She lived just long enough to see Mahler reborn

She lived just long enough to see Mahler reborn


norman lebrecht

December 11, 2014

Alma Mahler died 50 years ago today in her New York apartment, aged 85. Her death is enshrined in a comedy number that Tom Lehrer wrote on reading her obit in the New York Times.

More to the point, she lived to see her husband’s symphonies revived by the New York Philharmonic, his former orchestra, under the leadership of Leonard Bernstein. The revival was slow, spread over six or seven seasons from 1959-60, but it marked the beginning of the rise of Mahler as the central composer of the second half of the 20th century.
alma mahler

images: Lebrecht Music&Arts



  • Dan P. says:

    While Bernstein did a LOT to campaign for Mahler during his tenure at the NY Philharmonic, he should not be given sole credit for starting a wave of interest. At the NY Philharmonic alone, Mitropoulos, his predecessor, conducted all of the symphonies (except, I think, the 8th) and HIS predecessor Bruno Walter performed and recorded many of them there as well. And both conductors performed them in Europe as well. There, of course, was also Klemperer, who like Walter was performing the works since Mahler’s time up until their deaths. Then, the Concertgebouw Orchestra, which had an almost unbroken Mahler tradition since Mahler was there (Mengelberg), appointed Bernard Haitink in 1959 (the same year as the NYP hired LB). And HE conducted and performed and recorded all of Mahler’s work – better, in my opinion, than Bernstein. And, we can’t forget Jascha Horenstein, who in some circles, is remembered today more for his Mahler performances than anything else. But what Bernstein had was the advantage of television and the arrival of stereo LPs, with the marketing clout of Columbia Records behind him.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      Looks like Mitropoulos conducted all the symphonies (incl. Adagio from 10) except 2, 8, and Das Lied von der Erde. See for yourself at .

    • John says:

      Agreed on Bernstein’s advantages. Added to that, though, I think was another first — a Mahler festival of all of the symphonies done in the early sixties which focused attention to the composer in a way that individual performances might not have done. That and his open advocacy through at least one young person’s concert.

  • Dan P. says:

    So in short, there was no “revival” per se, only a continuation.

  • Donald George says:

    A fascinating bio is that of Oliver Hilmes, who had access to new original sources. It sheds an interesting light on her relationship with Mahler and the many other famous men in her life.

  • Sybille Werner says:

    Mahler’s music never went away. As a matter of fact, in pre-WW II Vienna he was performed more often than even today. Through my research into Mahler performance history I have uncovered well more than 3,000 performances of Mahler’s orchestral work prior to Bernstein’s epiphany of the 1960s. Before that, with the exception of a few performances of Das Lied von der Erde and the Adagio of the Tenth in Israel in 1950, he had only conducted the Second Symphony, although he must have known many of the other symphonies which had been performed in Boston (Koussewitzky, Burgin) and New York (mainly Walter and Mitropoulos). And let’s not forget the Mahler cycle conducted by Ernö Rapee at Radio City Music Hall in 1942, all the symphonies except 6 and 7 (most likely the parts were not available during war time) and Das Lied von der Erde.

    • John says:

      I’d have to check the NYPhil online archives, but I think there were two Mahler cycles during Bernstein’s time with them. One for sure, in the early sixties. And of course he produced the first set of recordings, and whether one subscribes to his way with Mahler or not, his very distinctive interpretations were the benchmark for quite a while. By the sixties, LB had all the symphonies in his repertoire whereas none of the aforementioned conductors did (except Mengelberg and maybe Horenstein(?)) I think it might be fair to say that, in this country anyway, Mahler is performed much more often — in part — as a result of Bernstein’s pioneering efforts.

      • Dan P. says:

        Included among conductors who had all of Mahler’s symphonies in their repertoire in the 60s would have to be Bernard Haitink, who I think was and still is one of the most masterful Mahler conductors around. The first set he made is still astounding.

    • Dan P. says:

      Erno Rapee and the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra – I’d never heard that and this is pretty amazing just to think about. I hope the Rockettes didn’t come out during Mahler’s 5 minute “mandatory” pause between the first and second movements of the 2nd Symphony. In any case, I’d love to hear more about that.

  • Michael Schaffer says:

    So Norman, I really don’t understand why you are repeating this fairy tale that Bernstein “revived” Mahler here, after you debunked it yourself many moons ago in your very entertaining book “The Maestro Myth”.

  • bratschegirl says:

    Let’s not forget that Mr. Lehrer described it as the “juiciest, spiciest, raciest obituary” it had ever been his pleasure to read.

  • Peter Phillips says:

    I agree with most of the foregoing comments, especially the mention of Horenstein. I would want, though, to add the name of Barbirolli to the list of those who resuscitated the Mahler symphonies in Europe. A former intendant of the Berlin Phil said many years ago that Karajan only started playing Mahler with them after Barbirolli had reintroduced them to numbers 2, 3, 6 & 9. Most of these public performances can be heard on CD. I seem to remember that Bruno Maderna performed the symphonies around the same time; both he and JB are preferable to the rather clinical Boulez who was also performing them in London at the time.

  • Tim Walton says:

    Pity Alma didn’t support Gustav more when he was alive instead of carrying on behind her back, which probably hastened his premature death.

  • Jerome Hoberman says:

    I knew Bernstein had almost miraculous powers, but to pack six or seven seasons in between 1959 and 1960 — that takes the cake!

  • Dan P. says:

    I would think that whatever Mahler cycles Bernstein did with the NYPhilharmonic (didn’t he share the first one with Mitropoulos) these concerts would still have been very local affair. By contrast, I remember two Young People’s concerts devoted to Mahler (one had Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry singing Des Knaben Wunderhorn and another one with Das Lied von der Erde) plus the complete set of recordings would have been brought the composer to far more people. AND, I don’t think one can underestimate (at least in the US) the contribution at the time of the two widely distributed magazines High Fidelity and Stereo Review that included reviews over every Mahler recording that came out at the time and many features about Mahler (including one by Bernstein). It was these that got my attention as a young teenager who lived about 500 miles from NY and any orchestra that could ever consider playing this repertoire.

  • Prewartreasure says:

    And Bernstein’s recording of the 3rd?

    Never even equalled in my humble opinion.

  • ganymede says:

    Probably when listing performances one could argue whether or not Bernstein helped promote a “Mahler revival”. However, I can certainly say that I personally was influenced by his TV appearances in taking Mahler more seriously. A performance is one thing, it doesn’t yet necessarily imply a general acceptance or even love for Mahler’s music in the public. I think LB did contribute to the latter. In that sense he outdid his contemporaries who undoubtedly also performed a lot of Mahler but were less active in bringing his music closer to the public. Mahler’s time “hadn’t come” yet in the late 50s, but he is certainly loved nowadays and “sells well”. The charismatic LB has certainly contributed hugely to that.

    Whether or not you rate him highly as a composer, or influential, is a second question of course. Let’s just say that there is a lot of competition out there for outstanding 20th century composers.

  • Dave T says:

    Great song. Where else can you hear ‘Bauhaus’ rhymed with ‘chow-house’?

  • gus says:

    Gustav was ok …but Tom Lerher is a genius.