There are two components below:
William Malloch’s “I remember Mahler” (broadcast in 1964)
The Los Angeles-based musician/teacher/broadcaster William Malloch interviewed musicians who encountered Gustav Mahler in Vienna and (mainly) New York City. Most of them were living in retirement in southern California. The interviews now reside here on the New York Philharmonic Archives website.
The following Listening Guide corresponds to Malloch’s fourteen-part deployment:
How he walked: “a nervous condition.”
“His face was that of a neurasthenic.”
His hair was unkempt.
“There was something sterling about his personality. Something saintly.”
“It was a great face.”
2. MAHLER IN VIENNA
He had “a lot of enemies.”
He instilled “a heightened state of mind in the city.”
He was “revolutionary.”
He was “cruel” to his musicians.
Max Steiner – later a famous Hollywood film composer – briefly studied composition with Mahler. Steiner recalls:
“It didn’t work very well.”
“He was a wonderful conductor – his pianissimos and fortissimos were unbelievable” – as good as Leopold Stokowski’s would be in Philadelphia.
With his musicians: “like a lion tamer with his animals.”
“The best loved and best hated man in Vienna”
“A big portion of the public was absolutely averse to Mahler’s art and his way of treating audiences as well as musicians.”
“He was a man averse to all publicity.”
In New York he declared himself not “Viennese” but “Bohemian.”
3. MAHLER IN THE US
A cellist in Walter Damrosch’s New York Symphony remembers the opening of Schumann’s Spring Symphony: “I never heard such a sound in my life from that orchestra.”
“The orchestra loved him because we learned so much from him.”
His beat was “bad” – “pure expression,” hard to follow; “but we understood.”
He expected musicians to obey him “like a tsar.”
“He didn’t accept that conditions were different from in Vienna” (with its full-time Philharmonic) – the musicians had other engagements; rehearsal time was not unlimited.
4. MAHLER’S RELATIONS WITH THE NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC
“He’d fly off the handle very often.”
Of twelve violas, “maybe five would be very very good” players.
“He was not a friendly person. He did not associate with anyone in the orchestra.”
5. MAHLER AND OTHER COMPOSERS
Rachmaninoff was “offended” that he had to correct mistakes in the orchestra during rehearsals of his Third Piano Concerto with Mahler conducting. [And yet it is elsewhere reported that Mahler admired this work and that Rachmaninoff admired Mahler’s preparation of the orchestra.]
“He was not interested in conducting, period.”
“He was very impersonal.”
Versus conducting Brahms’ Violin Concerto with Fritz Kreisler: “He would rather someone come in and sing Das Lied von der Erde.”
“If people could come and ask for a signature, he would just shove them aside.”
“He made no friends with anybody.”
Mahler’s “spy” [Johner]. “The Judas of the orchestra.”
6. TREATMENT OF THE PLAYERS
“He was never indifferent. He didn’t want anything mechanical.”
The story of the double bass player – CF The Marriage, chapter 11:
Rehearsing Beethoven’s Ninth, Mahler was unhappy with the passage in the finale for double basses alone. He made the players perform it one at a time. He got to an elderly bassist who suffered from rheumatism, who said: “I’m very sorry, but I’m too nervous now to play.” Mahler returned to the man “half an hour later,” again “an hour later,” demanding: “Are you still nervous.” “Yes, I am too nervous.” The next morning, Mahler began the rehearsal by asking the man yet again to play the passage. The bassist said: “I didn’t sleep last night.” Mahler asked “three or four times more” before declaring: “You have no business playing in a symphony orchestra. You should be playing in the back room of a saloon.”
Another such story:
A double bass player in the New York Symphony was offered a better paying job with the Minneapolis Symphony and asked to be released. The request was denied. So he seized “a chance to get fired.” The orchestra was rehearsing the Scherzo of Mahler’s Second Symphony. Some players were talking. Mahler shouted: “Bitte ruhe!” [“Silence please!”]. The bass player in question responded by laughing. Mahler then demanded that the basses perform a difficult passage alone. “It was incredible how it sounded.” Mahler said: “You’ve got seven shoemakers and one bass player – the fresh one!”
