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Are we figments of Mahler's imagination?

0 Robert Levine

Norman thinks that Mahler invented the American symphony orchestra. He makes a good case:

Mahler split the Carnegie season into four subscription blocs, each with a thematic base, something no conductor had tried before. As well as a Regular Series, he put in a Beethoven cycle “for the education of lovers of classical music, for the education of my orchestra and for students.” Sunday concerts were for “workers and students” who could not afford full-price tickets, and a Historical Series set out to demonstrate the evolution of music from Bach to the present, a kind of pre-media documentary.

Other conductors planned seasons to attract audiences and applause. Mahler redefined the core purpose of concerts, substituting enlightenment for mere entertainment and reaching out to socially diverse audiences. Education and integration were wired into the concert prospectus.

His radical plan was not designed to please wealthy patrons, and it provoked the influential music critic Henry Edward Krehbiel to accuse the composer of underestimating musical taste. “Mahler never discovered that there were Philharmonic subscribers who inherited not only their seats from their parents and grandparents but also their appreciation of good music,” wrote Krehbiel, who feared that Mahler was usurping the critic’s function to make sense of the music.

Mahler, unfazed, came up with more themes in his second season—a series of the best music by living composers in different lands, a strand of new works by Anglo-American composers. Early on, he told his board that this breakthrough was too important to be confined to Manhattan, and too expensive. He could save rehearsal time by taking big concerts on tour.

First stop was Brooklyn. The New York Philharmonic had never played before in the borough where most city workers lived (in 2011, it still doesn’t). “At last, Brooklyn is really in New York!” exclaimed an evening newspaper. After three events in the Academy of Music, Mahler reached out to the rest of the country.

It was the first time a conductor had put a full symphony orchestra on a train. They whistled through 10 cities—major centers like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Boston, as well as college and blue-collar towns, amplifying Mahler’s appeal to workers and students. They played New Haven, Conn., Springfield, Mass., and Providence, R.I., and made New York state stops in Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester and Utica. At Niagara Falls, Mahler declared, “at last, a real fortissimo,” and went on to Washington, D.C. (Program sheets from the tours can be seen in Knud Martner’s chronicle, “Mahler’s Concerts,” newly published by the Kaplan Foundation.)

Mahler’s objective was not just to save rehearsal costs. His aim was to raise musical standards across the nation. In Boston, home of America’s first orchestra, the composer Arthur Foote wrote that Mahler’s “passion for perfection” now stood as “a constant object lesson” to the rest of the nation.

And, of course, he also fathered Leonard Bernstein.


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