Gustav Mahler and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra Tour America. By Mary H. Wagner. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006. [xv, 237 p. ISBN-10 0-8108-5720-0; ISBN-13 978-0-8108-5720-9. $50.] Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index.
It is rare to find a focused study that serves as a point of departure for further research, but the approach behind Gustav Mahler and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra Tour America by Mary H. Wagner offers such a perspective. In this book, Wagner explores an important aspect of the composer's career that demands the kind of scrutiny the author has undertaken. While Mahler's tours have not escaped the attention of Henry-Louis de La Grange in his multi-volume biography of the composer, the significance of Mahler's tours merits further consideration. La Grange has given due attention to Mahler's work in America (in Gustav Mahler: Chronique d'une vie, 3: Le génie foudroyé 1907-1911 [Paris: Fayard, 1984] along with the immanent fourth volume of the English-language edition with Oxford University Press), and Zoltan Roman's Gustav Mahler in America (New York: Pendragon Press, 1988) contains documentary material on the composer's work with the New York Philharmonic. Another useful study is Marvin von Deck's dissertation "Gustav Mahler in New York: His Conducting Activities in New York City, 1908-1911" (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1973), which Wagner cites in her work. In the present study Wagner has gone further in assessing this single aspect of Mahler's work to reveal much about the relationship between the conductor and the orchestra, the programs that were used on the tours, the reception of the New York Philharmonic in various cities on the East Coast and Upper Midwest, and the role of orchestral tours in the music culture of early twentieth-century America.
Given the strands of biographical, cultural, and social thought involved, the topic itself is intriguing if only for bringing to light the nature of touring orchestras at the turn of the century. It becomes even more intriguing when the discussion involves one of the foremost conductors of the day leading the outstanding orchestra on the continent. The opportunity to hear some incredible concerts in cities outside New York brought some intensive music making to thousands of Americans who may have been influenced in some way by Mahler's efforts. The author wisely shows, not tells, how critics and audiences responded by selecting appropriate passages from the extensive journalism that she has reviewed (and documented in her annotations). The account of the Hartford tour (February 1911) includes mention of the audience enthusiasm not only for Mahler, but also individual members of the orchestra (p. 196).
Justifiably, considerations of Mahler's later years inevitably entail a sense of finality and loss: the composer's last works, his illnesses, and the perceived problems with the management of the New York Philharmonic, all have a taint of fatality. Without taking on a counter-argument, Wagner offers a straightforward account of this dynamic and wholly positive facet of Mahler's last years in the United States. Fully documented in contemporary references and coordinated with the biographical account of Henry-Louis de La Grange, Wagner's study is exemplary in its focus. In light of the amount of details at her disposal, Wagner has wisely chosen to incorporate them judiciously to support her points of reference. To establish a context for her study, Wagner outlines Mahler's career in New York in her first chapter then summarizes the role of touring in American musical culture in the next, before proceeding to discuss the nature of Mahler's programming.
In exploring the programming that Mahler pursued with the New York Philharmonic, Wagner describes the conductor's efforts to shape the ensemble's concert programs and repertoire. Beyond referring to the reliance on romantic music for the Philharmonic's programming-and by extension, other, similar orchestras-it would be useful to have a deeper analysis of the kinds of works involved, including the dates of composition, premieres, and first performances in the United States, as well as the nationalities of the composers involved. …