Mahler preferred to Toscanini – “always inner, inner.” Seeking “atmosphere.”
7. FINE POINTS OF MAHLER INTERPRETATION
He insisted that melodies “breathe” – “just like you would sing”; “He’d say: ‘Breathe! Breathe!”
He would break the legato of a phrase “to make it sound natural” – e.g., the opening theme of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.
“He asked for a lot of vibrato” – “singing.”
“He asked for a lot of sliding” [portamento].
The opening of Mahler’s Fourth — Cf The Marriage, Chapter 4:
The single most startling musical detail in the Malloch interviews (at 3:55) is that Mahler had his violins interpolate an upward octave glissando in the tune opening his Fourth Symphony.
He favored constant tempo variation, as espoused by Wagner in “On Conducting.” But these changes were “subtle.”
8. MAHLER’S REORCHESTRATIONS
“The most surprising things in the world” – “very arbitrary,” “reckless” – for instance, in Richard Strauss tone poems.
In the finale of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, Mahler inserted an E-fat clarinet to make a tune “more shrill,” “gypsy-like.”
He would double the winds to achieve a better balance with the strings.
9. NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC BASSOONIST BENJAMIN KOHON REMINISCES
In Beethoven’s Seventh, Mahler doubled the bassoons so a bassoon line would not be covered by the strings. He also borrowed the timpanist from the Metropolitan Opera orchestra.
Mahler regarded Debussy’s Iberia as “the foundation of modern music.”
When Mahler performed his Fourth Symphony the audience was “very enthusiastic.”
“He would give more time to other things than to his own compositions.”
“He’d shake his fists when he got really excited.”
“He had a good stentorian voice . . . When he got into a rage you could hear it three blocks away.”
On George Chadwick (Melpomene Overture): “This is buttermilk music.”
10. WEISS INCIDENT; MAHLER AND TCHAIKOVSKY
Weiss – a “crazy guy” — was engaged to perform the Schumann Piano Concerto; he expected Mahler to follow him. Rehearsing movement two, Weiss walked out. Paul Gallico took his place.
Mahler “didn’t like Russian music, particularly Tchaikovsky” — “not a symphonic composer.”
For the end of the 1812 Overture, Mahler lacked a competent percussionist to play the chimes. At the performance, he “began to shout and wave to him to stop.” At the end of the performance, Mahler walked directly to the percussionist and asked (in German), “Have you ever heard chimes in your life?!” He was “beside himself with rage.”
11. MAHLER’S RELATIONS WITH PUBLIC AND THE PRESS
“The press as far as I remember was not exactly enthusiastic.”
The critics requested that they be permitted to attend dress rehearsals in order to better prepare themselves. Mahler said no. He said: “They couldn’t criticize [competently] no matter how many times they heard it.”
The audience response? “Not too much. Not very big.”
Mahler said: “They sit there like sleepy lambs, I don’t understand these American audiences.”
12. OTHER RECOLLECTIONS
“He made short rehearsals. Physically, he couldn’t stand them.” He told the musicians that “everything has an end except a wurst: that has two.”
“His wife and daughter would come in. He was always so happy to see them. And she was a very gracious lady, Mrs. Mahler. Beautiful woman. She spoke beautifully, charmingly.”
13. ANNA MAHLER REMEMBERS HER FATHER
“I remember him very well, I was nearly seven when he died. I remember his voice, his hands, his very strange walk. People say it was a nervous tic. It wasn’t. It was irregular, but it was a change of pace, that was all. Why he did it, I don’t know.”
“He took me sometimes for walks. And I was not very sportive. But I had a pair of roller skates. I couldn’t manage them. He was patient.
