Mahler and Musicians

Clashes and Compromises with the New York Philharmonic's New Director

New York Philharmonic

Mahler Gustav. 1869-1911LIFE Photo Collection

Reinvention

During the few short months before Mahler officially took over the New York Philharmonic in November 1909, he began radically remaking the Orchestra. Even before his first performance he replaced almost 50 percent of the musicians. In his first season the number of concerts grew from 16 to 46; rehearsals were rigorous; and the Orchestra toured as far west as Pittsburgh. What had been a respected ensemble began to grow into a musical powerhouse.

This met with some controversy, as seen through Mahler’s spirited interaction with the Philharmonic musicians, guest artists, the newly powerful Musical Mutual Protective Union, the press, and local rivals.

Gustav Mahler conducting (circa 1900)Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Philharmonic violinist Herman Martonne talks about rehearsals with Mahler
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William Malloch's "I Remember Mahler," New York Philharmonic: The Mahler Broadcasts, 1948–1982

Walter Damrosch (circa 1890) by Aimé DupontOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Rivals

The restructuring of the New York Philharmonic was not greeted with universal acclaim. Walter Damrosch had been conductor of the rival New York Symphony since the death of his father, Leopold, in 1882. He believed that the new leadership of the Philharmonic had stolen Mahler from the Symphony Society, and some of his animosity could be attributed to a feeling of being “left at the altar.” Furthermore, in 1903 Damrosch had offered his own plan to restructure the Philharmonic, with himself at the helm.​

Walter Damrosch and George Gershwin (circa 1925)Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Walter Damrosch was a great advocate for classical music in this country. He conducted The Metropolitan Opera, championed young composers such as George Gershwin, and convinced Andrew Carnegie to build a music hall. After the New York Symphony merged with the Philharmonic in 1928, Damrosch would focus on broadcasting, and was music adviser to NBC radio until 1947.

New York Symphony Society (1905–1910)Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Walter Damrosch enumerates the challenges facing Philharmonic leaders​
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The New York Times, August 28, 1908. Read by Forrest Buckman.

Program (1911-02-21) by New York PhilharmonicOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Visiting virtuoso

When Ferruccio Busoni performed as piano soloist in Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with the Philharmonic in January 1910, he and Mahler scored one of season’s triumphs; reviews acclaimed Busoni’s gifts and hailed the maturity of Mahler’s Philharmonic. These marked Busoni’s first appearances with the Orchestra in a decade; he had made his Philharmonic debut, conducted by Anton Seidl, in 1892. Busoni first met Mahler while studying piano in Vienna and Leipzig. In addition to playing the piano, Busoni taught, conducted, and composed.

Photographs of New York City Hotel Netherland, New York (1905) by Detroit Publishing Co.Original Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Busoni had a close personal and professional relationship with Mahler while in New York. The two were neighbors on Fifth Avenue (Busoni at The Hotel Netherland and Mahler at The Savoy) and Busoni's letters to his wife chronicle Mahler’s decline when he fell ill in February 1911. The work mentioned in the following audio clip is Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque; the Philharmonic gave the World Premiere on February 21, 1911 — the very last concert Mahler led in his life.

Ferruccio Busoni (1912 or 1913) by Varischi & ArticoOriginal Source: Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin

Busoni writes to his wife about Mahler
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Ferruccio Busoni: Letters to his Wife, translated by Rosamond Ley. Read by Forrest Buckman.

Press Clipping, Cartoon (1910-01-31) by New York AmericanOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Who's the boss?

There is always a compelling tension between conductor and soloist in a concerto; sometimes it can make for an electrifying performance, and at others the sparks get out of control. During a January 1910 rehearsal of Schumann's Piano Concerto led by Mahler, soloist Josef Weiss flew into a rage. Talented but eccentric, Weiss found Mahler to be insufficiently deferential to his own interpretation; he finally stopped, threw the score, and stormed out. The drama made a splash in the next day’s papers.

