Bruno Walter: A World Elseware

by Erik Ryding and Rebecca Pechefsky. New Haven and London:
Yale University Press, xvii + 756 pp.

In 1894, when he was not yet 18, Bruno Schlesinger made his debut as a conductor, leading a performance of the light opera Waffenschmied by Albert Lortzing. The reviews were enthusiastic. A few days later, he conducted an emergency performance of the same work. The original cast was not available for this unscheduled performance. Two of the singers who were called in at the last minute hadn't sung their roles in years. One of the reviews was quite hostile. Then another newspaper came to Schlesinger's defense. Controversy may be an even better source of publicity than praise. At the age of 17, Schlesinger had achieved fame and success.

Who was this Bruno Schlesinger? The world knows him as Bruno Walter. In 1896, he was offered a job at the Breslau Stadttheater under the condition that he change his name. Perhaps the director of the Stadttheater thought the name Schlesinger sounded too Jewish. Bruno was not happy about changing his name, but he gave in to pressure; he has been Bruno Walter ever since then. Nevertheless, in 1921 the pro-Nazi critic Hermann Esser described him as "the Jew conductor Isidor Schlesinger, alias Walter." (p. 142) Esser was being provocative about the name "Isidor"; perhaps he felt that someone who had changed his Jewish-sounding surname should be accused of changing a Jewish-sounding given name as well.

In addition to changing his name, which was a response to pressure, Bruno Walter changed his religion. It is not entirely clear which branch of Christianity he joined, but it was probably Catholicism, since his ashes were buried in a Catholic cemetery. His conversion seems to have been quite sincere. His daughter Lotte is cited as saying, "He was a Christian, and a very good one. And the older he got, the more religious he really became." (p. 29)

A different musician, British composer Gerald Finzi, did not consider himself a Jew but never wanted to become a Christian or anything else. In 1938, Finzi tried to destroy evidence of his Jewish origins because he was afraid Hitler might win the war.1 Walter's situation was just the opposite. He wanted to convert. Furthermore, unlike Finzi, Walter underestimated the danger of anti-Semitism. When Hitler took power, Walter was conducting at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, but he returned to Germany after the engagement. He thought, for a very short while, that he could still conduct in Germany, until a concert he was scheduled to conduct at the Leipzig Gewandhaus was canceled on the morning of the performance.

Walter then moved to Vienna. He courageously chose African-American contralto Marian Anderson as soloist in a performance of Brahms's Alto Rhapsody to be given on June 17, 1936. He received a death threat, but the show went on. That same month, Austrian Nazis threw stink bombs during a performance of Tristan und Isolde conducted by Walter, but the show went on. When Hitler took over Austria in 1938, Walter once again was conducting abroad, in Amsterdam. This time, he knew enough not to return home. He eventually moved to America, where he was as successful and admired a conductor as he had been in Germany and Austria.

Walter was a contemporary of Arturo Toscanini, probably the world's most admired conductor at the time. Toscanini was known for his accurate, precise interpretations and his generally fast tempos. Walter's style was perhaps more varied and more romantic. Had there been no Toscanini, Walter might have been the most famous conductor on earth. Nevertheless, Walter and Toscanini, both of whom had to flee to America, were friends.

Toscanini never conducted the music of Gustav Mahler. Walter, on the other hand, considered Mahler, like Walter, a convert to Christianity--his mentor. Walter loved and understood Mahler's music and conducted it often. Today, Mahler is much admired and frequently performed, but he was rather less popular during the first half of the 20th century. Walter was one of Mahler's champions. Mahler appreciated Walter's conducting; he did not, however, like Walter's compositions. (p. 67) Neither did anyone else, apparently. Despite Walter's unbroken success as a conductor, he was a total failure as a composer. Few people even know that he composed.

Walter's personal life, despite his triumph as a conductor, was filled with disappointment and tragedy. The fact that his compositions are unknown was one source of sadness. Another was his love life. He remained married to his wife Elsa for almost 44 years until she died in 1945, but loved a different woman, the singer Delia Reinhardt. He was deeply grieved when he had to flee Germany and then Austria after Hitler took over. Worst of all, his younger daughter, Gretel, fell in love with baritone Ezio Pinza and was murdered by her jealous husband, a man named Robert Neppach, who then killed himself.

Walter was knowledgeable, literate and intellectual. He numbered Nobel-Prize-winning author Thomas Mann among his friends. At the same time, he believed in anthroposophy, a highly controversial, anti-materialist system of spirituality developed by Rudolf Steiner. It was Delia Reinhardt who introduced Walter to this belief, but his passion for it cannot be explained simply by his love for Reinhardt. He became ever more involved. He did not see a contradiction between his Christian belief and the fact that Steiner said Jesus "had been visited by the spirit that had once inhabited Moses and Zoroaster." (p. 383) Nor did he see a conflict between Steiner's mysticism and his own intellectuality. Walter did not even seem to be troubled by the contradiction between his own belief in "freedom of thought and of understanding and peace between the single persons and between the nations" (p. 225) and Steiner's apparent view that "the black race belongs to the night, the yellow race to the morning, the whites to the day." 2

Ryding and Pechefsky have written a detailed, well-documented biography of a respected musician whose career as a conductor was long and successful. There remains very much that they could not find. What on earth was Walter thinking when he embraced anthroposophy? Did he know what Steiner had written about race? Or did he find other passages in Steiner's writings that made the racism sound harmless? And what about Walter's feelings for Elsa, his wife? Did he love her and Delia Reinhardt at the same time? Or did he stay with Elsa because of a sense of duty? What did Walter think when he was described as "the Jew conductor Isidor Schlesinger"? What did he think when he had to flee Germany and then Austria? Did he identify as a Jew at that time? Or did he consider himself a Christian who was unjustly blamed for his ancestors?

We learn very much about Walter from this book, but we never get to know him. That's the way Bruno Walter would have liked it.


(1) See my review of Stephen Banfield's Gerald Finzi: An English Composer,
Midstream, January 2001, pp. 42-43.

(2) Robert Sikkes, Racial Ethnography, De Volkskrant, Zutphen, Netherlands, Feb. 4, 1995.

This review appeared in the July/August 2001 issue of Midstream.