New York and Gustav Mahler

By Leon Botstein

The New York City to which Gustav Mahler arrived in 1907 was the third largest German-speaking city in the world. With its nearly 800,000 Germans, and over 140,000 inhabitants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, only Berlin and Vienna had more German speakers. Already in the 1870s, the largest German language newspaper in the world was the city’s New Yorker Staats-Zeitung. It had a circulation of over 55,000 readers. A large segment of the city’s musical community—its performers, piano manufacturers, music teachers, critics, audience members, and patrons—were either German immigrants or descendants from Central Europe who spoke German. The head of the Metropolitan Opera who recruited Mahler, Heinrich Conried (1855-1909), like Mahler, was born to a Jewish family in Galicia, within the Habsburg Monarchy, and (once again, like Mahler) educated in Vienna. He came to New York in the 1870s as an actor and rapidly rose to prominence as a theater manager.

In the circles that Gustav and Alma Mahler traveled in during the four concert and opera seasons they spent in New York, a command of English was not a necessity, whether in rehearsals, drawing rooms, or on the street and in restaurants. The two American composers whose work is on tonight’s program, Henry Hadley and George Chadwick, both studied in German-speaking Europe: Hadley in Vienna and Chadwick in Leipzig, both cities in which Mahler both lived and worked. Strange and novel as America seemed to Mahler and his wife, they also encountered, particularly in the sphere of culture, a nearly seamless sense of cultural continuity. The German population of the United States, from Texas to New England, represented the largest single European immigrant community and German was America’s second language and an integral part of the life of schools and churches.

To German-speaking Europeans of Mahler’s generation America was a place of endless fascination. That obsession with the “new” world was itself not new. The revolution of 1848 and the reaction against it made America a destination as a model of freedom. The representative figure of that migration was Carl Schurz (1829-1906) who served in the Civil War (along with thousands of Germans) on the Union side and rose to become a Senator and the Secretary of the Interior. In 1910, while Mahler was in New York, the park in which Gracie Mansion sits was named for him.

By 1900, however, economics overtook politics. Germans—indeed all Europeans—came to regard America with a mix of admiration and trepidation. It was rightly viewed as the distant and rapidly expanding industrial power in the world. The modern piano, for example, with its cast iron frame and cross stringing was an American accomplishment that conquered the world in the 1860s and 1870s, largely as a result of innovations made by a German immigrant, Henry Steinway. America, in relation to Europe in 1907, was what China is today with respect to America. It was at one and the same time a competitor and also, in music, a wealthy new and expanding market. Americans were eager to match Europeans in their skills as musicians and with their musical institutions. America boasted dozens of German choral societies. During the second half of the nineteenth century, Germans dominated the creation of orchestras and the organization of public concerts. The finest orchestra in America was the Boston Symphony, whose standards had been set by a distinguished conductor from Vienna, Wilhelm Gericke (1845-1925), during two tours of duty as Music Director (the second ended in 1906). A Wagnerian tradition of the highest standard had been cultivated in New York at the Metropolitan Opera between 1885 and 1898 by Anton Seidl, a Hungarian conductor who trained in Leipzig and carried the direct imprimatur of Wagner himself. Seidl, as conductor of the New York Philharmonic, conducted the premiere of Dvorak’s New World Symphony at Carnegie Hall in 1893. It was in Boston, after all, that Hans von Bülow, Liszt’s pupil and Cosima Wagner’s first husband, gave the first performance in 1875 of Tchaikovsky’s first and most famous piano concerto, the work that would catapult Van Cliburn as an American hero in the cultural rivalry of the Cold War in 1958.

Mahler’s career decision to come to America in 1907 required little explanation; he was not charting a new path. By accepting a major post in America, Mahler hoped it would start a new phase in his career, one that would afford him the luxury of a condensed schedule as a conductor, without the managerial burdens of running an opera house (as he had done for ten years in Vienna) that would give him more time to compose. The lure of money, as Dvorak discovered more than a decade earlier, was irresistible. Americans were eager to recruit famous Europeans. They did so by offering monetary rewards that were hard to refuse and lavish by comparison to what conductors and soloists could earn on the European continent.

