Bruno Walter (September 15, 1876 – February 17, 1962) was a German-born conductor and composer. One of the most famous conductors of the 20th century, he was born in Berlin, but moved to several countries between 1933 and 1939, finally settling in the United States in 1939. He was born Bruno Schlesinger, but began using Walter as his surname in 1896, and officially changed his surname to Walter upon becoming naturalised in Austria in 1911.



The young Bruno Walter

Bruno Walter Wien 1912

Bruno Walter, 1912

Early life

Born near Alexanderplatz in Berlin to a middle-class Jewish family, Bruno Schlesinger began his musical education at the Stern Conservatory at the age of eight, making his first public appearance as a pianist when he was nine. However, following visits to one of Hans von Bülow's concerts in 1889 and to Bayreuth in 1891, he changed his mind and decided upon a conducting career. He made his conducting début at the Cologne Opera with Albert Lortzing's Der Waffenschmied in 1894. Later that year he left for the Hamburg Opera to work as a chorus director. There he first met and worked with Gustav Mahler, whom he idolized and with whose music he later became strongly identified.


In 1896 Schlesinger took a conducting position at the opera house in Breslau – a job found for him by Mahler. The conductor recorded that the director of this theater, Theodor Loewe, required that before taking up this position he change his name of Schlesinger, which literally means Silesian, "because of its frequent occurrence in the capital of Silesia",[1] although other sources attribute the change to a desire to make his name sound less Jewish.[2] (Note: It is often stated that Walter was his middle name and he merely dropped the surname Schlesinger. This is not true; he had no middle name and "Walter" had never been one of his names.) In 1897, he took an opera-conducting position at Pressburg, and in 1898 he took one in Riga, Latvia. Then Walter returned in 1900 to Berlin, where he assumed the post of Royal Prussian Conductor at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, succeeding Franz Schalk; his colleagues there included Richard Strauss and Karl Muck. While in Berlin he also conducted the premiere of Der arme Heinrich by Hans Pfitzner, who became a lifelong friend.

In 1901 Walter accepted Mahler's invitation to be his assistant at the Court Opera in Vienna. Walter led Verdi's Aida at his debut. In the following years Walter's conducting reputation soared as he was invited to conduct across Europe – in Prague, in London where in 1910 he conducted Tristan und Isolde and Ethel Smyth's The Wreckers at Covent Garden, and in Rome. A few months after Mahler's death in 1911, Walter led the first performance of Das Lied von der Erde in Munich, as well as Mahler's Symphony No. 9 in Vienna the next year.


Although Walter became an Austrian citizen in 1911, he left Vienna to become the Royal Bavarian Music Director in Munich in 1913. In January of the following year Walter conducted his first concert in Moscow. During the First World War he remained actively involved in conducting, giving premieres to Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Violanta and Der Ring des Polykrates as well as Pfitzner's Palestrina.

In Munich Walter was good friends with Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (later Pope Pius XII).[3])

United States

Walter ended his Munich appointment in 1922 and left for New York in 1923, working with the New York Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall; he later conducted in Detroit, Minnesota and Boston.


Back in Europe Walter was re-engaged for several appointments, including Berlin in 1925 as musical director at the Städtische Opera, Charlottenburg, and in Leipzig in 1929. He made his debut at La Scala in 1926. In London, Walter was chief conductor of the German seasons at Covent Garden from 1924 to 1931.

In his speeches in the late 1920s, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler complained bitterly about the presence of Jewish conductors at the Berlin opera, and mentioned Walter a number of times, adding to Walter's name the phrase, "alias Schlesinger." [4] In 1933, when the Nazis took power, they undertook a systematic process of barring Jews from artistic life. Walter left for Austria, which became his main center of activity for the next several years, although he was also a frequent guest conductor of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra from 1934 to 1939, and made guest appearances such as in annual concerts with the New York Philharmonic from 1932 to 1936. At the time of the Anschluss in 1938, Walter was at a recording session in Paris; France offered Walter citizenship, which he accepted. (His daughter was in Vienna at the time, and was arrested by the Nazis; Walter was able to use his influence to free her. He also used his influence to find safe quarters for his brother and sister in Scandinavia during the war.)

Return to the United States

On November 1, 1939, he set sail for the United States, which became his permanent home. He settled in Beverly Hills, California, where his many expatriate neighbors included the German writer Thomas Mann.

While Walter had many influences within music, in his Of Music and Making (1957) he notes a profound influence from the philosopher Rudolf Steiner. He notes, "In old age I have had the good fortune to be initiated into the world of anthroposophy and during the past few years to make a profound study of the teachings of Rudolf Steiner. Here we see alive and in operation that deliverance of which Hoelderlin speaks; its blessing has flowed over me, and so this book is the confession of belief in anthroposophy. There is no part of I my inward life that has not had new light shed upon it, or been stimulated, by the lofty teachings of Rudolf Steiner ... I am profoundly grateful for having been so boundlessly enriched ... It is glorious to become a learner again at my time of life. I have a sense of the rejuvenation of my whole being which gives strength and renewal to my musicianship, even to my music-making."

During his years in the United States, Walter worked with many famous American orchestras, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the NBC Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic (where he was musical adviser from 1947 to 1949, but declined an offer to be music director), and the Philadelphia Orchestra. From 1946 onwards, he made numerous trips back to Europe, becoming an important musical figure in the early years of the Edinburgh Festival and in Salzburg, Vienna and Munich. His late life was marked by stereo recordings with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. He made his last live concert appearance on December 4, 1960 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and pianist Van Cliburn. His last recording was a series of Mozart overtures with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra at the end of March in 1961. Although raised a Jew, near the end of his life Walter converted to Catholicism.[5]


Bruno Walter died of a heart attack in his Beverly Hills home in 1962.



