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Anton Seidl: Conductor

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Twenty thousand persons, it is said, attended the funeral of Beethoven. Wagner, Brahms and other modern composers had great honours paid to them when they lay in their coffins; but it is doubtful if any musician who was not a creator of new works, but simply an interpreter, ever was so imposingly honoured in his death as Anton Seidl.
– Henry T Fink, music critic, New York Evening Post

Anton Seidl was born on 6 May, 1850, at Pest (now part of Budapest on the west bank of the River Danube) in Hungary. His first public appearance on a musical stage was when he played piano at a charity concert aged six. Later at school he played the organ and directed the male chorus.

As a young man, Seidl attended opera performances at the National Theatre in Pest as often as possible. After seeing a performance of Richard Wagner's  Lohengrin for the first time (almost certainly in 1866), he vowed to become a musician. In 1870, Seidl went to Leipzig and enrolled at both the Conservatory, taking courses in piano, organ, harmony and thoroughbass, and the University, studying logic, philosophy and musical history. He continued his studies at both seats of learning for two years.

Hans Richter

At this point, a small diversion is needed to introduce an important character, a man who would become one of the greatest conductors of his age — Hans Richter. After studying at the Conservatory of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of Music Friends) in Vienna, he played the horn in the orchestra of the Kärntnertortheater, the Imperial Court Theatre. In 1866, Richter was sent to Tribschen, on the shores of Lake Lucerne, Switzerland. Wagner was living here in exile, having fled Dresden following his involvement with the wave of revolution that swept through Europe in 1848-49. Richter worked with the composer, copying the score of the opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg straight from his pen.

For the next five years, he worked closely with Wagner. Richter was one of the musicians who gave the surprise first performance of the newly composed Siegfried Idyll. This took place on the staircase of Wagner's house, for Wagner's wife, Cosima's1 birthday on the morning of Christmas Eve, 1870.

Seidl and Wagner

Wagner and Liszt were instrumental in securing Richter's appointment in 1871 to the post of music director and principal conductor at the National Theatre in Pest. On hearing of this appointment, Seidl wrote to Richter, begging to be taken on as a pupil. Richter accepted and was much impressed by Seidl's abilities.

The following year, 1872, Wagner asked Richter if he could recommend someone to assist him as a personal secretary – to take his rough, pencil-written musical sketches and make clean scores from them. Richter suggested Seidl for the job, and so it was that apprentice Seidl followed in his master Richter's footsteps.

For the next six years, Seidl lived in close contact with the Wagner family at their house Wahnfried, in the little town of Bayreuth in Northern Bavaria, Germany. The famous composer immediately appreciated the young Seidl's skills and love for his music. He began to depend on and, more importantly, trust him – to the extent that Seidl became the only person Wagner would fully entrust with overseeing performances of his work at which he could not be present.

It was during these years that Wagner completed two of his greatest operas: Götterdämmerung and Parsifal. Götterdämmerung – the last of the four operas that comprise the Ring cycle – was completed in 1876, the year of the inaugural Bayreuth Festival at which the first complete Ring cycle was given, conducted by Richter. Seidl was heavily involved in both the rehearsals and, as a stage manager, during the performance of these operas. Wagner entrusted his assistant with the task of transcribing the first vocal score of Parsifal.

Seidl as Conductor

Another attendee at that first Bayreuth Festival was the co-director of the Leipzig Opera, Angelo Neumann. He was keen to present the Ring cycle at Leipzig, but Wagner refused the performing rights on the grounds that the first production had shown him the work could be further polished "in the next few years", and he would "present it again at Bayreuth in a more perfect form". However, when the likelihood of it being produced again at Bayreuth began to fade, in January, 1878, Wagner relented and granted Neumann the rights. The performances took place in April and September, conducted by the Leipzig music director Josef Sucher. Wagner despatched Seidl first to Leipzig, and in the following year to Vienna, as his personal envoy, to train the personnel at the opera houses there in the nuances of Ring performance.

In 1881, Neumann organised the first production of the Ring in Berlin (four cycles were given), conducted by Seidl, who returned there the following year for more performances. That same year, Neumann formulated the idea of putting together a travelling Wagner Theatre to tour Wagner's works around Europe. He utilised his impresario skills in persuading Wagner of its merits (principally the royalties the composer would amass). Wagner was persuaded but insisted Seidl should not only conduct but be given "a freer hand in the matter of the scenic arrangements than is usually given to the conductor, for herein lies his speciality and what he has particularly learned of me".

