Symphony No. 1 (c. 1907)

By Erik Ryding

Written for the concert Complicated Friendship, performed on Oct 15, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Some artists excel so much in one area that their other talents, however formidable, are forgotten. So it is with Bruno Walter (1876–1962), whose eminence as a conductor has utterly eclipsed his substantial achievements as a composer. Even Walter himself, who labored for a decade at composition, eventually downplayed the significance of his creations. Yet his years of writing music ended only after he had given the world premieres of two of the last century’s greatest works: Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde. These were artistic peaks, he must have felt, that he would never reach, much less surpass.

In the early 1900s, however, Walter had every intention of becoming a composer-conductor like Mahler—or, for that matter, like several of his other friends and associates, including Hans Pfitzner, Richard Strauss, and Felix Weingartner. A child prodigy, Walter entered the Stern Conservatory in Berlin at the age of eight and soon earned the nickname “the little Mozart.” By December 1892, at the age of sixteen, he had composed a setting of Goethe’s “Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt” for chorus and orchestra, which he conducted at the Berlin Singakademie on March 18, 1893. His orchestra was the Berlin Philharmonic.

Walter began his professional conducting career immediately upon graduating from the conservatory, and he worked in several opera houses before coming, in 1901, to the Vienna Court Opera at Mahler’s request. Walter had previously worked for Mahler in Hamburg, and the two immediately became friends. That friendship changed Walter’s life. “Here was a man . . . who renewed himself every minute,” he recalled, “and who did not know the meaning of slackening either in his work or in his vital principles.”

Walter himself could hardly be accused of slackening during his early years in Vienna. Despite a punishing schedule at the opera house, he composed a string quartet, a piano quintet, a piano trio, a violin sonata, several songs, incidental music, a symphonic fantasy, and two symphonies. Written in a post-romantic, expressionist vein, his well-crafted works are often thick-textured, ecstatic outpourings. The critics recognized him as a composer, and some categorized his works as “ultramodern.” When Richard Specht published a long article in 1910 on young composers active in Vienna—such progressives as Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, and Schreker were among those discussed—he began with Bruno Walter.

Specht, one of Mahler’s first biographers, plainly took an interest in members of the Mahler circle and was an outspoken advocate of Walter’s music. It is natural to assume that Mahler too would support his protégé in his ambition to become a composer, but that was not the case. (Mahler, of course, had set ideas about how to write music, and no less a master than Brahms earned his critical scorn.) When Walter played through his First Symphony for Mahler in September 1907, Mahler’s indifference drove the younger composer to a state of “mild despair,” as Mahler commented to his wife afterward.

Fortunately, Walter persevered—his friend Hans Pfitzner offered much-needed support at the time—and the Symphony had its world premiere on February 6, 1909, in Vienna’s splendid Grosser Musikvereinssaal, with Walter leading the Konzertverein Orchestra.

The angular, chromatic lines and sometimes grim atmosphere may come as a surprise to those familiar with Bruno Walter only as an elderly, genial figure at the podium. Yet as Specht once noted of Walter: “There is a corner in his soul in which demons dwell.”

The Symphony’s first movement, Moderato, is a prolonged, dark meditation, drawing inspiration from Mahler’s funeral marches but also foreshadowing the agonized utterances of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony and the profound sorrow of Shostakovich’s elegiac opening movements. The brooding continues into the second movement, Adagio, though it lightens somewhat at the coda with a shift from duple to triple meter. Then comes an Allegro con brio—a wry, waltz-like scherzo, followed by a calmer “trio” and a thorough reworking of the opening scherzo material. The finale, Agitato, is marked by winding chromatic melodies and demonic rhythmic drive.

The Symphony elicited thunderous applause at its premiere. Walter conducted it once more, in Strasbourg on February 22, 1911, in a concert arranged by Pfitzner. Tonight marks the first performance of the Symphony in the United States and only the third performance of the work in history.