Rabbis and conductors
It was not his ability to inspire interpretive understanding in people that made Bruno Walter
a great conductor, but his faith in music—especially Mozart and Mahler! — he liked to direct,
abandoning the religious faith from which he had converted, just like Mahler – professionally pragmatic -.
Olin Downes, a prominent music critic affiliated with the New York Times,
identified in this unobservant Jew a Semitic quality:
profound faith, a quality required of all rabbis who teach
their followers by a faithful concentration on their sacred literature, making the most concerted efforts
to disseminate what they might understand in an interpretative way in Jewish homes, which serve them both as a pulpit and as an altar.
David Allen writes in “Bruno Walter, a Conductor Who Found Truth Through Beauty”, New York Times, 2/11/22:
The truth can be repulsive,” Bruno Walter once said, a conductor whose life had taught him that fact all too well. “But Mozart has the power to speak the truth with beauty.”
If there was one composer with whom Walter, who was able to make beauty out of truth like few others until his death in Beverly Hills in 1962, was most associated with during his career, it was this Viennese master; Walter’s life story, the conductor said, could be told as “the story of the development of a love for Mozart”.
Writers have often honored Walter with witty metaphors – author Stefan Zweig likened the beam on his face while driving to “the expression of angels when they look at God” – and it is indicative of his artistry that they were exactly what Walter aspired to achieve. For him, Germanic music from Bach to Strauss was pure, uplifting, redemptive. It offered an “unchanging message of solace”, he wrote in his memoir “Theme and Variations”; his “wordless gospel proclaims in universal language what the thirsty soul of man seeks beyond this life”.
His authority, slightly worn, came not from his technique or his intellectual weight, but from “his love and his faith”, wrote New York Times critic Olin Downes after a concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1946. “Love, not just interpretive understanding of what he plays. Unwavering faith in the music he represents.