How Mahler invented musical America

How Mahler invented musical America


norman lebrecht

January 21, 2011

In a weekend piece today in the Wall Street Journal, I show how Gustav Mahler created the subscription series, thematic programming and orchestral touring – all fixtures of musical life in the United States to the present day. Ahead of his time? Very much a man of ours, I would say.

There were two final paragraphs that I was planning to append to the piece on how the cities Mahler visited are marking his centennial year. I had to drop the coda for reasons of space. You can read the article here
And these are the two extras pars:

Visiting several of the cities that Mahler toured, I found a
mixed legacy of hope and decay. In Syracuse, the orchestra cancelled a concert
of Mahler’s fifth symphony for want of funds, but a music lover, Hamilton
Armstrong, erected a memorial on the site where Mahler conducted and a radio
producer, Marie Lamb, passes by every day to sweep off the snow. In Buffalo, conductor
Jo-Ann Falleta launched the Mahler centennial with a Resurrection concert.
Pittsburgh is doing a Mahler heritage weekend in May.

It would have been fitting had the New York Philharmonic
given a repeat on February 21, 2011 of the last concert of Mahler’s life, but
that opportunity went begging. It is the Israel Philharmonic, under Riccardo
Muti, that took up the program this week (Jan 17, 19) in Tel Aviv and
Jerusalem, a distant salute. New York, in Mahler’s day as in ours, does not go in much for musical sentiment.


Why Mahler?: How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed the World

(watch for limited-period special offer)


  • Marie Lamb says:

    Norman, thank you very, very much, both for the article and for providing the paragraphs that the WSJ had to leave out! I’ll certainly let Syracuse’s Mahler fans, and my colleagues at WCNY, know what you’ve done! Also, I hope you’ll allow me to give a heads-up about an upcoming broadcast. On Sunday, April 24th at 12 noon (Easter Sunday), WCNY-FM will have a broadcast of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony as part of our regular Syracuse Symphony Orchestra series. It’s on 91.3 FM in Syracuse, 89.5 in Utica, and 90.9 in Watertown/1000 Islands/Kingston ON area. I’m sorry that, due to our agreements with the SSO, their concerts are only available for local on-air broadcast and not for Internet streaming, but I would like Slipped Disc readers in Central/Northern New York and Southern Ontario to have advance notice of this recorded concert. Again, thanks for everything you’ve done for Mahler and for us!

  • joe horowitz says:

    Where did you get the idea that Mahler was the first person to put a full orchestra on a train? Theodore Thomas was doing this for years, of course. And I think it is abundantly clear that his NY Phil never attained the polish of the Boston Sym of those years. Your observations about thematic programming are interesting — I have somewhat the same impression. There had been all-American programs in the US, Beethoven cycles, etc. But Mahler in NY seemed to be evolving towards an organized-repertoire approach prefiguring people like Bernstein.
    The orchestra that Theodore Thomas toured was, in my understanding, little more than chamber sized. Do you have exact numbers? Mahler put a full symphonic ensemble on the train – I will have the numbers ready for when you reply – and set the model that others (Stokowski first) would follow.
    As for thematic programming, Mahler’s idea was not just new to America. I find no prior trace of it in Europe and, yes, it is the model that Bernstein copied 50 years later.
    all best

  • Marie Lamb says:

    Norman, I mentioned this to David Snyder in Buffalo, since he’d brought up Theodore Thomas on the “Why Mahler?” Facebook page. David asked if I had any comments. I told him that I didn’t know anything conclusive about the size of Thomas’ touring groups, and that it would probably demand some research to get anything conclusive. When I told David that you’d like to know more about this, he told me he’d try to find out more through the Buffalo Historical Society, since Thomas toured there in 1877. Thomas’ group reportedly played music from “Götterdämmerung” while in that city. We’ll see what he can help you find, too. All best–Marie