Wednesday, January 13, 2016

There is a world elsewhere

Bruno Walter believed that the spiritual world is of greater import than anything that our temporal world can offer. Although Jewish by birth he embraced Christianity, and was one of several notable musicians influenced by the esoteric and controversial teachings of Rudolf Steiner. The great conductor's belief in the innate spirituality of humankind found expression in his music through a process which he explains at the close of his 1946 memoir 'Theme and Variations'.
There flows from music, irrespective of its ever-changing emotional expression, an unchanging message of comfort: its dissonances strive towards consonance - they must be resolved; every musical piece ends in a consonance. Thus music as an element has an optimistic quality, and I believe that therein lies the source of my innate optimism. Still more important, however, and of decisive influence upon my life is the exalted message conveyed to us from the works of the masters, a message most sacredly expressed in the symphonic adagio. The Church knows why it calls upon the power of music at its most solemn functions. Music's wordless gospel proclaims in a universal language what the thirsting soul of man is seeking beyond life. I have been vouchsafed the grace to be a servant of music. It has been a beacon on my way and has kept me in the direction towards which I have been striving; darkly, when I was a child, consciously later. There lie my hope and my confidence - non confundar in æternum*.
That commitment to the universal message of music found expression in a remarkably prescient attitude towards diversity. Bruno Walter was a champion of the music of proto-feminist Ethel Smyth: in 1907 he unsuccessfully lobbied Mahler to programme Ethel Smyth's opera The Wreckers at the Hofoper in Vienna. Walter went on to programme the opera's overture for his London debut in 1909, and conducted the complete opera at Covent Garden in 1910. An important and little-known hole was punched in the glass ceiling obstructing the advancement of women musicians in 1928 when Walter presented a complete programme of Ethel Smyth's music with the Berlin Philharmonic. He shared the podium at this concert with Dame Ethel, thereby enabling her to become the first woman to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic. Having experienced exclusion because of his Jewish bloodline, Walter espoused a visionary approach to diversity; this found eloquent expression in an essay that appeared in 1912 in Der Merker and in the London Times:
I consider Ethel Smyth a composer of quite special significance, who is certain of a permanent place in musical history. Real musical productivity is so rare that we are entitled to ask whether the impression of originality created by these compositions is not attributable to their femininity. Our ears are trained immediately to detect national differences in music, but are too inexperienced to detect sex characteristics. If we had a hundred female composers we might be able to establish a dustinction between male and female music. I am, however, convinced that Dr. Ethel Smyth's thematic charm proceeds in an essential degree from her womanlness, though her work is at the same time English through and through. Yet in her case the sex question is comparatively unimportant in the presence of a talent so strong, thematic invention so original, and a temperament so deep and warm.
In line with his belief that gender and other differences are subordinate to talent, in 1936 Bruno Walter chose the African American contralto Marian Anderson as soloist in Brahms' Alto Rhapsody with the Vienna Symphony in defiance of prevailing racist mores. His gesture of defiance prompted death threats from Nazi sympathisers, but also moved one critic to ask in an admiring review; "What would Brahms have said if he could have known that his rhapsody would be a sung by a Negress?". That Bruno Walter's plea for inclusivity applies not just to women musicians, but to all underrepresented groups including musicians of colour, is given a poignant relevance by recently uncovered film of Dean Dixon conducting and discussing (in German) Mahler's Seventh Symphony.

In 1912 a young Adrian Boult heard Bruno Walter conduct Figaro, Così, and Don Giovanni in Munich. That experience prompted Sir Adrian to write in his autobiography sixty years later: "I didn't suppose I should ever hear Mozart performances of such all-round perfection, and certainly I never have again". Sony's 'Bruno Walter: The Edition', which includes the maestro's priceless performances of symphonies by Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Brahms and others, but, alas, nothing by Ethel Smyth, is a powerful reminder of how a great musician channels the exalted message of the masters. An invaluable companion to this recorded anthology is Erik Ryding and Rebecca Pechefsky's biography 'Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere' which this article draws on. The biography's subtitle quotes Shakespeare's Coriolanus as he leaves Rome. Like Bruno Walter, the hero of the play was forced into exile; Coriolanus' words are very relevant to today's networked celebrity culture and provide an appropriate epitaph for my blog - "There is a world elsewhere".

* Non confundar in æternum ends the Te Deum and translates as 'Let me never be confounded'. No review samples used in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

1 comment:

Pliable said...

This post contradicts another one published in October 2007 which stated that in 1930 Antonia Brico became the first woman to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic -

As explained in this new post, Ethel Smyth conducted the BPO in 1928. So I stand corrected by myself.