Bruno Walter

Portrait of Bruno Walter, 2 December 1934. USHMM (86687), courtesy of The Forward.

Bruno Walter Schlesinger was born in Berlin on 15 September 1876.  At eight years old he was admitted to a conservatory, where a teacher proclaimed that 'every inch of this boy is music'.  While he showed an early facility at the piano, when he heard Hans von Bülow conduct he decided that this was to be his musical future.

At 19 he was offered a position in Breslau as a musical theatre director, under the condition that he change his name.  Although disturbed by this blatant anti-Semitism, the desire to develop his career led him to agree, and his name became Bruno Walter.  Several years later he moved to Vienna, where he worked with Gustav Mahler, and his next move was to Munich.  By the early 1920s Munich was coming increasingly under the influence of the Nazi party.  As the director of the Bavarian state opera, and thus a central figure in the city’s musical world, Walter was increasingly singled out in vicious and libellous attacks, and in 1922 he was finally replaced.  The Party paper the Völkische Beobachter reported

Walter simply was, is, and always will be of a different sensibility.  He had no sense for the German way of life; he had always promoted artists from the east; he opposed the artists living in Munich who had German style and sensibility.

After a successful tour of America in 1923, the conductor was offered a position in Leipzig, where he successfully conducted for several years while also performing extensively in nearby Berlin.  Ultimately, however, he was unable to avoid the Nazi grip.  On 19 March, a scheduled concert in Leipzig was cancelled due to threats of violence.  Fearing a similar occurrence at a concert four days later in Berlin, Walter asked for police protection, but this request was rejected. After intense efforts to engage Furtwängler for the performance failed, Richard Strauss was convinced to replace the blacklisted Walter.  Although Strauss was always to insist that he accepted the position in the interests of the musicians of the orchestra, who were desperately in need of money, both Walter and the Nazis themselves saw things differently.  Walter never forgave Strauss, and the Völkische Beobachter declared that the concert was a 'salute to the new Germany'.  Realising that he was in danger, Walter initially moved to Vienna, although here too he suffered increasing threats and attacks. In 1938 he finally decided to leave Europe for the United States where he already had a strong following.

Walter was a fluent English-speaker and was familiar with the American lifestyle that was to alienate so many of his fellow émigrés.  Young, healthy, and at the peak of his powers, he enjoyed a relatively smooth transition to life in the US.  There he built up a reputation as a respected conductor under whom musicians enjoyed working.  Amongst other orchestras, he frequently conducted the New York Philharmonic, and continued to travel and conduct in Europe.  He died in February 1962 in Beverly Hills, California.

Sources

Kater, M.H., 1997. The Twisted Muse: Musicians and their Music in the Third Reich, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Kater, M.H. & Riethmüller, A. eds., Music and Nazism: Art under Tyranny, 1933-1945, Germany: Laaber.  

Levi, E., 1994. Music in the Third Reich, London: Macmillan.

Meyer, M., 1993. The Politics of Music in the Third Reich, New York: Peter Lang.  

Prieberg, F.K., 1982. Musik im NS-Staat, Frankfurt/M.: Fischer.  

Ryding, E., 2001. Bruno Walter: a world elsewhere., New Haven: Yale University Press.