Bruno Walter (September 15, 1876 – February 17, 1962) was a German-born conductor and composer. He was born in Berlin, but moved to several countries between 1933 and 1939, finally settling in the United States in 1939. His original name was Bruno Schlesinger, but he began using Walter as surname in 1896. The family name Schlesinger was officially dropped in 1911, when he took up Austrian citizenship. Bruno Walter is ranked among the twentieth century's greatest conductors. Growing up as a pianist and then working in operatic venues in Vienna, Berlin, Munich, Leipzig, London, and New York City, Walter gained a reputation for his knowledge of the orchestral music of German operas, the libretto, the choreography, and the vocal sequences of which he skillfully coordinated and directed. He later became guest conductor and the music director of orchestras in the United States and the United Kingdom, thus reviving German opera and continuing the excellent musical direction of modern symphonies and orchestras.
As a renowned conductor, Bruno Walter understood the actions of giving and receiving; giving to the operatic or symphony orchestra with the conducting nuances of each section and movement of a composition, and receiving from each musician their best offering. This freely flowing energy made Bruno Walter's performances an exquisite experience for the audience.
Walter, like many artists whose musical and philosophical foundations were rooted in Christian Europe, believed in the spiritual aspects of his art form. On the topic of music and its influence of the human psyche, he remarked, "I begin to understand more deeply the essence of our art (music) and its elemental power over the human soul. Man, being a creature of nature and subject to the cosmic influences that inform all earthly beings, must have been under the sway of that music from his earliest days; his organism reverberated with its vibration and received its rhythmic impulses."
Born near Alexanderplatz, in Berlin, to a middle-class Jewish family, Bruno Walter began his musical education at the Stern Conservatory at the age of eight, making his first public appearance as a pianist when he was nine. However, following visits to one of Hans von Bülow's concerts in 1889, and to Bayreuth in 1891, Walter changed his mind and decided upon a conducting career. He made his conducting debut at the Cologne Opera with Lortzing's Waffenschmied in 1894. Later that year, he left for the Hamburg Opera to work as a chorus director, where he first met and worked with Gustav Mahler, whom he idolized and with whose music he would later be strongly identified.
In 1896, Walter took a conducting position at the opera house in Breslau—a job found for him by Mahler. This was where Walter started to drop his surname, "Schlesinger," at the request of either Mahler or the director, in order to make his name sound less Jewish. In 1897, he took an opera-conducting position at Pressburg, and in 1898, he took one in Riga. Then Walter returned in 1900, to Berlin, where he assumed the post of Royal Prussian Conductor at the Berlin Royal Opera House, succeeding Schalk; his colleagues there included Richard Strauss and Karl Muck. While at Berlin he also conducted the Berlin premiere of Der arme Heinrich by Hans Pfitzner, a composer who would become a lifelong friend of his.
In 1901, Walter accepted Mahler's invitation to be his assistant at the Court Opera in Vienna. Walter led Verdi's Aida at his debut. In the following years, Walter's conducting reputation soared as he was invited to conduct throughout Europe—in Prague, London (where in 1910, he conducted Tristan und Isolde and Ethel Smyth's The Wreckers at Royal Opera House), and in Rome. A few months after Mahler's death in 1911, Walter led the first performance of Das Lied von der Erde in Munich, as well as Mahler's Ninth Symphony in Vienna the next year.
Although Walter became an Austrian citizen in 1911, he left Vienna to become the Royal Bavarian Music Director in Munich in 1913. In January the next year, Walter conducted his first concert in Moscow. During the First World War, he remained actively involved in conducting, giving premieres to Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Violanta and Der Ring des Polykrates as well as Pfitzner's Palestrina.
Walter ended his appointment in Munich in 1922, and left for New York, the United States in 1923, working with the New York Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall; he later conducted in Detroit, Minnesota, and Boston.
Back in Europe, Walter was re-engaged for several appointments, including Berlin (1925, as musical director at the Städtische Opera, Charlottenburg) and Leipzig (1929). He made his debut at La Scala in 1926. In London, Walter was chief conductor of the German seasons at Covent Garden from 1924 to 1931.
In 1933, when the Nazi party began to bar his musical appointments in Germany, Walter left for Austria. Austria would remain the main center of activity for the next several years, although he was also a frequent guest conductor of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra from 1934 to 1939, and made guest appearances such as in annual concerts with the New York Philharmonic from 1932 to 1936. When Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, France offered Walter citizenship, which he accepted; however, in November 1, 1939, he eventually set sail for the United States, which became his permanent home. Beverly Hills remained Walter's residence for many years, and his many expatriate neighbors include the German writer Thomas Mann.