Neumann left Leipzig in 1882 to take up a new post as director of the Bremen Opera. The Wagner Theatre tour went ahead and between 1 September, 1882 and 5 June, 1883 a total of 135 performances were given, in 20 cities in Germany, as well as cities in Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Hungary and England – mostly conducted by Seidl – as well as 58 Wagner orchestral concerts. Time and again it was said that hearing a Seidl performance of a Wagner opera was like listening to the work anew, so fresh and illuminating was his interpretation.

In February 1883, the travelling theatre had reached Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) when news arrived that Wagner had died in Venice. Seidl was devastated. That night, he and the company were obliged to perform Das Rheingold; tears ran down Seidl's cheeks as he conducted. The next day he left for Bayreuth to attend the funeral, where he and fellow conductors Hans Richter, Felix Mottl and Franz Fischer were the pall-bearers and helped to carry Wagner's body to his grave.

One of the young sopranos in the Wagner travelling theatre was Auguste Kraus, a former pupil of Richter. She captured the heart of Seidl, and during the tour he wooed her. The couple were married at the cathedral in Frankfurt on 29 February, 1884. Auguste continued her singing career for a few years after their marriage, but then retired to devote her time to looking after her husband.

At the end of the long tour, Seidl accepted a conductorship at the Bremen Opera, where Neumann was director. In 1885, Neumann moved to Prague as director of the Königliches deutsches Landestheater (Royal German National Theatre). Seidl accepted the offer of first conductor under him. However, a plot was afoot to capture Seidl for the Metropolitan Opera House, New York.

Ultimately, Seidl requested of Neumann a long leave of absence to conduct at Bayreuth, from which he never returned. Fortunately for Neumann, he had also engaged, as second conductor, the services of the 25-year-old Gustav Mahler. Neumann, like Seidl, was a devotee of Wagner and well aware that the composer could have no finer ambassador of his music than Seidl. It is to Neumann's great credit that he allowed Seidl to go to New York without fuss.

Before continuing with the latter stages of Seidl's career, in the US, another brief diversion is required to set the scene into which Seidl stepped when he arrived in New York at the start of the 1885-86 season.


The history of the presentation of opera in New York is fascinating, and one portion of that history is directly relevant to this biography. Throughout the 1870s and early 1880s, the main stage in the city for operatic performances – and opera was strictly understood to mean Italian opera – was at the Academy of Music. Located in Manhattan at the corner of East 14th Street and Irving Place, it was built in 1854, gutted by fire in 1866, and subsequently rebuilt on a reduced scale. To this rather less-than-elegant establishment, the social elite of New York turned out not so much to see opera as to be seen 'at the Opera'2.

It should be remembered that the functions of building and owning opera houses and of staging operas in them were quite separate. The building was leased out for one or more seasons to an impresario, whose function it was to run the theatre, hire the conductor, musicians, singers, chorus and stage technicians, promote productions, sell tickets and, if possible, make a profit for himself. Since 1877 the lessee had been one 'Colonel' James Henry Mapleson, whose success was based on bringing over established star names from European opera houses. He also sought out home-grown talent who had travelled to Europe to learn their craft.

New York society at this time was governed by a small number of extremely rich families such as the Belmonts, Astors, and that of JP Morgan, all shareholding patrons of the Academy. Possession of a box at the Opera was of great social importance. But the Academy only had 30 of these and they changed hands very rarely. Things came to a head in 1878 when William Vanderbilt, the railway magnate, offered $30,0003 for a box and was refused, apparently on instruction of the wife of William Astor, Jr. Others of New York's nouveau riche were also box-less. The Academy offered to provide more boxes, but it was nowhere near enough.

In 1880 plans were drawn up to build a new rival opera house – the Metropolitan Opera – on a site bordered by 39th Street, Seventh Avenue, 40th Street and Broadway4. Construction started in 1882 and was completed in 1883, the vast interior being equipped with a total of 122 boxes. The Metropolitan's first director was a man named Henry Abbey, who set about building an opera company literally from the ground up, raiding everywhere for musicians, singers, sets and costumes.

The Metropolitan Opera ('The Met') opened on 22 October, 1883. Unfortunately, the battle between the two opera houses was to the financial detriment of both. At the end of that first season Abbey had lost $600,0005. During the summer, Mapleson licked his wounds and prepared for another season; while at the Met, the directors hired a new conductor/impresario – Leopold Damrosch. He proposed that the Met present a season principally of opera in German, leaving opera in Italian to the Academy. New York at that time had about 15,000 German-speakers among its population.

So the 1884-85 Met season opened with reduced seating-ticket prices of between $3 and 50 cents. In January, it scored a huge success with the US première of Die Walküre, the second opera in Wagner's Ring cycle. The huge workload however proved too great for Damrosch, who died suddenly in February, 1885.

