MAUD POWELL MEETS GUSTAV MAHLER (1909)

from H. Godfrey Turner’s Draft Memoir
The Maud Powell Society Archive


When Mahler had been engaged by the New York Philharmonic Society to conduct their orchestra an official went over to Europe with the proposed list of works, as made up by the program committee, and on that list Maud Powell was set down to play the Beethoven Concerto in Carnegie Hall and at the Academy of Music in Brooklyn.  We were told that when Mr. Mahler came to this he said: “What?  I play Beethoven with a woman, and an American?”  And he drew his pencil through the line, eliminated her from the classic series and put her down for the Mendelssohn in the romantic series. 

            As soon as we were notified I was angry at what seemed a sleight and said I would call off the engagement.  Maud told me not to worry, saying, “Mahler is an opera man, he does not know the violin literature and he does not know me.  Wait, and you will see that it will turn out all right.” 

            On the morning of the Brooklyn concert, which came first, she was told to be at the Academy at eleven o’clock.  She walked on the stage at twenty minutes to eleven to find a young riot in progress.  Mahler tearing his hair, the men wandering about the stage and Mr. Arnold flew at her with: “You are forty minutes late.”  Mahler had waited all that time “for a woman and an American at that.”  No excuses were made. 

            The “boys” took their places and Mahler took the stand without a word.  I remember Powell said to the violin section, as an aside: “Here is where I spit on my hands,” and the rehearsal began.  It was noticeable that Mahler was lost in the work, turning to look at the solo player now and then and when the first movement was over Powell suggested that possibly it was not necessary to go through the other two but Mr. Mahler said he wished to as he was not familiar with the score.  They swung to the end of the work as if they had played it together before.  Mahler stepped from his stand, took Powell’s hand while he paid her compliments.  That night, as soon as the concert was over, we left for the West.  Took the ferry round the “Horn” of Manhattan, in those days before the tunnels, to the Penn terminal in Jersey City.  We had been away about a week when a telegram came from my office: “Will Powell play the Beethoven in Carnegie Hall with Mahler December twenty nine [actually December 31]and if so what fee?”  We replied: “Yes, same fee.”  Then another telegram came: “The Beethoven will be in addition to not in place of the Mendelssohn which stands for December thirty-one [actually December 29].”*  So it came about that Powell scored with the big little man.  The memory of the Beethoven with Mahler remained a happy one to the end of her career.  [Maud Powell called it one of the "supreme moments" of her artistic career.]

            Oddly enough a friendly understanding sprung up between Mahler and myself.  Odd is the word for neither of us spoke the other’s native tongue.  He used to like the walk from the hall to his hotel and I often took it with him.  The first time was after a matinee and we were leaving the stage door together.  He was going into the biting cold of the street, still wet with perspiration, with the top coat open, so I buttoned it up for him and he turned quite naturally with me towards his hotel.  It was on these walks that I found he had what might be called an impediment in one of his ankles.  Just as one with a hesitancy in speech so was this ankle impeded, tapping the ground as if searching the right spot.  He controlled it almost immediately and on he went again as though nothing had happened.  It always appeared to be worse when he was very tired.

[*Turner simply reversed the dates in his memory].
 

MAUD POWELL'S MEMORIAL TO GUSTAV MAHLER (1916)


I worship the memory of Gustav Mahler, the man and the musician.  I sensed his genius most keenly perhaps in the beautiful intimacy that exists between conductor and soloist in interpreting a master work like the Beethoven Violin Concerto. The sensitiveness, the inspirational vision, the forgetfulness of self in the searching appreciation of the composer’s intent revealed a musical soul of ineffable sweetness coupled with the force we call genius.  As a man he did not belong to our hurly-burly, materialistic age; he was a pathetic figure, sick, shy, often irritable, unworldly to the point of making enemies on all sides, completely in earnest, simple in taste and habits, and, like all sensitive souls, overjoyed when perchance he found some one who understood him.  Certainly he was not understood in New York, and it is an ineffaceable blot on our musical history that the critical harassing he suffered at our hands undoubtedly hastened his death.

            I sincerely hope it may be my privilege to be present at the production of the [Mahler's] Eighth Symphony [memorial concert by the New York Philharmonic] on April 9th [1916].    – Maud Powell


Originally from The Society of the Friends of Music, Gustav Mahler – The composer, the Conductor and the Man, New York, 1916.

Reprinted in Zoltan Roman’s Gustav Mahler’s American Years 1907–1911, Pendragon Press, Stuyvesant, NY, 1989.

 

 

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