“I remember these terrible lunches. I wasn’t allowed to speak and he was always absorbed. And we had dreadful food. But I do remember when he suddenly took notice of me, the complete change, a burst of warmth. It didn’t happen often, because he didn’t have time.”
“The last winter in New York our apartment [was] in this New York hotel – the Savoy, it doesn’t exist any more. I must have been a pain in the neck. I was a bad eater, I was dreamy, fat. And I didn’t want to eat. Til Mahler had this idea that I should go out of the room and ‘Gladys’ should come back. So I came back with the name of Gladys and I ate it all up without a murmur. And it worked every day. I was sent out of the room and came back as Gladys.”
“It’s strange, I only recognize two or three photos [of Mahler]. He was so spent. He was only fifty. It was a traumatic face in his last years. And also, this little smile. He had the most lovely smile. This sudden burst is my main memory.”
“I had a pair of scissors and I cut into something. And mummy said, ‘Did you do that?’ And I said, ‘no.’ And Mahler came in and he knelt down and he said, “Don’t you think that the scissors might have suddenly moved?” “I said, ‘yes.’”
14. MAHLER AND THE MUSICIANS
“He never took a cab or a limousine. He’d take the subway.”
“He never could never get enough volume out of us to play the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth. He wanted a cataclysm, a volcanic eruption, something we really couldn’t give him. And one day he finally got what he wanted. And he was genuinely delighted and he invited the entire orchestra to have a snack with him at the Liederkranz.”
“He was very restricted with his food. He had a bad stomach.”
“At the party the horns played a little horn quartet for him. He got a great big kick out of that.
I remember the first cellist, Leo Schulz, he played a parody on some of Mahler’s themes in his symphonies. Mahler took it very well. He really had a good time that night.”
“He was very friendly to everybody. He shook hands with everybody.”
“He never liked to talk about his past.”
“He said he hoped we’d all be together for a long time.”
His last concert: “He pulled himself together. He had the iron will power.”
“We didn’t realize that he was such a sick man. There were no rumors at all about it. You see what will power he must have had.”
Mahler and Dimitri Mitropoulos
In The Marriage (“Further Reading and Listening”), I write:
“Of countless impressive recordings of Mahler symphonies, the one that most evokes Mahler’s own performances, to my ears, is the torrid first recording of the First Symphony, by Dimitri Mitropoulos and his sui generis Minneapolis Symphony (1940). No other Mahler performance known to me so evokes Mahler’s soundprint: the angular phrasings and subito (sudden) dynamics, the “flat” sonic perspective with every instrument a soloist.”
You can access Mitropoulos’s Minneapolis recording of Mahler’s First here.
Mitropoulos identified with Mahler’s agonizing existential quest. At the same time, he was a New World cultural leader in Minnesota; in this respect, Mitropoulos/Minneapolis and Mahler/New York City offer an illuminating study in contrasts. And yet Mitropoulos’s subsequent fate as music director of the New York Philharmonic in some ways parallels that of Mitropoulos. In my Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall (2005), I write of Mitropoulos:
Like Mahler’s, his was a religious personality . . . But no twentieth century symphonic conductor seemed more strangely or potently religious than Dimitri Mitropoulos. He was born in an obscure Greek village. His grandfather was a priest; two uncles were monks on Mount Athos. His lodestar was St. Francis. He wore a large crucifix next to his heart. With his bald head and big-boned features, he looked like an anchorite and practically lived like one. He gave away most of what he earned – to students, to colleagues, to peddlers on the street. Unmarried, often celibate, he disdained the trappings of wealth, privilege, and domesticity. A student in Berlin from 1921 to 1924, he affixed himself to Ferruccio Busoni and absorbed the influence of Furtwängler and Klemperer, Erich Kleiber, Bruno Walter and Richard Strauss. He achieved sudden celebrity when in 1930 he led the Berlin Philharmonic in a concert including Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto – which he both played and conducted. By then he had returned to Athens, where he taught and conducted for more than a decade. In 1936 Koussevitzky invited him to conduct the Boston Symphony, where his impact was sensational. In 1937 he became music director of the Minneapolis Symphony and stayed for a dozen years – a tenure as picturesque and inspirational, in its way, as Koussevitzky’s or Stokowski’s back east.
