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Mahler’s Forgotten Conductor - Heinz Unger and His Search for Jewish Meaning 1895-1965
by Hernan Tesler-Mabé
Published March 2020
ISBN: 978-1-4875-0516-5 University of Toronto Press
Until reading this biography I, like many others, had never come across the name Heinz Unger. Born in Berlin in 1895, it was the desire of his family that he’d follow in his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer. However, one notable event was to dramatically change the course of his life. In 1915 he attended a Munich performance of Gustav Mahler’s Das lied von der Erde. The concert made such an impact on him that he decided to devote his life to music. As the years unfolded, Mahler’s music played a central role in his career, and it’s significant that in 1965, whilst recording the composer’s Sixth Symphony, Unger died of a heart attack.
Born into the Jewish faith, facts about Unger’s childhood are sparse, but it was a time when Jewish emancipation allowed them a fuller participation in German life. His father was a “highly respected lawyer” and his mother an amateur pianist. Before embarking on his musical education Heinz did complete his law studies, receiving a doctorate in Berlin in 1917. He also made a contribution to the war effort in 1914, and was rewarded with the Iron Cross for his service in the Brandenburg Battalion. It was in Berlin that his musical training began with Wilhelm Klatte and Theodore Schoenberger in theory, and Eduard Mörike and Fritz Stiedry in conducting. His career was launched directing an amateur Berlin orchestra. For his professional debut, he self-funded a concert with the Berlin Philharmonic featuring Mahler’s First Symphony, closely followed by a second in which he directed Das Lied von der Erde. Both performances garnered an outpouring of critical acclaim, and resulted in close ties with the orchestra for the next thirteen years.
Tesler-Mabé highlights Unger’s unwavering devotion to Mahler, stressing that he became a pivotal figure in the dissemination of his music. So much so, that Mengelberg invited him to the Mahler-fest of 1920 in Amsterdam, as he was now regarded as something of a specialist at a time of burgeoning interest in the composer’s music. His marriage in 1923 to Johanna “Hella” Wolff, a dental practitioner, offered him some financial security. On the back of this he was able to travel further afield in Europe and to cities in the Ukraine.
Much discussion centres around Unger’s experiences in the Soviet Union. His first exposure in the early 1920s caused him distress, yet he returned annually for the next thirteen years to bring “relief and joy to the mass of downtrodden and miserable people he had seen”. He later didn’t like the way “politics had encroached on the domain of art”. In 1930 he and his wife travelled to the Caucases, visiting Kislovodsk. Whilst there he contracted scarlet fever and, though he made a recovery, he was left with cardiac problems and partial deafness.
1930 was to herald the Great Depression, and the book describes its particular effect on Germany, fueling an upsurge in anti-Semitism and sparking the rise of the Nazi party. Unger saw the writing on the wall whilst recuperating from his scarlet fever in the Azores, Madeira and the Canary Islands. In 1933 he conducted his final concert with the Berlin Philharmonic and, shortly after, left Germany to contemplate his future in the USSR whilst his family moved to England. The journey offered him the opportunity of “surveying artistic conditions in Soviet Russia as a whole, and of learning something of what had been accomplished there during the two years which had passed since I had last seen it”. No longer being able to work in Germany he was offered several posts. The one he chose was a position with the Leningrad Radio Orchestra, conveniently located near the Western frontier, which offered a means of escape to England if needs be. Some time after, restrictions to his personal freedom and a fracas with a guard resulted in him leaving his post and joining his family in London.
Unger resided in London during World War 11 and not only formed the London Amateur Orchestra but also worked with the Northern Philharmonic. His advocacy of Mahler in England drew mixed critical responses, from “the most authoritative representative Mahler has in this country” to one critic lamenting that a performance was “lacking in sunset radiance”. He was embraced in Spain, and for some years made annual pilgrimages there, as well as being warmly welcomed in Latin America, in such countries as Mexico and Argentina.
The final section of the biography deals with Unger’s relocation to Canada in 1948. He’d already made something of an impression there before the war, making a favourable debut in Toronto in November 1937. Tesler-Mabé examines in detail the difficulties the conductor had, as a German Jew, integrating with the local Canadian Jewish Community. He also deals with the relationship Unger had with the resident conductor Ernest Macmillan. He worked with the Forest Hill Community Orchestra, which he built up. Gradually his standing in the country began to grow. There’s much discussion around the recently established York Concert Society, which allowed Unger freedom to choose repertoire, and later some funding problems. Then there was a reuniting with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Unger was responsible for the Canadian premieres of several of Mahler’s symphonies.
In his last years he took an increasing interest in Jewish issues, and Mahler’s music became even more important. There’s a shadow of sadness in his frustrated attempts to secure an engagement with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and his dream to “walk in the promised land” would never be realized. In 1959 he received the Mahler medal for his “vital work in the dissemination of Mahler’s music and creed”. This helped raise his profile. Then there was his participation in the Mahler Centenary of 1960. In his remaining five years he was plagued by health problems and was advised by doctors to reduce his workload.
Unger emerges from the text as an opinionated man, and was certainly no shrinking violet. It’s a tragedy that today he‘s a forgotten conductor and, as the author states in his closing pages, “an obscure footnote in musical history”.
There’s an appendix of seventy-five pages dedicated to ‘Known Concerts and Performances’ given between 1915 and 1965, including some given in the Soviet Union. What particularly interested me were the many soloists Unger collaborated with over the years, names such as Clifford Curzon, Noel Mewton-Wood, Eileen Joyce, Clara Haskil, Glenn Gould, Claudio Arrau, and Moura Lympany on piano, violinists Ida Haendel, Michael Rabin, Oscar Shumsky and cellist Leonard Rose. Singers include Kerstin Meyer, Lois Marshall, Richard Lewis and the wonderful Greek mezzo-soprano Elena Nikolaidi, just to mention a handful. There’s a generous section of detailed end notes and an extensive and thoroughly comprehensive bibliography, which is particularly helpful. There’s several fascinating black and white photographs scattered throughout.
This is a worthy tribute to a long-forgotten conductor and devoted Mahlerite, whose evangelistic zeal did much to promulgate the composer's music. This in-depth coverage of Unger's life fills a void and, hopefully, paves the way for some trawling of the archives and release of some of the artist's live performances.