Mahler as Interpreter

Creator as Conductor

New York Philharmonic

Gustav Mahler as conductor (created before 1900, published in 1914) by Otto BöhlerNew York Philharmonic

Mahler as interpreter

In Europe, Mahler moved between composing, conducting, and running the vast Court Opera House in Vienna. At the New York Philharmonic, Mahler — for the first time in his life — could focus exclusively on symphonic music. He had no major administrative duties, could shape the repertoire to his liking, and led more works, by more composers, than ever before. Mahler included his own compositions among these wide-ranging works, and he did not hesitate to “improve” Bach and Beethoven — to the shock of some New York music lovers.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1929) by Boris ChaliapinOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Rachmaninoff in New York City

Sergei Rachmaninoff was introduced to America as a pianist, as he'd yet to gain fame as a composer. He made his New York debut, led by Mahler, in 1909 as a pianist, performing his Third Piano Concerto, which he'd written for the tour to showcase his gifts as both pianist and composer.

Program (1910-01-16) by New York PhilharmonicOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Rachmaninoff performs his Piano Concerto No. 3 with The Philadelphia Orchestra
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Rachmaninoff continued to perform his Piano Concerto No. 3 for many years, and in 1939-40 recorded it with The Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy.

Naxos Historical: Great Pianists: Rachmaninoff

Rachmaninoff performance advertisement (1941-02-27/1941-02-28) by New York PhilharmonicOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Philharmonic bassoonist Benjamin Kohon remembers Rachmaninoff and Mahler
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William Malloch's “I Remember Mahler,” New York Philharmonic: The Mahler Broadcasts, 1948 - 1982

Richard Strauss (circa 1935)Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Mahler and Strauss

Richard Strauss and Mahler first met in Europe in 1887, and the two conductor-composers often scheduled performances of each other’s works. Mahler continued to ensure that Strauss’s music was played regularly, even if he did make some of the works sound “new” with his own particular interpretation.​

New York audiences had already embraced Strauss, having encountered him during his American tour in 1904, when he made his US debut with the Philharmonic.

Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks (slide) (1924-01-26/1939-11-18) by Ernest SchellingOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

R. Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel (Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic)
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The Philharmonic has performed many Strauss works over the years, and his Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks remains one of the Philharmonic's great orchestral showcases.

New York Philharmonic Special Editions: Kurt Masur at the New York Philharmonic

Program (1910-03-30) by New York PhilharmonicOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Gustav Mahler: Merry Prankster

Though many of Richard Strauss’s works were not new when Mahler performed them with the Philharmonic, Strauss was seen by many as the bad boy of serious music after his Salome had been withdrawn after a single, scandalous performance at The Metropolitan Opera in 1908. At the Philharmonic, Mahler programmed Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung, Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Juan, and songs, as well as numerous hearings of Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche.

Richard Strauss conducting (circa 1935)Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Philharmonic violinist Herman Martonne and bassoonist Benjamin Kohon discuss Mahler's Strauss
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William Malloch's “I Remember Mahler,” New York Philharmonic: The Mahler Broadcasts, 1948–1982

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (slide) (1924-01-26/1939-11-18) by Ernest SchellingOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Mahler and Wagner

In a way, Wagner brought Mahler to the New York Philharmonic – or, more accurately, Wagner’s music did. Mahler made his New York debut in 1908 at The Metropolitan Opera, leading Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde to wild acclaim, as well as Die Walküre and Siegfried.

Richard Wagner (circa 1860)Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Following Mahler's performances of Wagner at The Met Mary Sheldon, re-organizer and future president of the Philharmonic, told The New York Times of April 19, 1908, “While he is here it would be a pity if he should not have a chance to conduct purely orchestral music with an orchestra of his own.”

Mrs. Sheldon led the effort to hire Mahler as the Philharmonic's Music Director.

Bruno Walter (1876-1962)Bavarian State Library

The New York Philharmonic performs Götterdämmerung’s Immolation Scene with Kirsten Flagstad​
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Among the many notable interpreters of Wagner at the New York Philharmonic was Mahler protégé Bruno Walter, who led the Orchestra in the Immolation Scene from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung with soprano Kirsten Flagstad on a broadcast on March 23, 1952.​

New York Philharmonic: The Historic Broadcasts, 1923 to 1987

Program (1911-01-29) by New York PhilharmonicOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Wagneriana

Mahler revered Wagner’s music, and from his New York Philharmonic debut on March 31, 1909, when he led the Siegfried Idyll and the Tannhäuser Overture, he programmed Wagner over 140 times.