His son, Walter, took over the conductorship, while Edmund Stanton, former secretary of the board, became director. Stanton realised Damrosch was not the man for the job and advised the board accordingly, who sent Stanton to Europe to find a replacement. The man he chose to be the new musical director and conductor was Seidl.

A New Life in the USA

Seidl made his debut at the Met on 23 November, 1885 with a performance of Wagner's opera Lohengrin. For the next seven seasons German opera, and in particular Wagnerian opera, ruled at the Met. Major triumphs included the US premières of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (January 1886), Tristan und Isolde (December 1886), Siegfried (November 1887), Götterdämmerung (January 1888) and Das Rheingold (January 1889).

Nothing of the breathtaking quality of the musical interpretations had been seen or heard outside Bayreuth, and many claimed they exceeded even those. Seidl now attracted not only critical acclaim but personal adoration. According to the Musical Courier, 'Middle-aged women in their enthusiasm stood up in the chairs and screamed their delight.'

In 1891, Seidl was elected conductor of the Philharmonic Society when its present conductor, Theodore Thomas, was invited to found the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In the same year, Seidl became a naturalised US citizen.

For completely non-artistic reasons, the Metropolitan decided to return to Italian opera for the 1892-93 season and brought back Abbey, together with John Schoeffel and Maurice Grau6 as impresario-managers. Apart from occasional appearances at the Met, Seidl concentrated on conducting the Philharmonic Society and other concerts for the remainder of his life. He gave the world première performance of Dvorak's New World Symphony on 15 December, 1893.

In 1897, he played a prominent part in the well-received Wagner festival at the Royal Opera Covent Garden in London. Later that year was invited by Cosima Wagner to conduct five performances of Parsifal at Bayreuth.

During Seidl's time in New York, he received enticing offers from the Royal Opera, Berlin (three times); the Royal Opera, Munich; St Petersburg, for an opera season there; the Royal Hungarian Opera, Budapest (twice); and from the Hamburg Opera, where he was invited to 'make your own terms'. Despite these offers, which would have been both financially rewarding and artistically prestigious, Seidl remained loyal to New York.

One thing that did frustrate him was the lack of rehearsal time. He was allowed three rehearsals for Philharmonic concerts, but for other concerts often had only a single rehearsal. Also, players sometimes didn't turn up, sending a replacement who had not even attended the rehearsal – a practice unthinkable today but not uncommon at the time.

His wife noted that he was a man of great generosity, always giving part-worn, or sometimes new, clothing to the needy. "For the want of decent clothes, he might get a good position," he said. In bad times Seidl would sometimes pay the musicians' hotel bills personally, just to enable the players to earn a living, and yet they were never aware he had done so.

The musical cognoscenti of New York decided that their city should have a permanent orchestra like those at Boston, Chicago and Cincinnati. It would be Seidl's personal orchestra with permanent, salaried players. The Met guaranteed to engage the orchestra for the six months of the opera season, and provide the opera house free of charge for all rehearsals and concerts. However, before the project could be launched, Seidl died suddenly of suspected food poisoning on 28 March, 1898, aged only 47.

A public memorial service was held at the Metropolitan Opera House. Over 10,000 people applied for tickets but there was only room inside for 4,000. Broadway was brought to a standstill. Crowds lined the route of the cortège from Seidl's home. A hundred members of the Musicians' Union formed a full military band that played immediately ahead of the hearse. Once in the opera house, the coffin was placed on a catafalque, draped with a silk US flag. It thus stood at the exact spot at which Seidl had stood to conduct so many times.

The orchestra pit was draped in black and surrounded by floral tributes. One was in the form of a conductor's desk, bearing a score imbedded in the flowers. On the open pages appeared on one face a portrait of Wagner; on the other, one of Seidl. The stage had been set as a cathedral; on it sat the members of the Philharmonic Orchestra. After the eulogy, the orchestra played (inevitably) Siegfried's Funeral March from the final Act of Wagner's Götterdämmerung.

1Cosima was the illegitimate daughter of the pianist/composer Franz Liszt. She had deserted her previous husband, the conductor Hans von Bülow, to live with Wagner at Tribschen. She and Wagner married in August, 1870.2Most of the world's opera houses built prior to the 20th Century are of a horseshoe design, with tiers of boxes ostensibly to provide a clear view of the stage, but in reality to give people a clear view of each other.3Well over half a million dollars at today's value.4The Metropolitan Opera remained in this building until its move to a new home, the Lincoln Center, in 1966.5A staggering $10-15 million at today's value.6Grau was also managing director of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, from 1897 to 1900.

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