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Five Schubert Club Mahler letters headed for display in NYC

On Tuesday, the head of St. Paul’s Schubert Club will hand-deliver a special container to a representative of the New York Philharmonic as she prepares for a return flight to New York City. Hopefully there will be no glitches at the airport.

The contents of the container? Five letters written by Gustav Mahler in 1909 and 1910 to the violinist he had hired for concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. This is the centenary of Mahler’s short tenure as conductor of the Philharmonic. He was appointed to the position in 1909 and died in May of 1911 of a strep infection that many believe was complicated by exhaustion.

The letters, which have been part of the Schubert Club’s Gilman Ordway Manuscript Collection for most of the past decade, will be put on display in New York through the end of the year as part of the orchestra’s Mahler observance. Then they’ll be returned to St. Paul.

You can see the letters -- they were written in German -- and read the English translations by going here.

All five letters were written by Mahler to Theodore Spiering, an American violinist who had a long career in Chicago, but was living in Europe at the time Mahler hired him. The first, formal-sounding letter informs Spiering that he has been hired for the 1909-1910 season at a salary of $5,000, plus $200 for each solo he plays. The first year’s pay also included a free trip from Berlin to New York.

The second letter, signed "Heartily yours, Mahler," suggests that the two had hit it off, if only by correspondence.

With the third letter, things get revealing. In an apparent response to an earlier letter from Spiering containing suggestions for his solo repertoire, Mahler asks which composers "appeal to you" -- then lists Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms.

"But I must acknowledge that I consider it necessary to begin (the season, apparently) with a work of STERLING MERIT (underlined) and not with a bravura piece a la Vieuxtemps, Bruch, etc.," Mahler writes. Apparently, Mahler didn’t think much of the concertos of Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-1881) or, most ironically, Max Bruch (1838-1920), whose three concertos have become a staple of the solo violin repertoire.

The letter goes on to say that the final decision about works for Spiering to perform is "handicapped" because of guest appearances by violinists Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962) and Maud Powell (1867-1920). And, finally, Mahler asks Spiering to tell him if he needs an advance on his salary.

"Please be perfectly frank," Mahler writes. "We musicians are not expected to be capitalists -- we only have to be able to conduct well or play the violin well."

The things on Mahler’s mind at the time he wrote the letters are particularly interesting to Kathleen van Bergen, the Schubert Club’s executive director, who previously worked with several orchestras.

"I’m impressed with how little has changed," van Bergen said. "A century ago, Mahler’s role as a music director was much like the role is today -- dealing with all sorts of issues, such as complications with seasons, details involving personnel and management issues. Nothing has changed."

In his fourth letter, Mahler confesses that he has been "completely buried" by work on a new composition (The Ninth or Tenth Symphony, perhaps?) and goes on to lay out the first and second concert programs.

"The second concert evening is our first historical concert," Mahler writes. "May I ask you to play the Bach violin concerto. A piano part (continuo) would have to be added, for I find that Bach’s and Handel’s works without a continuo sound distorted. Do you perhaps know whether such an arrangement exists?"

That’s a tantalizing paragraph. Is Mahler writing about the A-minor concerto (BWV1041) or the E-major concerto (BWV1042)?

The final letter, postmarked June 21, 1910, has an eerie prescience to it. It was written while Mahler was in Munich "rehearsing to the utmost of my strength on my Eighth Symphony." He goes on to complain that the new manager of the Philharmonic back in New York had increased the concerts in the upcoming season from 45 to 65 performances.

"I asked for a small increase of my salary, on account of the added amount of work," Mahler writes. "My contract only calls for 45 concerts. My request, however, was not granted by the (orchestra’s managing) committee, so I shall just have to abide by my contract."

Less than a year after writing that letter, Mahler was dead at the age of 50. Spiering stepped in and conducted the final 17 concerts after Mahler’s collapse. Though some thought Spiering would be tapped to replace Mahler, the Philharmonic instead turned to another European conductor, Josef Stransky -- though that choice was roundly criticized by those who felt Stransky was far below Mahler’s stature.

Spiering spent the remainder of his life guest-conducting orchestras in Europe and the United States, as well as teaching and performing. Finally, in 1925, he was appointed head of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, which later became today’s Oregon Symphony. But he died shortly after the appointment and before the start of what would have been his first season. He’s buried in St. Louis, his hometown. His youngest daughter, Wilma, later donated the letters to the Schubert Club’s collection.

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