Cellist Nathan Liebenbaum and Philharmonic bassoonist Benjamin Kohon recall the "Weiss Incident"
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William Malloch's "I Remember Mahler," New York Philharmonic: The Mahler Broadcasts, 1948–1982

Manhattan Musical Protection Union certificate (1894-09-07) by American Federation of LaborOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

The union movement

When Mahler arrived in New York the US labor movement was reaching new levels of activity, drawing in all classes of society to both sides of the issue.​ In 1878 the New York City-based Musical Mutual Protective Union (MMPU) formed, taking the first steps toward unionizing musicians by establishing pay scales for different types of music. ​

One particular point of contention, protested successfully in 1897, was the wholesale importation of European musicians "as being instrumental in endangering the existence of musicians in this country and depreciating their opportunities to earn a respectable livelihood as American citizens."​

The movement quickly grew more robust, developing into the American Federation of Musicians we know today.

Striking shirtwaist workers rally at Carnegie Hall (1910-01-02)Original Source: The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, IRL School, Cornell University

A news report of a labor rally attended by Philharmonic supporters at Carnegie Hall
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Among them was Mrs. Samuel Untermyer of the Philharmonic's Guarantors Committee. The New York Times, January 3, 1910.​ Read by Brendan Timins.

New York Philharmonic musicans (1909) by New York PhilharmonicOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Building a new orchestra​

With a mandate to build the “greatest orchestra America has ever heard,” Mahler set out in the summer of 1909 to hire the best musicians around. The old Philharmonic’s base of permanent musicians had been depleted through competition, from other orchestras, and they would be replacement by players who, for the first time, would be selected a conductor rather than the musicians themselves. Of the 102 players listed in the spring 1909 program, only 56 would appear on the roster for Mahler’s opening concert in November. The greatest changes occurred in the wind sections; there were a fair number of adjustments in the second violins; eventually the entire timpani and percussion section would be replaced.​

Gustav Mahler to Richard Arnold Page 4 (Summer, 1909) by Gustav MahlerOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

An excerpt from Mahler's letter to the Philharmonic Manager about musicians​
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This remarkable achievement was complicated by union work rules, as Mahler noted in a letter to the Philharmonic Manager, in which his “horse-trading” techniques come into play to garner the best musicians possible, whether from Europe or Chicago.​

New York Philharmonic Archives. Read by Brendan Timins.

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Demonstration (1911)Original Source: The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, IRL School, Cornell University

General labor unrest

Between 1909 and 1910 some of the largest labor unrest took place, notably among boot and shoe workers, garbage haulers, and especially the Ladies' Garment Workers Union (the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire would occur in 1911). Nearly 100,000 workers were on strike at some point during this time. The issues were not just higher pay: the strikes led to regulated work weeks, overtime pay, and compulsory arbitration.​

Although there was no major labor action in the orchestra world, all of these new concepts became a common part of the American orchestra workplace for both musicians and management.

Members of the Women's Trade Union League of New York (circa 1910)Original Source: The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, IRL School, Cornell University

"Solidarity Forever," a labor movement song, sung by Pete Seeger, Jane Sapp, Si Kahn, and others​
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Carry It On, Songs of America’s Working People, Flying Fish Records, 1987

Gustav Mahler in rehearsal (1910)Original Source: Mahler Foundation

More on Mahler's New York

Mahler in New York

Mahler's First Symphony

Mahler as Interpreter

Mahler and Women

Walking Mahler's New York: A Digital Walking Tour

Mahler's New York: A Digital Festival from the New York Philharmonic

Credits: Story

Created by the New York Philharmonic Archives
Gabryel Smith, Director, Archives & Exhibitions
Sarah Palermo, Assistant Archivist
Bill Levay, Digital Archivist

Adapted from original exhibit Mahler in New York
Curated and written by: Barbara Haws and Bob Sandla
Music Commentary on First Symphony: Charles Z. Bornstein
Biographies: Kristen Houkom
Text Readers: Nishi Badhwar, Forrest Buckman, Marion Cotrone, Erin Roy, Brendan Timins
Audio Engineer: Lawrence Rock

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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