The Minneapolis orchestra was formed in 1903 by Emil Oberhoffer in association with a lumber magnate, Elbert L. Carpenter. Oberhoffer was a born educator – his 19-year music directorship, fortified with frequent tours, was influential throughout the Midwest. His successors were Henri Verbrugghen in 1923 and Eugene Ormandy in 1931 – of whom the latter galvanized the orchestra as an instrument of performance. Mitropoulos inherited a highly competent ensemble – and transformed it into a laboratory for a kind of contemporary fare Koussevitzky [in Boston] rarely touched. His concertmaster as of 1944 was Louis Krasner, who had commissioned and premiered Berg’s Violin Concerto and Schoenberg’s. In Minnesota, he performed both with Mitropoulos, and gave the first performance of the Roger Sessions concerto. Mitropoulos befriended and championed the 12-tone composer Ernst Krenek, who turned up at Hamline College in St. Paul in exile from Austria. Mahler, Vaughan Williams, Milhaud, and Morton Gould were other composers for whom Mitropoulos raised a flag. This barrage of challenging and unfamiliar music would have merely annoyed had Mitropoulos been a mere conduit. He was instead a powerful advocate. Here is an off-the-cuff speech occasioned by a 1945 performance of Alexander Tansman’s Fifth Symphony (in an 18-program subscription season including Berg, Hindemith, Kabalevsky, Khachaturian, Mahler, Milhaud, Respighi, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Szymanowski, Tcherepnin, Vaughan Williams, Walton, and the Americans David Diamond, Morton Gould, and Charles Miller).
What sense does it make to embrace modern inventions and conveniences, modern films and radio shows, but to utterly reject modern sounds? Could you take a sporting interest in these contemporary works? That is to say, could you not accept the challenge of listening first and then deciding, on a piece by piece basis, what to embrace and what to discard? Listening to a new work of music is an experiment, and as any scientist can tell you, an experiment can be its own reward, at least in terms of intellectual satisfaction. We don’t have to ask that all modern works we hear should be supremely great works of art. Most of them aren’t, and we would be naïve to expect them to be, but we are more naive if we close our ears to them.
The sermonette was accompanied by a plea for blood donations. As his listeners appreciated, Mitropoulos himself had dedicated the summer of 1943 to a Red Cross unit, collecting donated blood within a 75-mile radius of Minneapolis. As “blood custodian,” he was responsible for setting up cots, washing test tubes, and cleaning up afterward: a 12- to 14-hour regime maintained for three months. He wrote to David Diamond: “Every time I wash the tubes which have been used to transfer the blood of a human being from his veins to a little jar, I feel more hopeful and more real, an even sometimes I find myself dreaming of quitting my abstract, smug profession . . . although I know that, like an old alcoholic, sooner or later I will come back to my onions.”
This vignette was characteristic. Mitropoulos was a familiar everyday figure, walking to the store, waiting for the bus, attending church on Sundays. His favorite past-time was catching movies at odd hours, often sitting through double and or triple features by himself or with friends or members of the orchestra. He indiscriminately enjoyed comedies, melodramas, gangster sagas – whatever was playing. His typical public attire included black turtlenecks and tunics that accentuated his monastic aura — as did the spartan furnishings of his home. On tour, he shared buses and railroad coaches with the musicians, and carried his belongings in a rucksack slung on his back. When the orchestra manager protested, he switched to a more dignified suitcase. He was also censured by the board for using the concert hall as a pulpit to urge support of Henry Wallace’s third party Presidential candidacy – a 1948 challenge from the left. Such indiscretions were tolerated because Mitropoulos was loved by many and admired by most. Upon performing Berg’s Lyric Suite in 1939 he wrote to his lifelong Greek confidante Katy Katsoyanis: “Last night, my dear friend, I felt the greatest relief I’ve ever felt in my life: I managed to make the audience and the musicians understand, love, and warmly applaud the Alban Berg Suite that is so full of problems. It’s a victory and a sure measure of my persuasive forcefulness of expression. You must understand that the tragic and passionate element was projected with magnifying lenses, and so they couldn’t resist me. I managed to hypnotize them, like a real Yogi.”
