Conducting as an autonomous profession in music was essentially unknown until the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Even then, however, conducting was not so much a profession as a skill acquired in the course of a musical career that extended beyond the art of conducting. The most frequent impetus for learning to conduct was composition. Throughout the nineteenth century, composition was an integral part of any instrumentalist’s or musician’s work, but it developed a special connection to conducting through the necessity of training orchestras and ensembles to perform new and contemporary music that increasingly was composed for large forces. One hundred years ago, concert music was not the museum-like enterprise it now is; then, music was connected to the central direction of culture, including literature, painting, philosophy and politics. While orchestras performed old masters, performers and audiences expected to encounter the extension of tradition through new music as well.
Among early nineteenth-century composers who were also famous as conductors were Mendelssohn, Weber, and Spohr, who was actually far more historically important as a violinist. Two of the best known mid-century figures were Berlioz and Wagner, who did not possess outstanding skills on an instrument. By 1900, nearly all conductors in Europe and America, even the lesser known, were fine instrumentalists who also engaged in composition. Well into the twentieth century, performers like Fritz Kreisler were virtuosi who relished writing their own material much as a comedian or a particularly gifted vocalist today writes his or her own jokes and songs. From its origins, conducting was a task that required some skills in organization and leadership—the putting on of concerts, the care of finances and the building of institutions. Musical life in America would have been far poorer, for example, had it not been for the organizational talents of Theodore Thomas, whose influence can be felt today particularly in Chicago and New York.
Even today it is a mistake to consider conducting a discreet and separate profession within music, on par with being an instrumentalist or composer. There is technique that must be acquired in training, but as the late Hans Keller put it with affecting derision, conducting was one of three phony musical professions, along with playing viola and writing music criticism. His point was not that these three pursuits were unnecessary, but rather, to do any one of these things successfully, it cannot be done all by itself. Under the skin of a great violist can be found a great violinist; indeed that is where many violists start. Underlying great criticism are often achievements in some other form of music-making or in the field of literature, as the writings of Ezra Pound and George Bernard Shaw suggest. And as for conducting, its roots often reach deep into an ambition to become a composer or instrumentalist, and in more recent years (especially in the field of early music), a scholar. The great conductors of the recent past did something else in music very well. Boulez and Bernstein are recent cases of composer-conductors, in the line of Strauss, Mahler, Markevitch, and Kletzki. Among instrumentalists, we can find Barenboim, Ashkenazy, Rostropovich, and Levine, who have distinguished themselves in that role. Andre Previn, Esa Pekka Salonen and Lorin Maazel are instrumentalists and composers. Among the conductors of the past, Munch, Ormandy, and Koussevitzky were all accomplished string players. George Szell and Bruno Walter were pianists and composers.
In the case of Bruno Walter (1876–1962), a promising compositional career was rather abruptly cut short by the conductor’s acute sensitivity to criticism and a lack of support among those who should have encouraged him. But this sensitivity to criticism should not be misunderstood as being a weakness in some misguided definition of conductorial machismo. Walter did not have the brash, arrogant exterior and manner of Toscanini, Szell or Reiner. He considered himself a great conductor of Mozart and found himself drawn to Lieder of the early romantic age, to the intimacy of communication that music makes possible. He was one of the great vocal accompanists of all time as a conductor and as a pianist.
Other contemporaries of Walter, such as Klemperer, Furtwängler and Weingartner, felt themselves to be unfairly neglected as composers. They wanted to be remembered not for their performances of the music of others but for their own music, which they felt lay undeservedly overlooked. These conductors continued to write music throughout their careers, despite infrequent performances and less than enthusiastic critical response. But Bruno Walter, like George Szell, was an ironic exception in this regard. These two men were, in terms of composition, perhaps the two most naturally gifted of that generation of conductors, and yet they were the ones who stopped composing. One composer/conductor who had been successful in an earlier era was Gustav Mahler, but he did not support the careers of people very close to him. Two victims of his tyrannical megalomania were his wife Alma, and his closest acolyte, Bruno Walter. Mahler may not have thought much of Schoenberg’s music, but on principle in defense of the young, supported him. But Schoenberg was not a confidante. Mahler also suspected that Schoenberg could do little else but teach and went so far as to buy all of Schoenberg’s paintings when they came on view. It is at best unclear if Mahler thought Schoenberg was a worthwhile composer beyond his utility as a warrior for the new and young. But Mahler had no encouragement available for those directly dependant on his good word. And unlike Schoenberg, Walter could do something else and did it very well. He could conduct brilliantly, both from the opera pit and the orchestral stage.