In Mahler’s case there were two additional and equally compelling reasons to work in America. After ten years he tired of the infighting and intrigues that defined the daily life of a major opera company, particularly one supported by Imperial patronage. In Vienna, much of the controversy surrounding his tenure was propelled by the increasing significance of anti-Semitism in Vienna’s political and cultural life. His conversion to Catholicism had done little to blunt the prejudice against him as a Jew. Furthermore, he hoped the shift to America would help him rescue his marriage which was in serious difficulty as a consequence of the death of his eldest daughter Marie Anna in 1907 and the discovery of his wife’s affair with the young architect Walter Gropius. The Adagio of his projected 10th Symphony, written during his American years, bears witness to the manic intensity of his desire to renew his intimacy with Alma.

It is important to remember, however, that Mahler had no intention to emigrate and settle in New York. His plan was to come here in the Fall, work intensively through to the end of the season in the Spring and then return to Vienna, where he planned to build a new house and devote his time to composition. He liked New York (despite the usual reservations about its brash ways, and its emphasis on money and business) but Vienna was his home and German speaking Europe was the main stage from which he sought recognition and acclaim. It was during his American years that the greatest European triumph of his career took place: the Munich premiere of his Eighth Symphony in 1910. America seemed the ideal and distant platform from which to launch a triumphant return to Europe and dispel doubt about his standing as a composer.

Although Mahler came initially to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera, it was in the concert hall, through the repertoire of symphonic music, that Mahler conquered the American public. His performances of Beethoven, his arrangement of Bach’s orchestral suites (prepared for New York), and his traversal of the romantic and contemporary repertoire became the stuff of legend. No one doubted Mahler’s greatness as a conductor. However, with Arturo Toscanini’s arrival at the Met in 1908—the result of Conried’s departure and a new Met management (which lasted almost three decades) under Giulio Gatti-Casazza (Toscanini’s Italian colleague from La Scala)—Mahler, from his second season on, shifted his primary affiliation in New York and conducted and toured almost exclusively in front of an orchestra whose standards he was determined to raise, New York’s own Philharmonic. The cultural elite of the city, many of whom were German Jews, were determined to secure a place in the culture of New York (and America) for Mahler as a conductor. These patrons were people Mahler easily understood and felt comfortable with. When he was taken on a tour of the Lower East Side, with its crowded masses of traditional Jews from Eastern Europe, he was repelled; he rejected the idea that they could be viewed as “his” people.

Among Mahler’s achievements in his New York years was his strong advocacy of leading living composers, including Strauss and Busoni. He also sought out works by major American composers. Mahler was intent as well to perform the work of less well-known contemporaries. Legend has it that he carried a score by Charles Ives with him on his final voyage back to Europe in 1911. The balance between the firmly established works and composers in the symphonic repertoire and the new, both in Europe and America, was not as skewed against the new as it would later become. But in America, the cultural insecurity of Americans and the reverence directed at the European legacy in music both conspired to make American audiences more conservative in taste and skeptical about home grown talent. As Mahler became more aware of this, the more determined he became to champion the work of Americans.

Alphons Diepenbrock, a Dutch composer, was an unknown European contemporary (Diepenbrock was only two years younger). For Mahler he was a special case; he was a new friend and fierce advocate of Mahler’s music. Within Europe, few places were as hospitable to Mahler the composer as Amsterdam. Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951), the conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, was a staunch and loyal proponent and interpreter of Mahler’s work. Through Mengelberg, Mahler met Diepenbrock and with these two musicians Mahler spent among the most productive and rewarding months of his last years.

Mahler’s legacy in New York was to lift New York’s orchestral concert life to a level of seriousness and refinement rivaling that of Boston. Mahler was, after all, one of the most famous, visible, and admired conductors in the world. His presence in New York and his determination, cut short only by a fatal heart infection, were a source of civic pride. Mahler’s years in New York helped establish New York’s City’s preeminence, not only in America but throughout the world, in the realm of orchestral concert life during the twentieth century.

Written for

Mahler in New York