Gustav Mahler and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra Tour America.
It is rare to find a focused study that serves as a point of departure for further research, but the approach behind Gustav Mahler and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra Tour America by Mary H. Wagner offers such a perspective. In this book, Wagner explores an important aspect of the composer's career that demands the kind of scrutiny the author has undertaken. While Mahler's tours have not escaped the attention of Henry-Louis de La Grange in his multi-volume biography of the composer, the significance of Mahler's tours merits further consideration. La Grange has given due attention to Mahler's work in America (in Gustav Mahler: Chronique d'une vie, 3: Le genie foudroye 1907-1911 [Paris: Fayard, 1984] along with the immanent fourth volume of the English-language edition with Oxford University Press), and Zoltan Roman's Gustav Mahler in America (New York: Pendragon Press, 1988) contains documentary material on the composer's work with the New York Philharmonic. Another useful study is Marvin von Deck's dissertation "Gustav Mahler in New York: His Conducting Activities in New York City, 1908-1911" (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1973), which Wagner cites in her work. In the present study Wagner has gone further in assessing this single aspect of Mahler's work to reveal much about the relationship between the conductor and the orchestra, the programs that were used on the tours, the reception of the New York Philharmonic in various cities on the East Coast and Upper Midwest, and the role of orchestral tours in the music culture of early twentieth-century America.
Given the strands of biographical, cultural, and social thought involved, the topic itself is intriguing if only for bringing to light the nature of touring orchestras at the turn of the century. It becomes even more intriguing when the discussion involves one of the foremost conductors of the day leading the outstanding orchestra on the continent. The opportunity to hear some incredible concerts in cities outside New York brought some intensive music making to thousands of Americans who may have been influenced in some way by Mahler's efforts. The author wisely shows, not tells, how critics and audiences responded by selecting appropriate passages from the extensive journalism that she has reviewed (and documented in her annotations). The account of the Hartford tour (February 1911) includes mention of the audience enthusiasm not only for Mahler, but also individual members of the orchestra (p. 196).
Justifiably, considerations of Mahler's later years inevitably entail a sense of finality and loss: the composer's last works, his illnesses, and the perceived problems with the management of the New York Philharmonic, all have a taint of fatality. Without taking on a counter-argument, Wagner offers a straightforward account of this dynamic and wholly positive facet of Mahler's last years in the United States. Fully documented in contemporary references and coordinated with the biographical account of Henry-Louis de La Grange, Wagner's study is exemplary in its focus. In light of the amount of details at her disposal, Wagner has wisely chosen to incorporate them judiciously to support her points of reference. To establish a context for her study, Wagner outlines Mahler's career in New York in her first chapter then summarizes the role of touring in American musical culture in the next, before proceeding to discuss the nature of Mahler's programming.
In exploring the programming that Mahler pursued with the New York Philharmonic, Wagner describes the conductor's efforts to shape the ensemble's concert programs and repertoire. Beyond referring to the reliance on romantic music for the Philharmonic's programming--and by extension, other, similar orchestras--it would be useful to have a deeper analysis of the kinds of works involved, including the dates of composition, premieres, and first performances in the United States, as well as the nationalities of the composers involved. A cursory review of symphonies completed between 1860 and 1910 reveals a curious mixture of contemporary works divided between composers of different generations. Mahler's early works, for example, intersect some of the later compositions of Brahms and Bruckner, thus putting the three composers in closer chronological proximity than the stylistic guidelines of history sometimes suggest for those individuals. In terms of programming, the works that Mahler performed with the New York Philharmonic were often more contemporary than would occur later in the twentieth century, when pieces by Schoenberg and Berg were still presented as modern over a half a century after their completion.
