Film: Is this how Mahler conducted?

Film: Is this how Mahler conducted?


norman lebrecht

January 16, 2017

Hungarian archives have turned up a fascinating silent film of Oskar Fried conducting.

The gestures are large, the baton long, the arms raised very high.

Fried was assistant conductor to Mahler in several performances, modelling himself on his mentor.

See what you think.


  • Stuart L. says:

    This is very interesting but the conductor was likely unused to being filmed and could conceivably be exaggerating his arm movements for the benefit of the camera(s).

    It is also likely that the scenes shown are discontinuous – for example in the shots from behind the conductor (in front of the orchestra) no front-on-to-conductor camera is visible and yet we have front-on shots; these latter will likely have been filmed separately from the performance.

    I guess we’ll never know for sure.

    • John says:

      Reminds me a lot of that silent clip of Arthur Nikisch conducting, which is also believed to be a bit “set up” for the cameras of the time.

  • Sixtus says:

    It’s unfortunate that this is silent since the technical quality and visual sophistication (multiple intercut camera angles) indicate that this film was done in the “talkies” era as a purpose-made production, not simply a newsreel.

    That purpose-made quality may explain why that solo piano is shoehorned into the orchestra for better camera coverage. This displaces somewhat the otherwise standard orchestral string layout of the era: divided violins, cellos (and basses here) left, violas right.

    Another holdover from the 19th century is the very steep rise of the orchestra. This is also seen in all photographs of Mahler in front of an orchestra and most still photographs of the era of orchestras in-situ. Nowadays such arrangements are unfortunately used mostly in those halls with built-in risers (e.g. Concertgebouw and Musikverein). But the vertical spread of the ensemble makes better sense of Mahler’s occasional instructions to the winds to raise the bells of their instruments. This would produce a much more vivid effect out in the hall (and especially to the conductor) with steep risers.

    The big baton and big gestures may not be Mahler-specific. Both are seen in earlier footage of Nikisch as well as of Elgar and Boult conducting. It may simply have been the way things were done back then (possibly going back to Wagner). It would also make more sense of the contemporary remarks about Richard Strauss’ smaller-gestured conducting as “economical.” Silhouettes and caricatures of Mahler conducting also often show him leaning to the side, which you don’t see here. Then again, those images are usually of him conducting while seated in an opera pit. They also often show a higher degree of asymmetrical arm movement, but this could simply be the artists’ desire for a more interesting-looking rendering.

    Nikisch footage:

  • Meal says:

    Indeed, as Sixtus said the big gestures might be a matter of the times. Based on several descriptions I would expect that Mahler conducted as big but less “smoothly” and with less symetrical action. In the review of Bruno Walter’s first conducting in Leipzig it has been critized that he just mimics Mahler’s gestus of conducting. Therefore, his conducting might be closer to Mahler than Fried’s movements. You may watch:

    • John Borstlap says:

      Beautiful conducting (Walter). Strange to realize that these recordings come from so long ago, with damaged sound, and that the music itself when played today is as fresh as when it was written.

      Maybe the bigger conducting gestures were also required because of the average eye sight of those times? Players being underpaid, underfed, lacking vitamine A, etc.

      • NYMike says:

        Mahler 4th, 1st movt – my introduction to Mahler was Walter’s NY Phil mono LP recording from the ’40s traded to me by my late high school friend who’d gone through Kristallnacht as a child before arriving in the US. In exchange, I gave him my NY Phil LP of Shostakovich 9th conducted by Efrem Kurtz.

  • Gerard says:

    I thought it was Roger Norrington said that orchestra’s used must less (or non at all) vibrato before WWII, but almost every pre war film shows that the strings seemed to use vibrato very abundantly. Am i wrong?

    • Meal says:

      I believe that Norrington is wrong at this point (as you can see an listen in old recordings). There is an interesting article on that topic:

      • Mihail Ghiga says:

        Alas, a lot in baroque interpretation nowadays are a result of fallacies.
        I’d argue (from my personal experience and quite some research) that:
        – Most of the modern violin technique is actually a surviving baroque technique. The contortions they call now “baroque” were things which dissapeared facing competition, like the dinosaurs, and in most cases they are misused. I’d bet the other baroque techniques, the ones which were not passed into the classical music ressembled a lot the traditional fiddle play stile still in use here and there. I’d aswell bet that the violin melismas in Corelli’s op.5 no.1 would have sounded much more like this:
        than how they are usually played.
        – any detail was meant to serve as a mean of expression. Finding a proper expression for an ornement or a technique is more important than respecting the “letter” of x treatise. If some passage is vocal and lyric and does not sound like so without legato, it serves at nothing to do some Muffat bowing like a trained monkey.
        – if something is possible, it is done. It’s like in war, if you can use something in your advantege, you use it. Vibrato? I’d bet it was much more used than we think.
        – During the baroque period, art was pretty much about content, form following it. Finding the content is essential, form is secondary. I don’t know why, but most baroque schools now ressembles sects. Play chinless or be damned and we burn you at the stake!

  • David Osborne says:

    Oskar Fried conducting the Resurrection in the 1924:

  • Doug says:

    Anyone else notice the lack of clown-like emotive dancing you find so common today? Particularly among the wind players. They are downright serene. Make me think of the remark by John Delancie, student of Marcel Tabuteau and principal oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, paraphrased: the only way to really hear yourself play is to be as still as possible.

  • Jerome Hoberman says:

    This is fascinating, and makes it easier to understand why Strauss and Reiner — whose gestures don’t seem especially small (though far less “expressive”) to eyes accustomed to the ways things are done today — were considered to have tiny beats.

  • Mark Doran says:

    I hope someone, somewhere has the entire programme…


  • orbos says:

    Any idea about the pianist?

  • David Snyder says:

    Interesting, but, I think, inconclusive. Mahler has been described as very energetic in his young years and very restrained toward the end of his life.