Egon Wellesz on the Amsterdam Concertgebouw’s 1920 Mahler Festival
In May 1920, the first ever Mahler festival was held in Amsterdam under the conductor Willem Mengelberg. The Viennese composer Egon Wellesz wrote a detailed report on the events in two separate articles for the Neue Freie Presse which I have translated. One was at the beginning of the festival and the other at its conclusion. It’s not only interesting to read about these early performances at a time before gramophone and broadcasting, but it reminds us of how unstable the world still was. The photograph that accompanies this article shows Alma Mahler in the middle with a broad dark hat and a white blouse and loose wrap with Arnold Schoenberg on the right (her left). Sitting on the floor is Richard Specht (third from the right); Standing in the middle is Egon Wellesz and in the crowd we also see the publisher Emil Hertzka; Egon’s wife Emmy Wellesz; Alma’s step-father Carl Moll; Guido Adler and Anton von Webern. This photo must have been taken on the free day described by Wellesz in the accompanying article. Much of the admiration for Mengelberg and general optimism that was expressed by Wellesz was to be betrayed, as demonstrated in the following post in a letter from Mengelberg’s office to Wellesz in 1949.
17th May, 1920: Neue Freie Presse, Dr. Egon Wellesz
It’s a degree of recognition that no other composer could possibly expect. In the coming days here in Amsterdam, we shall hear the complete works of Gustav Mahler. A sequence of events and coincidences has meant that the combination of a culture-mad citizenry along with the conductor Willem Mengelberg, tireless efforts to establish Mahler, have established Amsterdam as a citadel where his symphonies are cultivated as nowhere else. Thus a circle is completed that started with genius, inflamed a conductor to be the prophet of new, never-heard-before beauty, a new greatness and now having inspired a large community, they in devoted gratitude, return to their provider in order to honour him.
Willem Mengelberg has been conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam for 25 years – he has brought it to a standard that could never have been imagined. One has no feeling of any separation between musicians and conductor; rather together, they form a higher unity that grows closer in the course of performance. This is an understanding that can only develop over a period of decades of mutual hard work and discipline. The best is merely just good enough. This singleness of purpose between conductor and orchestra is even carried over to the public, who over the years have come to understand the works of Mahler as nowhere else – not even in Vienna itself. It was here in Amsterdam that Mahler enjoyed his first, unqualified success; and it was from here that he returned home with new inspiration and a desire to carry out new work. It was here that in 1903 he conducted his 1st and 3rd, in 1904, his 2nd and 4th, in 1906 his 5th, in 1909 his 7th. And if one takes in the number of performances conducted by Mengelberg which were taking place around the same time as those conducted by the controversial Mahler, then once can come to appreciate how it is that the Chorus and the orchestra have become the composer’s own instruments of choice: Amsterdam is to the cultivation and preservation of Mahler’s music what Bayreuth, in its more glorious years, was to Wagner.
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Isn’t it odd that as a Viennese one has to travel to Amsterdam to celebrate Mahler’s 60th birthday? Vienna, which is so besotted with both the arts and artists, simply ignored this event. And it is here in dour but appreciative Amsterdam, that the spirit of Mahler thrives. Everyone here appears to have known him, to have adored and valued him. His eccentricities were met with the healthy respect one brings to such personalities – personalities in which such things are both anticipated and appreciated. The spirit that dwells in his symphonies, the mystic and the religious are deeply felt. The reception here has been open for the broadest arc of his creativity; the significance of the most minute detail followed him here. One maintained in this city, without betraying oneself or one’s artistic opinions, a respectful distance to the artist.
Mengelberg was meant to have received a particular recognition from his friends in Amsterdam; instead of personal recognition he requested that Amsterdam be the city where a Mahler Festival could be held to which people from all over the world would come in order the hear all of Mahler’s work in Mengelberg’s definitive interpretation. The still unclear [political] relationships which continue to plague our world today did not seem to represent the slightest hindrance to this goal. The Festival committee took up the challenge with unprecedented generosity. It was decided to make those participants from beyond the Dutch borders Holland’s special guests – they covered the arrangements for travel, accommodation and all expenses – only because of this act of generosity was it possible for us Viennese to attend.
