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Hermann Levi: a champion of progress and tradition December 03 2021

Hermann Levi, the German conductor, is universally known as the conductor of Jewish origin who against all odds was the conductor at Richard Wagner’s Parsifal premiere in the Bayreuth festival in 1882.

EARLY LIFE AND FAMILY

Hermann Levi was born on 7 November 1839 in the small university town of Giessen. His father was a respected rabbi, Levi’s personal history was therefore deeply imbued in the Jewish cultural world, and his early life was marked by the loss of his mother Henriette at the short age of 3 years old.

Portrait of Hermann Levi

EARLY MUSIC EDUCATION

Levi’s musical talent surfaced at an early age and by the age of six, he was already publicly performing piano concerti by Hummel and Mozart accompanied by his bother Wilhelm at a second piano. A key component of Levi’s early musical education was his focused training under the great conductor Vincenz Lachner who imparted his knowledge on music theory, composition, and repertoire.

[Photo] Colorized portrait of Hermann Levi shown in his elder years

CONSERVATORY YEARS

In 1855 Hermann Levi was enrolled at the Leipzig Conservatory, one of the most renowned institutions in Germany, founded by the legendary composer Felix Mendelssohn. In his first year as a student, Levi was instructed by Moritz Hauptmann in theory, Ignaz Moscheles in piano and Julius Rietz in composition.

Out of all his tutors, Julius Rietz, who was the Kapellmeister in the Leipzig Gewandhaus, was undoubtedly the most impactful for the development of Levi’s future conducting career. During his time at the conservatory, he attended rehearsals of some of the greatest works in the orchestral repertoire including Beethoven’s symphonies, concertos, and overtures, Mozart’s final symphonies, Haydn’s London Symphonies, Schumann and Mendelssohn’s works and Schubert’s “Great”.

While still being a student, Levi’s performances and premieres of his own works were received warmly and with great praise. However, concerns about his progressive leanings spread across the conservatory professors, specially Rietz. When the time came to finish his studies in Leipzig, Levi found himself with two options, to go back to his old tutor Lachner in Mannheim or to move to Paris following his interest in new music. He chose the latter. 

PARIS YEARS

Playbill Parsifal 1883

In 1858 when Levi arrived in Paris, the city was the dream destination of every young artist and student trying to round up their education with some flair. The city’s central musical attraction was opera with veteran Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini living in the suburbs and Giacomo Meyerbeer being the leading figure of the Opéra Comique and the Opéra Lyrique. However, the eccentric Hector Berlioz whose music was out of fashion in Paris would end up becoming central in the young Levi’s career, although he didn’t know it yet.

[Photo] Playbill for a production of Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1883 with the original cast of the world premiere the previous year.

A key component of Levi’s Paris stay wasn’t so much his musical education but the connections and relationships he developed with other young musicians and artists. Due to his main interest lying in concerts and new music and the mainstage operatic genre not being as attractive to him, Levi had to look elsewhere for like-minded musicians, this leading him to the conservatory, salons and most importantly smaller private venues where self-led groups of musicians performed works that sparked their interest.

PROFESSIONAL CAREER: INITIAL SUCCESS

After his Parisian lieu, in 1859 Levi was looking for a job and with the aid of his mentor Lachner, was able to quickly find a post in Saarbrücken near the border with France. In his first few months as music director, Levi crafted new programs, brought musicians from Mannheim to improve the orchestra’s level, staged a handful of popular operas like Der Freischütz, Martha, and La fille du regiment, and most importantly, organized three new subscription concerts with great success.

The Flower maidens in Parsifal

The Flower Maidens from Parsifal's Act 2 -the last opera of Richard Wagner world-premiered in 1882 under the baton of Hermann Levi

Although the musical results of the largely amateur group in Saarbrücken probably wasn’t sensational, Levi gained insight into the ins and outs of the craft with a special focus on handling an opera troupe. Furthermore, this time of this life allowed him to develop his piano skills by programming multiple performances of Beethoven’s sonatas and composing and posteriorly performing his own works.

In June of 1861 after two years at his post in Saarbrücken, Levi was offered the position of substitute conductor in Mannheim. Of course, the principal director was his mentor Lachner, who had suggested him as the best replacement for his current second conductor who had fallen ill and could not attend to his duties in a series of opera performances. Over the course of the next few weeks, Levi led the orchestra through a series of opera performances in Mannheim’s National Theater.

GERMAN OPERA IN ROTTERDAM

In 1862 at the young age of twenty-three, Levi applied for and won the position of director in Rotterdam. His work as an opera conductor led him through most of the standard repertoire including Mozart's operas; le nozze di figaro, Don Giovanni, Rossini’s Wilhelm Tell, and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.