Americans, and particularly New Yorkers, who remember Bruno Walter remember him as a benign and fatherly figure, a distinguished émigré conductor whose name was so well known that he was considered the closest rival of Toscanini during the 1950s, the age of long-playing records. Walter was the gentle, methodic central-European placed as a contrast in the market against the fiery Italian. Indeed Toscanini and Walter crossed paths all over the world, including New York. Both had a close association with the New York Philharmonic. But Walter emerged more as an intellectual and a deeply conservative thinker (despite his years in California in the famed circle of friends shared by Schoenberg and the other notorious central-European exiles).
Regardless of their own compositional ambitions, the great conductors of the past were advocates of the music of their own time. Toscanini allied himself with the cause of Puccini, and Reiner with Bartók, Strauss, and Weiner. Koussevitzky and Stokowski championed a wide range of contemporary music. Furtwängler championed Hindemith, and Answermet and Monteux championed Stravinsky. Walter is strongly associated with his teacher Mahler (whose most effective podium advocate was actually Wilhelm Mengelberg), but when Walter came into his own, the composer whom he supported and performed frequently was Hans Pfitzner (1869–1949). Despite his public advocacy of this contemporary, however, Walter today is associated almost exclusively with the music of the past, especially the “three Bs” and his mentor, Mahler. When we think of Walter today, we do not readily associate him with the name of Pfitzner.
Indeed Pfitzner is not often heard at all these days, which is remarkable if one considers that Pfitzner was a prolific composer as well as conductor, and that after the untimely death of Max Reger, he was the only rival to Richard Strauss as a figure of importance in German-speaking Europe during the first half of the twentieth century. But Pfitzner was not only a powerful composer. He was also a polemicist. He engaged in bitter wars of pamphleteering against a new school of modernist composition. From his pen flowed scathing denunciations of the music and ideas of Busoni and Schoenberg. It was Pfitzner that inspired Alban Berg to write one of the most eloquent defenses of the modern in music. Pfitzner made himself a very controversial figure, not because of his music, but through his aggressively conservative if not reactionary musical ideas. Strauss, in contrast, kept a low profile on such matters, choosing to hold most, if not all, writing about music in contempt. Pfitzner wrote a lot, including books on the idea of musical inspiration and genius. He believed in a non-linguistic dimension of spontaneity in musical inspiration that became seminal to his critique of music that seemed to derive (in his view) from abstract reasoning and puzzle-making and solving. Pfitzner believed music was a truly romantic act of human expression, not based in rationality but in a sensibility beyond logic. Despite similarities in their views, however, Pfitzner was not a neo-Wagnerian. He was attracted also to what he considered to be lost traditions in early German Romanticism. One of his heroes was, oddly enough, Max Bruch, about whom he wrote an excellent and appreciative analysis.
It does not stretch the imagination to realize that in the context of the aesthetic wars of the first three and a half decades of the twentieth century, Pfitzner’s views easily could be understood as being sympathetic to a reactionary set of political cultural values. Indeed, Pfitzner was hailed by Thomas Mann in 1915 as signaling the artistic future of Germany against the corruptive counter-traditions from other western cultures. In German nationalism, cultural superiority always played a significant role. The prizing of “true” cultural values, the spiritual as experienced particularly through the appreciation of philosophy, music and poetry, was lost on the stylized and fashion-conscious French, the dry and restrained British, the barbaric and violent Slavs, or the materialistic Americans.