The journey started in a happy mood for our small group of fellow-travellers in the comfortable, not too crowded carriages of the ‘Holland Express’. We crossed all borders without difficulties and arrived without any delays in Amsterdam. We were met by members of the Festival committee who took charge of our luggage and brought us all to our respective quarters: some in hotels and some in private accommodation. The tickets to all of the events were already waiting for us in our quarters, along with the programme. Everything worked perfectly: nothing was forgotten – every need, no matter how trivial was met. The Viennese were met with particular generosity and courtesy. The locals are well aware of the deprivations and difficulties we still suffer in our homeland and have tried their best to make us as comfortable as possible, if only to make their sympathy and understanding clear to us, that even abroad, we are united by a shared, and valued culture. It was in this context that the Viennese were accorded the principal addresses in the opening events.
‘Hofrat’ [Imperial Court Council – a uniquely Austrian title] Guido Adler opened the events with a warmly appreciative speech in Mahler’s memory that touched on the artist and the man. He spoke of their common home and their youthful years together along with their very first departure into the wide world. He spoke about the roots of Mahler’s creativity and its relationship with the nature of the folksong, march rhythms and [militaristic] signal calls that characterise his works. He recalled both the Military and the country-folk poetry that would develop into his Wunderhornlieder.
Paul Stefan gave a lively speech without notes about Mahler the theatre director. He sketched out in short sections what Mahler had contributed to the stagecraft of opera and how he managed to force the visual presentation to ever more fantastic and enchanting images – he outlined everything that he achieved in order to reach never imagined experiences. Both speeches were received with the greatest of sympathy. The third speech was delivered by the Italian Alfredo Casella who has also spent a good deal of time in France. His speech was a profound declaration for a new, international life of the artistic and intellectual spirit. He accentuated how for the first time since the end of the war, people from all countries had come together where the concepts of friend, foe and neutral no longer existed – such was the spirit of Mahler that had been able to create this unity. He concluded with something we all felt: ‘Art has always existed apart from worldly matters. It will no longer be debased or exalted as a means of propaganda that supports or defiles different peoples. Humanity now unites those who previously had called each other enemies. To the ruthlessness of warfare that had previously broken all spiritual bonds and after the flood of hate and distrust had now appeared the dove of peace.
One arrives in the auditorium of the Concertgebouw for the very first festival event. The podium is covered with wreaths of red azaleas and laurel trees have been placed behind the seating for the chorus that surrounds the orchestra. At the very front is a bust of Mahler. Mengelberg walks out to applause that last many minutes, followed by a vacuum-like silence. He makes a gesture and the chorus rises without a sound. A sharp wrap of the baton and we hear the opening of ‘Das Klagende Lied’.
A rehearsal with Mengelberg: the hall is divided from the stage by a large curtain – where normally the chorus are sat, we find musicians and conductors from everywhere in the world, whom Mengelberg has specially invited to observe him at work. It is only here since Mahler’s own lifetime that it is possible to experience what a rehearsal of one of his works should be. External perfection is demanded and any passage that even slightly sounds shoddy is repeated. After the general rehearsal, Mengelberg meets the strings the following day to rehearse a particular figure in the first violins with the concert master. At another point, he brings in the celli and rehearses a cantilena passage until he achieves the intensity of desired expression. There was never a loud or discourteous word. The orchestra knows that everything he demands is fully justified and yields without question to his will.
Mengelberg’s significance in this city is felt in the manner by which all of Amsterdam is caught up in the spirit of the festival. The music shops all offer scores of Mahler symphonies in their displays, and the book stores all offer copies of a publication in honour of Mengelberg, meant as a permanent manifestation of what he has achieved. The original consists in its entirety of 7 volumes of testimonies, (including a volume of drawings), by musicians and important personalities of his time. It was presented to him in special chest designed by [Jan] Toorop, which now holds pride of place in his home, itself a tiny museum filled with paintings, woodcuttings and stained glass. One notes that the influence of this man extends well beyond his own discipline as conductor. His mere presence has had a galvanising and determining effect on all the local arts. He is an educator in the highest meaning of the word; both servant to the work and its creative interpreter. He has taken on a responsibility, the successful execution of which was doubted by many. Nevertheless, he seems to have managed it and without fatigue. As proof, on every second day from the 6th to the 21st of May he will perform a work of Mahler. It is this work of love and indeed piety with which he will build his most lasting monument.