If Mitropoulos also experienced his share of failures, it was not the fault of his orchestra. His Minneapolis recordings document a condition of hyper-commitment. Mitropoulos considered a 1942 recording of Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 representative of what he had accomplished. With its slashing accents and jagged outlines, its sinewy musculature and raw energy, this is an exhausting and discomfiting listening experience, a revisionist portrait of the composer as a nascent Expressionist. Mitropoulos’s Minneapolis discography also includes Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 – to which the Mitropoulos style organically adheres. One need only recall Arthur Farwell’s account of Mahler’s own performance of Schubert’s Ninth, with its “exaggerated” phrasings and dynamics pursued by “the imp of the perverse,” to recognize the truthfulness of this 1940 recording. No less than Mahler – his scoring and conducting – Mitropoulos rejects the Romantic cathedral sonority: the warm blanket of strings, the recessed winds and percussion favored by generic conductors here give way to shards of intense melody and tone. No wonder Mitropoulos was found also to excel in Berg and Webern, and in Strauss’s Elektra.
Complementing such Mitropoulized renditions was the shock of the conductor’s lithe, quivering frame, of his massive hands clawing the air, of his raw features contorted into a demonic gargoyle. He used neither baton nor score. His visual memory was such that, as countless composers discovered to their bewilderment, he knew every note, every measure number, every page number by heart. But – as certain composers also had occasion to observe – his ear was less acute. If the rough textures and ripping intensities of a Mitropoulos performance ultimately constituted an acquired taste, Minneapolis Symphony concerts were never dull. In 1939 Time Magazine reported that “some of the most brilliant U.S. conducting since the peak days of Stokowski and Toscanini was being done in snow-crusted Minneapolis.” Four years later, when the orchestra visited Carnegie Hall, there were complaints about Mitropoulos’s too “violently personal” style, but also inescapable acknowledgement that the Minneapolis Symphony was a force to be reckoned with.
Throughout Mitropoulos’s Minneapolis tenure, his departure to some higher place was fatalistically anticipated. He led the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and (a return engagement) the Boston Symphony with powerful results. Finally, the call came: from New York. At the close of his final Minneapolis subscription concert, on March 18, 1949, he walked to the lip of the stage and said (in part): “Unfortunately, the inexorable laws of destiny [rule] the chosen people . . . they have to follow their duties and not their heart’s desires. So I’m going someplace where I don’t know if I’m going to be happy. But I have to go. I have to climb the mountain that is expected from me to climb more, until I go, like everyone else, and find our common father.” To Louis Krasner he confided (as Krasner would recall years later): “I simply can’t resist. I am too weak not to go, do you understand. . . . I have to go, even though I know I am probably going to my doom.”
Mitropoulos’s trepidation was complex. His correspondence reveals a self-flagellating streak of which he was aware, as well as artistic insecurities. He feared the Philharmonic workload, with its four concerts per week. But he doubtless reflected on other reasons the orchestra had proved a conductor’s graveyard. In Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago, Stokowski, Koussevitzky, and Stock stayed put. In New York, no music director after [Mahler’s successor] Josef Stransky had lasted for more than four seasons in a true leadership capacity. Players and listeners, trustees and administrators were poorly prepared to understand or support the repertoire priorities uppermost on Mitropoulos’s agenda.
