, as Seidl had championed Edward MacDowell. He was not the man to compose a "New World" Symphony after the fashion of Dvorák. He was, finally, not really cut out to be music director of an American orchestra, sensitive to the needs of a cultural community, its scribes, audiences, and benefactors. He had more important things to do.