31st May, 1920: Neue Freie Presse; Dr. Egon Wellesz
This is the very first time that one has the opportunity of becoming acquainted with the complete works of Mahler. It is the most difficult of all cycles to pull off. Only a very few will last the course. All weakness will be doubly felt, all the limits of talent will be unforgivably apparent. So much of devoted relevance has been written already throughout this journey that I feel that I can save myself the words needed to express thoughts on each individual work, by relating instead the totality of the experience. One thing that must be first stated is that Mahler’s works come into sharper relief through their cyclic performance. One work simply prepares us for the next without one overshadowing the other. One experiences an upward journey from the first piece to his ninth symphony and there is not one work that one would feel did not belong in its rightful place. What both Mengelberg and his orchestra have accomplished in these last days borders on the incomprehensible.
One of Germany’s leading conductors said to me after a performance, that he would rather give up altogether after experiencing such accomplishment. But the musicians are also aware of their unique central role, amongst the Viennese Arnold Schoenberg, who attended each and every rehearsal. And there were other representatives from America, Sweden, Norway, Germany and Italy. The precision of the bowing under the concertmaster Zimmerman and the warmth of sound were astonishing. The moment Mengelberg hears the slightest discrepancy, he responds with ‘Systematic!’ which means ‘not good’. At this point, he starts to rehearse without mercy each and every individual tone and every point within the phrasing. ‘System’ is the word that encapsulates his method with the orchestra over the last 25 years. In reality, ‘system’ is simply a means of achieving exactness in execution, not losing one’s head and to maintain a consistent pulse and tempo. For our ears, we find the oboes sound very strange. They have a strong nasal sound and are weaker in dynamic than our Viennese instruments. The flutes on the other hand are dignified and full-sounding; trumpets and trombones are excellent. Another extraordinary brass player is the bass tuba, who wears gloves in order that his fingers not have direct contact with the keys of his instrument.
Mengelberg’s conducting gestures are precise. He beats sharply and energetically with the right hand. His left, often balled in a fist, is used for conveying expression and indicating entrances. He reaches climaxes by swinging his entire, rather small body about before this hot-head rises above proceedings. He has an agreeable manner of dealing with his orchestra which comes from many years working in mutual trust and understanding with the same people. Occasionally, the atmosphere in rehearsals seems to balance on a knife-edge, at this point, he tells a joke and rescues the situation. He rehearses long stretches and only afterwards does he tell the orchestra what he wishes to change. He not only explains the technical, he tells the orchestra what the individual intentions of the composer were. When he speaks with his sonorous, resonant voice, nobody else makes a sound. One senses an inner contact, and it is in this manner that he can achieve the best results from his players — just as a virtuoso gets the best out of his instrument. They tune precisely and co-operate through each rehearsal of a transitional passage. Nobody thinks of marking during rehearsal – Mengelberg demands full sound at all times and the highest degree of tension and concentration. One of the typical rehearsal programmes went along the following lines:
From 09:00 until 13:00, he rehearses the 4th and 5th symphonies. In the evening, there are rehearsals of the 9th and 5th from 20.00 to 22.00. At 22.00, he rehearses the chorus for the 8th symphony while the second concert master rehearsed the Adagietto from the 5th. He makes sure that the musicians are rested during their breaks. They’re given milky coffee and an endless supply of cheese sandwiches. After rehearsals, Mengelberg returns home and studies the scores for the next day’s rehearsals until deep in the night.