His New York failure was not unredeemed by memorable patches of success. No other conductor could so plausibly and unaffectedly have shepherded the Philharmonic to the 6,000-seat Roxy movie palace, where for two weeks in September 1950 it appeared on the same bill with “The Black Rose” (starring Tyrone Power), Milton Berle, and the Roxyettes, offering four 45-minute concerts daily, seven days a week. No other conductor could cheerfully have observed, to a Herald–Tribune columnist, that his novice listeners had been so absorbed that when he turned around to have a look they had stopped chewing their chewing gum. Later in the same season, Mitropoulos conducted Berg’s Wozzeck in concert – its first New York hearing since Stokowski brought it up from Philadelphia two decades before. The occasion was electric; Olin Downes, in the Times, echoed general sentiment in acknowledging “one of the historic achievements in the history of Carnegie Hall,” a recording of which remains perhaps the most galvanizing Wozzeck ever documented in sound.
But more legendary than the Roxy gig, or Berg’s Expressionist masterpiece, was the orchestra’s mounting abuse of its increasingly beleaguered music director. So fractious a collection of Italians, Germans, and Jews was the Philharmonic that actual fistfights were not unknown backstage. This pugnacity could also be visited upon conductors, but never as rudely as upon one who would not fight back. One watershed incident, in 1950, was provoked by the Philharmonic’s first performance of Webern’s Symphony, Op. 21: music the likes of which the players had never encountered. As was often the case with Mitropoulos, the rehearsals were a magnet for New York’s musical intelligentsia, including composers thirsty to encounter (however belatedly) the European vanguard. As Milton Babbitt later recalled, Theodore Cella, the harpist, picked up his part and flung it at Mitropoulos’s feet, then bolted offstage. Mitropoulos turned to face the dark auditorium with an expression of bewildered pain. He never again scheduled Webern with the Philharmonic.
Mitropoulos’s attitude, expressed on another such occasion, was: “I can afford to forgive.” He insisted upon treating the players with “obeisance full of love.” More than a few members of the Philharmonic loved him in return. To others, a conductor who lived plainly in a nearby hotel of no distinction, bought his own groceries at a Sixth Avenue delicatessen, and held court at a place called Beefburger Hall could not be taken seriously.
Mitropoulos’s Philharmonic concerts seemed to many erratic, even unfathomable – not merely for what he programmed, but how. Juggling musical and box office priorities, he might follow Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto with Kodaly’s Dances from Galanta, or Schoenberg’s Pelleas and Melisande with a dance by Falla. Not atypical was a 1953 concert comprising (in this order) Respighi’s orchestration of Bach’s C-sharp minor Passacaglia and Fugue, Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto, George Rochberg’s Night Music (a distinguished premiere), and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. In Boston, Koussevitzky secured a pact with his adoring audience: they would respect what he chose to conduct. In Philadelphia, Stokowski was aloof and censurious: he disciplined the subscribers. In Minneapolis, Mitropoulos was revered as a superior arbiter of what music mattered, whether or not mere mortals could compass its complexities. In New York, where Mitropoulos gave first performances of core twentieth century repertoire by Berg, Mahler, Schoenberg, and Shostakovich, his shrinking audience was at sea. Even Mitropoulos’s frustrations told. Following a tepidly received rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, Babbitt encountered him backstage in a state of icy rage: “You see?” he exclaimed, “they don’t even like that shit!” Following a rehearsal of Schoenberg’s Erwartung, he wrote to Katy Katsoyanis:
Alone in the midst of so many people, with parts badly written and badly annotated, I came to the point of asking myself, what is the use to struggle when you know that the results can’t be of any contribution except to a group of sophisticated people who selfishly come to enjoy my tragic struggle. Believe me, I resent them just as much as those who will not understand anything. The price is too big to pay, and I am wondering sometimes if this kind of distorted and screwy beauty is of any transcendental value. I am wondering sometimes if . . . I am trying to realize the impossible, a pure egotistical occupation which has in itself nothing more than the pleasure of self-destruction.