This perspective is useful in understanding the programs of "historic" music that Mahler programmed and even took on tour. In addition to the late nineteenth-century works that were part of the concert seasons, Mahler enriched the repertoire with the music of earlier composers, and this set him apart from some other conductors of the time. In addition to the de rigueur symphonies of Beethoven he performed Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique with some regularity, and even counterbalanced those works with baroque works in a suite that Mahler arranged from two of Bach's Ouverture. Mahler's Bach suite deserves attention for its attention to recreate a baroque idiom for the modern symphony orchestra, and in the course of the present study Wagner describes some of the attempts at an authentic sound, including the fabrication of a harpsichord by modifying a Steinway piano (pp. 59-61). This kind of expansion of repertoire for the New York Philharmonic is significant for various reasons, and the result of such programming can be seen throughout the twentieth century, including the famous arrangements of earlier music by Respighi in his suites of Ancient Airs and Dances and Stokowski's own scorings of baroque music. In Mahler's Bach suite, the symphony orchestra becomes the vehicle for exploring earlier music, rather than remaining the medium for contemporary works, as was often the case in the nineteenth century. More than the curiosity that some have deemed it to be, Mahler's Bach suite is evidence of a significant conceptualization of the power of the symphony orchestra--as experienced by the New York Philharmonic--in presenting various styles of repertoire as a living and touring music library.
Beyond the glimpses at repertoire, Wagner also deals with the phenomenon of touring as a cultural institution, and her attention to detail is laudable for the way in which it conveys a sense of the period. In addition to repertoire and other musical data, Wagner's study incorporates train schedules, ticket prices, and related details. More important, she also discusses the points of arrival, that is, the various concert halls and theaters in which the New York Philharmonic played, such as the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, Symphony Hall in Boston, and the New National Theatre in Washington, D.C. The historic photos included in the book give a visual guide to the halls, but Wagner has also surveyed the various sites in the appendix to her study (pp. 213-22).
After setting the stage with sufficient background, Wagner proceeds to discuss the tours by individual chapters on each of them, that is the "New England tour" (pp. 71-106), the "Great Lakes tour" (pp. 107-58), the 1910-11 tours to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. (pp. 159-86), and the "Final tour" (pp. 187-202) that involved a brief return to New England, specifically Springfield, Massachusetts, and Hartford, Connecticut. A cursory review of the subheadings reflects an attempt to assess each tour on the same terms, which gives the readers a sound basis for drawing their own conclusions from her presentation. Some elements repeat from tour to tour, as occurs with music that Mahler repeated, and the reader is thus able to gain a sense of the response of various audiences to his performances of Beethoven or the Bach suite. Yet a sense of Mahler's approach to conducting emerges from the various accounts, and in comparisons to various American conductors, sometimes quite local figures, his dynamism appears to set him apart from others. The accounts suggest a conductor who could adjust the sound as the ensemble created it and manipulate the result in the same way that he performed at the Hofoper in Vienna. The famous report by Ernst Decsey of Mahler's style in leading his new production of Tristan und Isolde is echoed in various passages, such as the review from his Philadelphia tour (quoted on pp. 165-66). It is impossible to determine whether Mahler could change the nature of music making in America during his short time in New York, but his touring introduced various cities on the Eastern seaboard and the Great Lakes region to the high level of performance he achieved with the New York Philharmonic and his own virtuosic conducting. The generally positive responses reflect a new understanding of what could be achieved in orchestral concerts and left the critics aware of the powerful nature of this idiom.
Wagner's study offers some insights into this otherwise neglected aspect of Mahler's career and, in so doing, opens the door to further research on the phenomenon of touring orchestras in the early twentieth century, as transportation systems made it possible for an entire orchestra from one city to visit another and allow its populace to enjoy the quality of musicianship they achieved. Years before the advent of radio broadcasts, the touring orchestra helped to disseminate classical music to a country that seemed to absorb it rapidly and responded to it with enthusiasm. Barring those who might have known Mahler's music, let alone heard it, it was concerts like these that made his name known to the wider public and left searing images of the music he performed. Be it a symphony by Beethoven or a tone poem by Richard Strauss or his own arrangement of music by Bach, Mahler created an indelible impression with his mastery of the New York Philharmonic, both in its native city and on tour in various cities documented in this book. Those interested in this important aspect of Mahler's career--his Wirkung--will encounter in this study some insights into the composer's deep impression on American culture that shaped not only the New York Philharmonic, but ultimately its audiences.
JAMES L. ZYCHOWICZ
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|Author:||Zychowicz, James L.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2007|
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