Yet there is nothing that is taken for granted on his part. He gets up in the morning, refreshed and must re-establish his authority from zero – he betrays no sense of entitlement by replacing his attempts to achieve expression by mere routine. For us who have come to observe, it’s a revelation the way he can create tension without snapping and elicit emotion without losing control. These festival performances are unique. They have never been matched in the devotion shown by those giving the performances or those attending them. Any attempt at repeating such a venture will be doomed to failure – if there is a repetition of such an undertaking, it would demand an entirely different approach. It is the first time that we have the entirety of Mahler’s work separated from its creator and finally launched into the wider world. Mahler no longer belongs just to Vienna, to Austria or to Europe, but has now been handed over to the entire world. For example: this winter, the 8th symphony will be performed in New York, and Mengelberg will continue to present Mahler’s works in various other American cities. This elementary effect of Mahler’s music on the masses of music lovers must come as a surprise to those who had admired him from the very beginning. But that his day of musical resurrection would be so soon – well none of us could ever have anticipated it.
Amsterdam’s Mahler Festival is set chronologically with performances of his symphonies and orchestral songs and can be heard over nine evenings’ of performances to which may be added four public rehearsals and five performances of international, contemporary chamber music. The performances start in Amsterdam at 19:30 and carry on until 22:30 or even 23:00. In the first concert on the 6th of May, we heard ‘Das Klagende Lied’, ‘Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen’ and the 1st Symphony. One could not have heard a more complete version of ‘Das Klagende Lied’ even under Mahler himself. This work of exuberant youthful talent, orchestrated by the experienced composer, was offered to devastating effect. Just as surprising in its impression, was the effect of the last movement of the 1st Symphony, which many, including myself, regarded until the present performance as one of his weakest works. Mengelberg knew how to draw the pieces together in order to create an entirely different picture.
The next day brought us the lectures about Mahler that we have already reported as well as a general rehearsal of the 2nd Symphony. This was followed the next day with a performance that will never be forgotten by those who were present and able to appreciate the mystery and quietness of the chorus’s entrance: ‘Arisen – yes! Arisen!’ after the call in the horns and the trumpets. Nor can we forget the performance of ‘Urlicht’ or the powerful surge of the final when Mengelberg extracted the final reserves of both chorus and orchestra.
The performance of the 3rd Symphony on Monday the 10th of May resulted in a particular celebration for Mengelberg. The Prince Consort Heinrich handed over both laurel and floral wreaths and was introduced to both visiting and local music lovers, all of whom had made the effort to honour the life and work of Gustav Mahler. The fourth Festival concert on Wednesday the 12th of May brought us the 4th and 5th symphonies. The latter, in Holland as in Vienna, one of the most seldom performed. Yet under Mengelberg’s direction, it left an exceptional and lasting impression. The 4th on the other hand was met as more of a ‘succès d’estime’. The combination of both symphonies in a single evening’s performance was a challenge to any public while at the same time offering a unique opportunity of comparing the two works. It is apparent that in the 4th symphony, Mahler can be heard departing from the style of his earliest works as he begins to become more polyphonic. Within the 5th symphony, this principal has already developed masterly.
The following day was completely free and brought both performers and listeners a well needed period of respite. The afternoon we set out togehter to view an Indian steam ship which offered an opportunity of viewing the local harbour in the course of its day-to-day activities as we watched the arrival of freighters, no doubt returning from the colonies in order to unload their goods. Everything appeared to be a part of a greater whole and offered the impression of a population that semed to have survived the scorched earth of recent years and now, with double energy was bringing different nations together with a broader cultural mission.
One anticipated the performance of the 6th symphony with a certain anxiousness. This work is also less well known in Amsterdam than its predecessors and ‘Das Lied von der Erde’. And again, we experienced a triumph. If I recall the first performance of this work in Vienna under Mahler, I sense that here, the percussion and brass are softer – indeed almost muted in comparison. The last movement, which must be one of the greatest and most plastic of any within Mahler’s symphonies, was particularly rewarding under Mengelberg’s direction. He was able to control the steady development to the climax by unyielding control and instrumental balance, never arriving too soon, and splendidly unravelling the dense knot of musical subjects.