Weeks later, on December 7, 1952, Mitropoulos suffered a heart attack. He returned to work the following April. He was finished off on April 29, 1956, by Howard Taubman, who had replaced [Olin] Downes at the New York Times. The Times that day printed an eight-column article based partly on information fed to Taubman by William Lincer, the Philharmonic’s principal violist. Headlined “The Philharmonic – What’s Wrong with It and Why,” it read in part:
Because Dimitri Mitropoulos is musical director . . . he bears the heaviest responsibility. He is a serious, dedicated musician, with strong sympathies for the repertory of the late nineteenth century and for certain areas of twentieth-century music. His flair is for dramatic music, and he can communicate an almost feverish intensity.
Such virtues, applied to classical and early romantic music, become failings, for these works need proportion, delicacy, occasional repose. . .
Mr. Mitropoulos, moreover, has not established his capacities as an orchestral drillmaster. It may even be asked whether he cares about refinements of execution. It follows that Mr. Mitropoulos may not be the wisest choice for musical director.
The following fall, the Philharmonic announced that Leonard Bernstein would share direction of the orchestra beginning in 1957-58. As of 1958-59, Bernstein was in charge. Mitropoulos suffered a second heart attack in January 1959, then, on November 2, 1960, an old man at 64, he was felled by a third, massive coronary while rehearsing Mahler’s Third Symphony in Milan. His health notwithstanding, he had rapidly achieved new eminence in Germany, Austria, and Italy, with growing ties to La Scala and to the Vienna Philharmonic. If, like Otto Klemperer, he had managed to survive into old age, he might have acquired something like Klemperer’s mantle of authority. The different ending of his life story yielded a different fable: not of Job-like perseverance, but of hardships incurred when a religious selflessness is subjected to real world conditions, even in the realm of art.
* * *
As musical personalities Klemperer and Mitropoulos were obviously different, yet shared similarities bearing on their American travails. For both, repertoire was paramount, not performance as an end in itself. In fact, both were dedicated (if only for a time, in the case of Mitropoulos) composers. On the podium, both disdained “technique.” “During a concert,” Klemperer once explained, “I completely expose myself to the action of the music and do not care about purely technical problems; if one should have to think about the technique of conducting all the time, that would tie down an important part of the concentration” – words Mitropoulos could equally have uttered. Neither cultivated a manicured tonal sheen. Nor was either a manicured personality. At tea with the Philharmonic’s lady subscribers, Klemperer would deposit his great bulk on a sofa, then struggle to his feet to address an admirer, perhaps upsetting his cup. He was frequently at a loss for words and his wife was no help. Mitropoulos did not even have a wife: not only was he quietly known to be homosexual, he felt no need for a cosmetic marriage.