However, perhaps the most significant performance of Levi’s short career came in late 1862 when he prepared the parts, rehearsed and performed his first-ever Lohengrin, a work by the most important living composer of his day, Richard Wagner.

After the success of his first year, his contract was renewed for another season, and this time around he had a stronger say on the repertoire, the singers, and the musicians involved. During the off-season time he traveled through the German theaters looking for new singers and, in the process made important connections that would eventually land him his next post as music director in Karlsruhe’s Theater.

Despite his success in Rotterdam, Levi was lonely and wanted to return to his native land, this meant that he was unwilling to renew his contract for a third year. Upon the end of his second year, he suggested a replacement and took a post in the German city of Karlsruhe. This post as the chief conductor of a court theater meant the beginning of his mature professional career and the end of his apprenticeship years.

KARLSRUHE

Hermann Levi in 1864

The city of Karlsruhe within the grand duchy of Baden was one of Germany’s most progressive and inclusive places for citizens of Jewish origin. Quoting Levi’s mentor Lachner, “Karlsruhe is one of the few places where they make no difference between Christian and Jew.” This made the city ideal for Levi whose Jewish lineage made him susceptible to all kinds of judgment and Criticism.

[Photo] Hermann Levi in 1864

The post officially began in 1864 and for the first year, Levi would have to share conducting duties with the much older and experienced Wilhelm Kaliwoda who had studied under Mendelssohn and had been the orchestra’s assistant conductor for a decade.

During his stay in the city, Levi worked tirelessly and conducted hundreds of opera and concert performances in the theater and other venues alike. This was also the time where he learned the craft of conducting not only at a musical level but at a political and administrative level as well.

MUNICH

In 1872 Levi took the post of Bavarian Court conductor in the city of Munich, one of the most important jobs a nineteenth-century musician could have aspired to. The decision came after much negotiation with both Munich and his former employers in Karlsruhe. However, the larger orchestra, the better salary and benefits, and most importantly, the possibility to conduct Tristan und Isolde and later the Ring cycle made the offer impossible to refuse.

Hermann Levi by 1893

Levi held the Munich post until 1896 and in those twenty-four years, he reshaped the city’s musical life in every possible way. He championed Wagner’s new music and Brahms’ classical leanings. In Munich, he acted as unofficial musical adviser to the city's synagogue; he composed a work for the inauguration of the Mannheim synagogue and a Veshamru for the cantor of Giessen.

[Photo] Hermann Levi -a portrait circa 1893

On top of his conducting duties and opera productions, Levi performed chamber music with the fines musicians of the day including Brahms Lieder, piano quartets, and also arranged Brahms’ successful performances of his own works with the court orchestra. During this time, Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim, leading performers in their time, collaborated with the orchestra profusely.

During this time Levi secured perhaps his most important professional achievement ever, the future performances of Wagner’s Ring and Parsifal. In 1875 he left for Bayreuth and witnessed the rehearsals of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. In later years he would also collaborate with rehearsals and even performances. Wagner’s spell bewitched Hermann Levi in every way and he was now a full-fledged Wagnerite. Unfortunately, this meant the end of his friendship with the other great living German musician, Brahms.

An Evening at Villa Wahnfried

 An Evening at Villa Wahnfried (an oil painting by G. Papperitz, 1882). From left: Siegfried Wagner and Cosima, and sitting next to them Amalie Materna. Behind Cosima from left to right: Franz von Lenbach, Emil Scaria, Franz Fischer, Richard Wagner, Fritz Brandt, and Hermann Levi. At the piano Franz Liszt. Behind Liszt from left to right: Hans Richter, Franz Betz, and Albert Niemann. To the far right Paul von Joukowsky (seated), and in front of the piano Countess Marie von Schleinitz (seated) and Countess Usedorn (standing).

BRAHMS

Amongst Levi’s most interesting relationships it is absolutely essential to mention his unique interactions with Johannes Brahms. The two were correspondents for most of their lives, and mutually trusted friends. Their relationship began in 1862 when a young Levi visited Brahms in his residence in Hamm near Hamburg. Then they met sparingly through the years until 1864 after earning his post in Karlsruhe, Brahms stayed in Levi’s apartment for a few weeks.

Levi took an important part in the development of Brahms’ Quintet in F minor Op.34 by playing alongside Clara Schumann in the early two-piano version in 1864. It was also Levi who suggested that the ideal medium for the work would be as a piano quintet, a suggestion which Brahms loved and to this day is the most well-known version of the piece.