The 7th symphony has a very special place for Mengelberg as he owns Mahler’s manuscript and sees it very much as ‘his’ symphony. However, there are many inward connections that give this symphony its own Amsterdam attachment. Mahler’s first ‘Nachtmusik’ was inspired by Rembrandt’s ‘Night-Watchman’. Mengelberg explained to the orchestra that the music is not to be understood by the painting itself, but in the sequence of visions that viewing the picture unleashed in Mahler: A nightly round; moonlight on the rooftops of the city; lovers whispering; the distant sounds of a herdsman’s bells. Mengelberg explained the meaning of the work – the technical aspects have long been settled. Two weeks before the performance he handed over to his trusted deputy Dopper both the strings and brass so that could be rehearsed separately and prepared to the point that Mengelberg needed only to file away a few rough edges, thus adding wings to the work’s spirit.
Following the performance of the 7th, the chronological sequence of works was disrupted in order to accommodate the technical requirements demanded of the 8th Symphony. There followed therefore the most transfigured of Mahler’s works: ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ and the 9th Symphony, the performance of which fell on the day commemorating Mahler’s death. It is not possible to express in words the reverence that was demonstrated by this performance, the mystical transformation of the musicians. With the sound of the last note resonating in the hall, there followed only silence, which was maintained as we departed from the auditorium.
The monumental highpoint of the festival was the grandiose performance of the 8th symphony. The first violins were led by Carl Flesch, the violas by Adolf Busch. The first soprano was as ever Mrs. Gerturd Förstel; 2nd soprano was Mrs. Noordewter-Reddingtus; the altos were Mrs. Cahier and Mrs. Burigo, the tenor Mr. Urlis. At the piano sat Leonid Kreutzer. Again, there were endless rehearsals that went on until deepest night, and involved wboth chorus and orchestra. These were followed by individual rehearsals with the soloists, with the harps and with the piano. All stood in the grip of the transcendental, indefatigable power of Mengelberg and everyone marvelled and allowed him to do with them as he wished.
In addition to the fullness of the symphonic performances were added five chamber performances on the free-days in-between. These took place under the direction of Professor Alexander Schmullers and in organisation with the pianists Lamond, Kreutzer, Schnabel, Mrs. Stokowski and Moritz Löwensohn, the marvellous cellist. Together, they presented a series of representative contemporary chamber music recitals consisting of works by, amongst many others, the Italian composer Casella, the Frenchman Florent Schmitt, and an important vocal work by Artur Schnabel.
An additional two lectures were offered to bring the work and person of Gustav Mahler closer to the public. Felix Salten gave us a graphic depiction of the atmosphere that Mahler’s work elicited and the role that was played by both his person and the city of Vienna; Richard Specht, the trusted biographer of Mahler, spoke of the artist and the triumphs of his vision, which Mengelberg has so visibly transmitted to us all in recent days. It has been agreed that these lectures will be kept as a perpetual memorial to this festival in Amsterdam and are to be published.
There is something special about the performance of works in the context of a festival. While we experienced these days, we already sensed the memory of earlier performances slipping away, only to remain as something we cannot describe. Yet despite this, something permanent survives that will bind all of us together as we go our separate ways throughout the world.
That this event could take place at all is thanks to the committee led by his Excellence Köell, Mr K. van Rees and Mr Dudok van Heel. For the production and presentation of the programme along with the writing of the accompanying notes we thank Mr. Rudolf Mengelberg, who also organised the guest lists and events. For the administration of the festival, we thank Mr. Benkers van Ogtrop and Mr. Frejer along with Mr de Marez Oyens.
For us Viennese, this was not only an enormous gain artistically, but also a display of great humanity. One was again surrounded by friendship and love. The generosity of our hosts was such that we could again believe in the words [of Schiller, set by Beethoven in his 9th Symphony] ‘Alle Menschen werden Brüder, wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.’ The shared goal of something artistic brought us out of, and beyond ourselves and created an atmosphere of artistic and profound seriousness. That this could happen, we are indebted to the man who is Mengelberg and his circle of supporters and friends.
May the spirit of goodness that came from this place continue to support all that is beautiful so that people are once again bound together in everlasting friendship.