In America, especially, Klemperer and Mitropoulos seemed “intellectuals.” The one made his name among the Berlin avant-garde; the other read dog-eared volumes of Mann and Kierkegaard for pleasure. Both projected a beleaguered moral intelligence, scarred by twentieth century adversities. Though it is tempting to hypothesize what might have happened had Klemperer become music director of the New York Philharmonic or Philadelphia Orchestra, or had Mitropoulos left Minneapolis for Philadelphia or Boston, in fact both were inimical to the United States. Their alien status is clarified once they are aligned with a common object of intense identification and absolute admiration: Gustav Mahler – also a composer, an intellectual, a tea-party risk, a scarred moral scourge. Klemperer’s take on Los Angeles audiences – “My task is that of a pioneer . . . the people are endlessly grateful and ready to love me” – is Mahler in New York revisited. Mahler complained that the New York Philharmonic was “phlegmatic – a typical American orchestra.” Klemperer considered the Vienna Philharmonic superior to any American ensemble. Mahler in America was a man without a place; so was Klemperer. Mitropoulos (like Klemperer an American citizen) was (like Mahler, like Klemperer) attracted and repelled by American innocence. “In our country or in Europe, people are suspicious . . . they soil you!” he wrote to Katy Katsoyanis. Again: “Here is why America is better. There is everywhere an encouraging breath – for work, for morality. When they see you as a god, an apostle, a leader, you feel the need to be pure as possible before people who are ready to adore you, to follow you, to respond to you.” But in another letter to Katsoyanis, in 1938: “I’ve explained to you that since I haven’t been able, up to now, to relate spiritually with any American being, this means that it will never happen to me. I came to this country at too mature an age, and it is now quite impossible for me to link myself completely with the environment and with the people. Most of all, the absence of romanticism, or warmth, makes me feel far more alone than if I chose to be alone in a warm environment.” A week later, disgusted by American isolationism in the face of Hitler: “There’s selfishness everywhere; all is well as long as America is not affected. They’re intoxicated with comfort and nothing else interests them. The ambition of every one of my musicians is to buy a car.”
Mahler’s understanding of tragedy as endemic to humankind – an understanding that permeates his music even (or especially) when it scales the heights – was Klemperer’s understanding and that of Mitropoulos; it underlies the discomfort they experienced in America. Klemperer fled Berlin and the Nazis. For Mitropoulos, Athens seemed (as Vienna seemed to Mahler) corrupt and inbred; even his mother’s death in 1941 did not draw him back. A transcendental condition of worldliness and suffering was for Klemperer and Mitropoulos, as for Mahler, a tragic yet indispensable European condition. They were fatalists at odds with American smiles and “can do” optimism, with the enterprise of perfectibility. The technocrats [Fritz] Reiner and [George] Szell, the sensualists [Leopold] Stokowski and [Serge] Koussevitzky were more compatible with the robust American experience. [Arturo] Toscanini, in his ferocious political mode, remained impervious to the world of existential strife Mahler, Klemperer, and Mitropoulos endured. Their unknown planet was the more remote from born and bred Americans – including the behind-the-scenes operative guiding America’s culture of performance: the musical powerbroker Arthur Judson. It was Judson, in the wings, who appraised Klemperer’s failings, Judson who supported and influenced the appointment of more malleable conductors: [John] Barbirolli as Toscanini’s successor, Eugene Ormandy in place of Stokowski. It was Judson who insisted that Klemperer not program Mahler’s Second Symphony in New York – and who took umbrage when he did. When we encounter Judson at length in a later chapter, the full measure of his estrangement from the Mahler world of Klemperer and Mitropoulos will become apparent.
A final Mahler/Mitropoulos anecdote
Dimitri Mitropoulos’s New York Philharmonic programs were incomparably bolder than what had gone before. But the Philharmonic’s all-powerful manager, Arthur Judson, lacked sympathy for Mitropoulos’s enthusiasms. One of the Philharmonic’s historic American premieres was of Mahler’s ninety-minute Sixth Symphony (1904), under Mitropoulos in 1947. But the Philharmonic balked at scheduling the work on the Sunday afternoon broadcast concert: Judson maintained that Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F with Oscar Levant would be more suitable radio fare and would also sell more tickets at home. In response, Mitropoulos wrote Judson (October 14, 1947) “to beg you, almost on my knees” to change his mind. “It would be a crime not to give this New World [broadcast] premiere of this great and exciting symphony . . . It would be a great event from which we have nothing to fear and from which to expect no less than the highest gratitude of all the musical artistic world in the United States.” He added that he awaited Judson’s response “with anxiety.” Judson said no. Ultimately, Mitropoulos and Judson were both terminated.
In 1947-48, Mitropoulos was not yet Music Director of the Philharmonic (a post vacant since Spring 1947), but was a candidate, having conducted the Philharmonic on tour the previous summer. It must be considered that in 1947 there were no commercial recordings of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.