Their relationship flourished across 1866 with the pair playing together, talking through the night, and giving loving criticism to each other. When Brahms left, Levi felt a void that was filled with more work and due to the declining health of his fellow conductor Kaliwoda, Levi was doing most of the work, leaving him exhausted. The rest of his stay in Karlsruhe saw him achieve massive fame and recognition through performances of Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem and later Wagner’s Meistersinger von Nuremberg.

WAGNER

Autograph Music Quote by Levi

Autograph Music Quote by Hermann Levi - a fragment from Wagner's Parsifal

Another major figure in Levi’s life was Richard Wagner. As previously mentioned, Levi approached Wagner’s music as a young conductor working in Rotterdam where he led a performance of Lohengrin. It wouldn’t be until 1871 when the two men met personally under the occasion of a performance conducted by Wagner himself in which the Mannheim and Karlsruhe’s orchestras had to be combined to achieve the necessary forces. In this occasion Wagner, an open anti-Semite, declared his respect for Levi because he didn’t hide his Jewish Origin.

In 1876 after the financial failure of the Bayreuth festival, Levi made donations and conducted concerts to raise money for it. The coming years saw Levi prepare the first-ever performance of the complete ring cycle outside of Bayreuth. The massive project required a lot of money and work from both the performers and the administrative authorities, the performance occurred in 1878.

Hermann Winkelmann as Parsifal

After years of working alongside Wagner, studying and performing his works, Levi received the opportunity of a lifetime, he out of all people, a Jewish man would be the conductor of the premiere of Wagner’s most religiously charged opera since Lohengrin, Parsifal. In June 1881, Levi stayed for a week with the Wagner family and worked tirelessly on the preparation of the last music drama Parsifal score and interpretation. Then, during 1882, the actual rehearsal process began in Bayreuth with a performance occurring in July.

[Photo] Hermann Winkelmann, creator of the role of Parsifal in the 1882 world premiere of the opera at Bayreuth conducted by Hermann Levi. Photo signed by Winkelmann in 1910.

This performance was the single most important event of Levi’s career and his greatest professional achievement. The cultural relevance of Wagner’s work and especially Parsifal is still felt in modern times and the fact that Levi, a Jewish conductor was the person responsible for the premiere only adds to the difficulty of judging Wagner’s persona objectively.

After the death of Wagner in 1883, Levi retained the direction of premiere upon the request of King Ludwig ii.

AS A COMPOSER

Hermann Levi belongs to a tradition of composer-conductors alongside such giants as Richard Strauss, Felix Weintgartner, Felix Mottl and even Gustav Mahler. All of these figures simultaneously worked in the two areas while usually being better suited for one of the two and history reminding them because of it (Mottl and Weingartner as conductors and Strauss and Mahler as composers).

Levi Richter and Mottl Signed Photograph

Levi’s training in Leipzig included a strong composition component and he had many possibilities in his early career to publicly perform his student works including a symphony, a violin sonata, and several songs. Some of these compositions have been published and are available and recorded in modern times. Nevertheless, Levi’s musical life gravitated almost exclusively to conducting.

[Photo] Hermann Levi, Karl Richter, and Felix Mottl - An old cabinet photograph signed by Levi and Mottl in 1889.

One of the central episodes of his composing life was when in 1865 he presented the great master Johannes Brahms with a symphony of his own authorship and upon receiving strong criticism and discouragement vowed to stop composing forever. Nevertheless, he didn’t hold up to his words and eventually in 1868 he once again a song composed based on a poem by Goethe on the occasion of Clara Schumann’s birthday.

FINAL DAYS AND LEGACY

Following the successful premiere of Parsifal Levi remained connected to Bayreuth and the Wagner family. He was present at the composer’s funeral and championed his music for the decades to come. Early on in the year 1900, Levi suffered a severe kidney failure and was left bedridden, the condition eventually led to his passing on the morning of 13 May 1900.

Hermann Levi is undoubtedly a central figure in the history of late nineteenth-century music.

Friend of both Brahms and Wagner, trained in Leipzig and most importantly the conductor at the premiere of Wagner’s final work and life project culmination, Levi shaped the course of German music in the late nineteenth century like few others did.

Bibliography

Frithjof Haas, 2012. Hermann Levi: From Brahms to Wagner. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, Inc.

SEE ALSO:

- Autograph Music Quote from Parsifal (1898) by Hermann Levi

- Hermann Winkelmann as Parsifal (creator of the role in its world premiere)

- Parsifal Playbill 1883 with World Premiere Cast

- Opera Singers Who Died in the Holocaust (Blog Article)

- Cosima Wagner and Antonie Petersen (Blog Article)

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