Walter Caricature

Caricature of Walter conducting

Walter's work was documented on hundreds of recordings made between 1900 (when he was 24) and 1961. Most listeners became familiar with him through the stereo recordings made in his last few years, when his health was declining. But many critics agree that these recordings do not fully convey what Walter's art must have sounded like in its prime. For one thing, the late recordings sometimes have a geniality that contrasts with the more mercurial, intense, and energetic performances Walter recorded in earlier decades. For another, the late recordings focus mostly on music from Mozart through Mahler, but in Walter's youth he often conducted what was then newer music (including Mahler).

Walter worked closely with Mahler as an assistant and protege. Mahler did not live to perform his Das Lied von der Erde or Symphony No. 9, but his widow, Alma Mahler, asked Walter to premiere both. Walter led the first performance of Das Lied in 1911 in Munich and of the Ninth in 1912 in Vienna with the Vienna Philharmonic. Decades later, Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic (with Mahler's brother-in-law Arnold Rose still the concertmaster) made the first recordings of Das Lied von der Erde in 1936 and of the Ninth Symphony in 1938. Both were recorded live in concert, the latter only two months before the Nazi Anschluss drove Walter (and Rose) into exile.

These recordings are of special interest for the performance practices of the orchestra and also for intensity of expression. Walter was to re-record both works successfully in later decades. His famous Decca Das Lied von der Erde with Kathleen Ferrier, Julius Patzak, and the Vienna Philharmonic was made in May, 1952, and he recorded it again in studio with the New York Philharmonic in 1960. He conducted the New York Philharmonic in the 1957 stereo recording of the second symphony. He recorded the Ninth in stereo in 1961. These recordings, as well as his other American recordings, were released initially by Columbia Records and later on CD by Sony.

Since Mahler himself never conducted the Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde, Walter's performances cannot be taken as documentations of Mahler's interpretations. But in the light of Walter's personal connection with the composer, and his having given the original performances, they have another kind of primary authenticity. In his other (greatly esteemed) recordings of Mahler – various songs and the First, Second, Fourth, and Fifth symphonies – there is the great added interest that he had heard Mahler's own performances of most of them.

Walter made many highly acclaimed recordings of other great Germanic composers, such as Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Johannes Brahms, Johann Strauss Jr., and Anton Bruckner, as well as of Bach, Wagner, Schumann, Dvorak, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Smetana, and others. Walter was a leading conductor of opera, particularly known for his Mozart, and recordings of some from the Metropolitan Opera and the Salzburg Festival are now available on CD. So are performances of Wagner, Verdi, and Beethoven's Fidelio. Also of great interest are recordings from the 1950s of his rehearsals of Mozart, Mahler, and Brahms, which give insight into his musical priorities and into the warm and non-tyrannical manner (as contrasted with some of his colleagues) with which he related to orchestras.


Walter only composed in his early years. Later he decided to be "not a composer." His compositions include:

  • Symphony No. 1 in D minor (recorded by CPO #777 163-2, 2008)
  • Symphony No. 2
  • Symphonic Fantasia
  • String Quartet
  • Piano Quintet
  • Sonata for Violin and Piano in A (recorded VAI vaia #1155, 1997)
  • Songs
  • Choral Works

Written works

  • Gustav Mahler's III. Symphonie. In: Der Merker 1 (1909), 9–11
  • Mahlers Weg: ein Erinnerungsblatt. In: Der Merker 3 (1912), 166–171
  • Über Ethel Smyth: ein Brief von Bruno Walter. In: Der Merker 3 (1912), 897–898
  • Kunst und Öffentlichkeit. In: Süddeutsche Monatshefte (Oktober 1916), 95–110
  • Beethovens Missa solemnis. In: Münchner Neueste Nachrichten (30. Oct. 1920), Beethoven suppl., 3–5
  • Von den moralischen Kräften der Musik. Vienna 1935
  • Gustav Mahler. Wien 1936
  • Bruckner and Mahler. In: Chord and Discord 2/2 (1940), 3–12
  • Thema und Variationen - Erinnerungen und Gedanken. Stockholm 1947
  • Von der Musik und vom Musizieren. Frankfurt 1957
  • Mein Weg zur Anthroposophie. In: Das Goetheanum 52 (1961), 418–21
  • Briefe 1894–1962. Hg. L.W. Lindt, Frankfurt a.M. 1969

Notable recordings

Source: Grove Music Online


  1. Walter, Bruno; James A. Galston (1946.). Theme and variations: an autobiography. New York: A.A. Knopf. pp. 89. 
  2. Andrew Ford (2002-06-29). "Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2007-06-04. 
  3. Rabbi David G. Dalin. The Myth of Hitler's Pope (Washington: Regency Publishing Inc., 2005) p. 50
  4. Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise (2007).
  5. Dalin. The Myth, p. 50
  • Holden, Raymond (2005). The Virtuoso Conductors: The Central European Tradition from Wagner to Karajan. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300093268. 
  • Ryding, Erik; Pechefsky, Rebecca (2001). Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300087136. 
  • Walter, Bruno (1946). Theme and Variations: An Autobiography. New York: A.A. Knopf. OCLC 564814. 
  • Walter, Bruno (1961). Of Music and Music-Making. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. OCLC 394450. 

External links

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