While Walter had many influences within music, in his Of Music and Making, he notes a profound influence from the philosopher Rudolf Steiner. He notes, "In old age I have had the good fortune to be initiated into the world of anthroposophy and during the past few years to make a profound study of the teachings of Rudolf Steiner. Here we see alive and in operation that deliverance of which Hoelderlin speaks; its blessing has flowed over me, and so this book is the confession of belief in anthroposophy. There is no part of I my inward life that has not had new light shed upon it, or been stimulated, by the lofty teachings of Rudolf Steiner … I am profoundly grateful for having been so boundlessly enriched … It is glorious to become a learner again at my time of life. I have a sense of the rejuvenation of my whole being which gives strength and renewal to my musicianship, even to my music-making."
During his years in the United States, Walter worked with many famous American orchestras, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the NBC Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (where he was musical adviser from 1947 to 1949), and the Philadelphia Orchestra. From 1946 onwards, he made numerous trips back to Europe, becoming an important musical figure in the early years of the Edinburgh Festival and in Salzburg, Vienna, and Munich. His late life was marked by stereo recordings with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. He made his last live concert appearance on December 4, 1960, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and pianist Van Cliburn. His last recording was a series of Mozart overtures with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra at the end of March 1961.
Bruno Walter died of a heart attack in his Beverly Hills home in 1962.
Walter's work was documented on hundreds of recordings made between 1923 (when he was nearly 50) and 1961. Most listeners become familiar with him through the stereo recordings made in his last few years, when his health was declining. But many critics agree that these recordings do not fully convey what Walter's art must have sounded like in its prime. For one thing, the late recordings sometimes have a geniality that contrasts with the more mercurial, intense, and energetic performances Walter recorded in earlier decades. For another, the late recordings focus mostly on music from Mozart through Mahler, but in Walter's youth he often conducted what was then newer music (including Mahler).
Walter worked closely with Mahler as an assistant and protege. Mahler did not live to perform his Das Lied von der Erde or Symphony No. 9, and asked Walter to premiere both. Walter led the first performance of Das Lied in 1911, in Munich, and of the Ninth in 1912, in Vienna, with the Vienna Philharmonic. Decades later, Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic (with Mahler's brother-in-law Arnold Rose still the concertmaster) made the first recordings of Das Lied von der Erde in 1936, and of the Ninth Symphony in 1938. The latter was recorded live in concert, two months before the Nazi Anschluss drove Walter (and Rose) into exile. These recordings are of special interest for the performance practices of the orchestra and also for intensity of expression. Walter was to re-record both works quite successfully in later decades. He recorded the Ninth in stereo in 1961, and one of his most cherished recordings is his 1951Das Lied von der Erde with Kathleen Ferrier, Julius Patzak, and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Walter also made a 1960 studio recording of Das Lied with the New York Philharmonic.
Nonetheless, Walter regretted that he could never hear Mahler himself conduct the Ninth and Das Lied; these performances should not be considered documentations of the composer's interpretations.
Walter's various other recordings of Mahler—various songs and the First, Second, Fourth, and Fifth symphonies—are highly prized. Walter's personal connection with the composer would by itself add great interest to them (in most of these works Walter did have direct experience of the composer's performances). More importantly, their musical qualities strike many critics and musicians as outstanding.
Walter made many highly acclaimed recordings of other great Austrian composers, such as Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Johann Strauss Jr., and Anton Bruckner, as well as of Bach, Wagner, Schumann, Dvorak, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Smetana, and others. Walter was a leading conductor of opera, particularly known for his Mozart, and recordings of some from the Metropolitan Opera and the Salzburg Festival are now available on CD. So are performances of Wagner, Verdi, and Beethoven's Fidelio. Also of great interest are recordings from the 1950s, of his rehearsals of Mozart, Mahler, and Brahms, which give insight into his musical priorities and into the warm and non-tyrannical manner (as contrasted with some of his colleagues) with which he related to orchestras.