In February and March 1910 and January 1911, Mahler and the Philharmonic devoted several concerts to expansive Wagner cycles, both as purely orchestral showcases and with the day's stellar Wagnerian singers.​

Wagner: Kaisermarsch (score) Wagner: Kaisermarsch (score) (1910) by Richard WagnerOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

For the next two years, Wagner was nearly always on the slate, with selections from all his major operas, the Wesendonk-Lieder, and such rarities as the Kaisermarsch., where Mahler's markings are seen in the Philharmonic's score.

That consistent focus on a single composer paid off. Critics at the first Philharmonic Wagner performances Mahler led already noticed improvements, and over time the Orchestra’s artistic insight and technical virtuosity grew by leaps and bounds ...

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

New York Philharmonic bassoonist Benjamin Kohon on Mahler's Wagner
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William Malloch's "I Remember Mahler," New York Philharmonic: The Mahler Broadcasts, 1948–1982

Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 (score) (1909/1942) by Ludwig van BeethovenOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Mahler and Beethoven

Mahler saw Beethoven as a god — inspiring, inexhaustible. More than that, Mahler saw in his German predecessor a personal model: he considered Beethoven as the exemplar of the misunderstood artist who relentlessly pushed his art forward.

Mahler and the Philharmonic performed works by Beethoven over 60 times in two seasons.

Program (1909-11-19) by New York PhilharmonicOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

As The New York Times reported on November 20, 1909: “The Philharmonic Society began yesterday afternoon the Beethoven Cycle that is one of Mr. Mahler’s cherished projects in connection with the enlargement of the Philharmonic’s sphere of activity. The cycle is to consist of five concerts, in which will be performed all the nine symphonies except the first, and seven of the eleven overtures.... The playing of the orchestra has improved. Its tone has gained in richness, smoothness, and beauty of quality, as well as in homogeneity.”

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

Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 (Arturo Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic)
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By the end of the Philharmonic's 1909–10 season, Mahler had conducted more works of Beethoven than those of any other composer. This began a tradition that those who succeeded him would continue.

Press Clippings (1909-12-12/1909-12-13) by New York PhilharmonicOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

The Critics on Mahler's Beethoven's Fifth
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Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 2, B Minor, BWV 1067 (excerpt) (1909) by Johann Sebastian BachOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Mahler and Bach

In one of most obvious examples of how Mahler's identity as a composer affected his work as the new conductor of the Philharmonic, he arranged J.S. Bach's Orchestral Suites Nos. 2 and 3 and adapted them into a new work. Mahler conducted his Suite for Orchestra no fewer than 18 times during his two-year tenure.​

In a letter to Mahler's friend, banker Paul Hammerschlag dated November 19, 1909, Mahler wrote: “I had particular fun recently at a Bach concert for which I wrote out the basso continuo for organ and conducted and improvised – just as they used to – from a spinet with a very big sound, which was specially prepared for me by Steinway. Quite surprising things came out of it for me (and for the listeners). This buried literature was lit up as if by an arc-light. Its effect (and also the tone-coloring) was more powerful than that of any modern work.”​

Bach/Mahler: Suite for Orchestra (violin 1) Bach/Mahler: Suite for Orchestra (violin 1) (1909) by Johann Sebastian BachOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

New York Philharmonic bassoonist Benjamin Kohon describes the Bach-Mahler suite
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William Malloch's "I Remember Mahler," New York Philharmonic: The Mahler Broadcasts, 1948–1982

Gustav Mahler (1960-02-21) by Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

Alma Mahler describes Gustav Mahler’s Bach Suites
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Alma Mahler. Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters, edited by Donald Mitchell. Read by Nishi Badhwar.

Gustav Mahler caricature by Otto BöhlerNew York Philharmonic

More on Mahler's New York

Mahler in New York

Mahler's First Symphony

Mahler and Women

Mahler and Musicians

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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