Despite his notoriety and recognition (partly the result of Walter’s advocacy) during the interwar era, Pfitzner was an unhappy figure. He was a constant object of hostility among modernists including Schreker, Schoenberg, and the pupils of Busoni. Angry and embittered, he considered himself to be unappreciated. He felt he was playing second fiddle, as it were, to Richard Strauss, who among the more conservative figures had an unrivaled preeminence as both composer and conductor. He was smart enough to know that Strauss, with whom on many levels he was ideologically aligned, had little use for him and did not like him or his music. Consequently Pfitzner was consumed with envy for what should have been his traditional ally, and for the success of the new generation. Like a match to kerosene, Hitlerism was the perfect ideological solution, and Pfitzner became a genuine Nazi. He signed letters “Heil Hitler” and maintained a friendship with the notorious Hans Frank, the Nazi official in charge of Warsaw who would be condemned to death and hung. Among his contemporaries, Pfitzner stands out in his embrace of the Nazi party. Strauss was an opportunist but no Nazi. He saw himself above politics and while he had his hand in the till, as it were, his own ego made him express his superiority and contempt for the Nazis and their ideas. Furtwängler was not a very strong personality when it came to politics. He was sufficiently ambitious to engage in rationalizations. Pfitzner, however, was an energetic proponent who also was determined to exploit the regime for his own benefit. His enthusiasm even got on the nerves of the Nazi hierarchy. His involvement with the Nazis did not, however, satisfy his chronic sense of neglect that in part led him to Hitler in the first place. Even when he was a favorite son of the regime, he would complain that he was not getting his proper due. Perhaps there was no more just fate than surviving the war and dying in obscurity and disgrace.
Throughout most of his career, Bruno Walter had been one of Pfitzner’s most ardent champions and admirers, and premiered Pfitzner’s greatest single work, the opera Palestrina (1917). Walter had been born a Jew but beyond that was not actively Jewish. Regardless, there was no way for him to mitigate his friend’s behavior during the war, as there might have been for Furtwängler or Strauss. Despite his strong internal sense of allegiance and generosity of spirit, Walter distanced himself from Pfitzner. In the letters they exchanged after the war, there is heartbreaking sadness on both sides, but Walter, ever sentimental, mourned the loss of his friendship and even offered to help Pfitzner financially. Pfitzner lost in Walter the best and strongest chance he had to have his music performed and remembered. Pfitzner’s music is extraordinary, as Walter recognized, but he is a great composer whose work, particularly in postwar Germany, has for political reasons been consigned to the dustbin of history.
Distasteful as it is, one needs to set personality and politics aside and acknowledge that there is a considerable amount of worthy, if not great music written by Pfitzner. Bruno Walter had good reason to take such an active role on Pfitzner’s behalf. At least we can acknowledge but set aside Pfitzner the contemptible man, and be grateful for the music he left behind.
In light of Walter’s advocacy of Pfitzner, it is fascinating to turn back to Walter’s Symphony. Written under the spell of Mahler, it suggests that Walter might have taken a different direction as a composer had he continued. As in the case of Szell (with whom Walter can be compared as a compositional talent) his music shows an enormous skill and intuition. There is a voice here that should have been nurtured, a gift much stronger than that exhibited by Furtwängler or Klemperer. Walter, the great and troubled advocate of Pfitzner, was himself in need of an advocate that was never found. We are proud this evening to be able to sponsor the third performance in history of this work, the first not conducted by Walter himself, and the premiere in North America. Walter’s place in the musical history of both America and New York is significant enough to merit a re-examination of his legacy not only as a performer, but as a composer.
The complex relation between Walter and Pfitzner reminds us today that musicians are the guardians of their profession. It is their responsibility to champion the music of their contemporaries rather than be satisfied with the relatively narrow list of masterpieces found in any orchestra’s repertoire. Conductors may still fulfill their duties best if they do engage with music in multiple ways. A modern trend toward constraining specialization often prevents many from crossing into other musical disciplines, but such deterrence should be ignored. Mahler was pilloried by contemporary critics as being a “summertime” composer. One of the most distinguished critics of Mahler’s generation, Richard Wallaschek, also an eminent scholar and teacher, writing in the New Yorker of Vienna, Die Zeit, consistently urged Mahler to give up punishing his listeners with his amateur attempts, to leave composition to professional composers and stick to conducting. Mahler suffered but carried on, and future generations are the beneficiaries. We have also benefited from John Adams and before him Aaron Copland, whose conducting helped generate the cross-fertilization between the new and the old in performance that results in a living art. Walter was, in part, a great conductor because he thought like a composer. Perhaps tonight’s performance will make us wonder what treasures we might now have if he had also remained a composer.