Walter only composed in his early years. Later he decided to be, "not a composer." His compositions include:
- Symphony No. 1 in D minor
- Symphony No. 2
- Symphonic Fantasia
- Sonata for Violin and Piano in A
- Choral Works
- Gustav Mahler's III. Symphonie. In: Der Merker 1 (1909), 9–11
- Mahlers Weg: ein Erinnerungsblatt. In: Der Merker 3 (1912), 166–171
- Über Ethel Smyth: ein Brief von Bruno Walter. In: Der Merker 3 (1912), 897–898
- Kunst und Öffentlichkeit. In: Süddeutsche Monatshefte (Oktober 1916), 95–110
- Beethovens Missa solemnis. In: Münchner Neueste Nachrichten (30. Oct. 1920), Beethoven suppl., 3–5
- Von den moralischen Kräften der Musik. Vienna 1935
- Gustav Mahler. Wien 1936
- Bruckner and Mahler. In: Chord and Discord 2/2 (1940), 3–12
- Thema und Variationen—Erinnerungen und Gedanken. Stockholm 1947
- Von der Musik und vom Musizieren. Frankfurt 1957
- Mein Weg zur Anthroposophie. In: Das Goetheanum 52 (1961), 418–21
- Briefe 1894–1962. Hg. L.W. Lindt, Frankfurt a.M. 1969
Some samples from Walter's discography include:
- Bach: St. Matthew Passion
- Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1-9, with the New York Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, and Columbia SO (multiple recordings made from the 1930s- 1960s)
- Beethoven: Fidelio
- Beethoven: Missa Solemnis
- Beethoven: Violin Concerto (two recordings with Joseph Szigeti, one with Zino Francescatti)
- Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, with the NBC Symphony
- Brahms: Academic Festival Overture, with the Columbia SO
- Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1-4, Schiksalslied, Tragic Overture, and Haydn Variations with the Columbia SO, Vienna Philharmonic, and New York Philharmonic (two complete symphony cycles: New York Philharmonic, 1953 and Columbia Symphony Orchestra, 1959-61)
- Bruckner: Symphonies Nos. 4, 7 and 9, with the Columbia SO
- Dvorak: Symphonies Nos. 8 and 9, with the Columbia SO
- Haydn: Symphony Nos. 86, 88, 92, 96, 100, and 102 (various orchestras, 1930s to 1950s)
- Mahler: Symphony No. 9, (live) with Vienna Philharmonic, Jan 1938
- Mahler: Symphony No. 9, with Columbia SO, 1961
- Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (live) with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, 1939
- Mahler: Symphony Nos. 1, 2, 5 and 9 with the Columbia SO
- Mahler: Symphony Nos. 4, 5 with New York Philharmonic, 1945, 1947
- Mahler: Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 with the Vienna Philharmonic (1938)
- Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde, with the Vienna Philharmonic, Kerstin Thorborg, and Charles Kullman (1936)
- Mahler: Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, with Kerstin Thorborg and the Vienna Philharmonic (1936)
- Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde, with the Vienna Philharmonic, Kathleen Ferrier, and Julius Patzak (1952)
- Mahler: Das Lied von de Erde, with the New York Philharmonic, Mildred Miller, and Ernst Haefliger (1960)
- Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto with Nathan Milstein and the New York Philharmonic (1945)
- Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro, at the 1937 Salzburg Festival
- Mozart: Symphonies Nos 35, 36, and 38-41, with the Columbia SO
- Mozart: Symphonies Nos. 38 and 41 with the Vienna Philharmonic (1936 and 1938 respectively)
- Mozart: Symphony No. 39 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1934)
- Mozart: Symphony No. 40 (with the Vienna Philharmonic and Columbia Symphony orchestra, 1930s and 1950s)
- Mozart: Eine kleine Nachtmusik (two recordings)
- Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 (pianist and conductor)
- The Birth of a Performance (Rehearsals and a complete performance of Mozart's Symphony No. 36) with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra
- Mozart: Don Giovanni, with the Metropolitan Opera
- Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro, with the Salzburg Festival 1937
- Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 5, 8 (7) in b "Unfinished," 9 (8) in C, "Great C Major" - various recordings in Europe and US
- Schumann: Symphony No. 3, "Rhenish," with the New York Philharmonic (1940s)
- Smetana: The Moldau
- J. Strauss: Jr. Waltes, polkas, overtures, etc. with the New York Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic (1930s and 1950s)
- R. Strauss: Don Juan
- Verdi: La Forza del Destino
- Wagner: Meistersinger Overture
- Wagner: Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde
- Wagner: Die Walküre Act I and portions of Act II in Vienna
- Wagner: Siegfried Idyll, Vienna Philharmonic, 1930s, and Columbia Symphony, 1950s
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Holden, Raymond. The Virtuoso Conductors: The Central European Tradition from Wagner to Karajan. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-300-09326-8
- Ryding, Erik and Rebecca Pechefsky. Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-300-08713-6
- Schonberg, Harold C. The Great Conductors. New York: Simon and Schuster 1967. ISBN 9780671207359
All links retrieved November 21, 2023.
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