“Klezmer Musik” in Mahler’s First Symphony

The third movement of the first symphony has a passage (bars 39-60) which is redolent of a Bohemian village band from Mahler’s youth. This has often been described as Klezmer Music. It is interesting to compare the interpretations of this passage by three famous conductors.

New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein
Oct. 1966, Philharmonic Hall, New York

One of the fascinating things about Leonard Bernstein’s recordings of the Mahler symphonies that he made with the New York Philharmonic in the 1960s is the way in which he took naturally to the Mahler style. He seems to have been self-taught in this. That Bernstein seems to have understood the nature of this music instinctively should come as no great surprise as Klezmer is a Jewish artform and Bernstein was Jewish, with ancestors from Russia.

New York Philharmonic conducted by Bruno Walter
Jan. 1954, Carnegie Hall, New York

It is curious that another Jewish conductor and Mahler’s protégé Bruno Walter, though from cosmopolitan Berlin, did not recognise the true nature of the passage. He had heard Mahler himself play and conduct the symphony, and in his book on the composer, Walter referred to the passage as ‘that music full of brazen derision and shrill laughter’, giving cause to wonder how Mahler interpreted it. Certainly, Walter did not render it in a particularly Jewish or gypsy style. Bernstein had certainly heard Walter conduct the work with the New York Philharmonic, at least on his famous recording.

Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos
Nov. 1940, Northrop Memorial Auditorium, Minneapolis

Bernstein’s own mentor, the Greek conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos (1896-1960), conducted the critically acclaimed première recording of the First Symphony with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, but listening to this shows that, like Walter, Mitropoulos was not the source of Bernstein’s inspiration.

After which it is a welcome relief to return to the Bernstein recording with which this page began.

The above examples are expanded from David Pickett’s essay in the book Perspectives on Gustav Mahler, edited by Jeremy Barham and published by Ashgate Press, 2005. Further extracts from this essay may be read here.

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Copyright © David Pickett 2009—2018