1. Youth and Musical Education
  2. Waghalter and the Deutsches Opernhaus
  3. Waghalter’s Operas
  4. Waghalter as Head of the New York State Symphony
  5. Return to Germany and Subsequent Exile
  6. Waghalter’s Music: The Defense of Melodicism

Back to top

Youth and Musical Education

Ignatz Waghalter was born on March 15, 1881 in Warsaw, the fifteenth of twenty children in an impoverished Jewish family whose musical roots ran very deep. According to the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, Ignatz’s great-grandfather, Laibisch Waghalter (1790-1868), was an esteemed violinist known as the “Paganini of the East.” Both parents earned their livelihood as musicians. Ignatz’s eldest brother, Henryk, was to become one of most important cellists at the Warsaw Conservatory. Two other brothers, Joseph and Wladyslaw, also achieved prominence as musicians.

At an early age Waghalter displayed unusual talents and was performing publicly when he was only six years old in local music halls, at the circus, and for the entertainment of wealthy Polish aristocratic and bourgeois families at private parties. As he passed beyond adolescence Waghalter recognized that his development as a serious musician would not be possible without formal training. Waghalter decided to leave his home and make his way to Berlin. At the age of 17, he crossed the Polish border illegally into Germany.

After a brief apprenticeship with the composer Philipp Scharwenka, the young Waghalter obtained an audience with the great violinist and friend of Brahms, Joseph Joachim, who helped him gain admittance to the Academy of Art in Berlin. He studied there under Friedrich Gernsheim. Before long, Waghalter’s talent for musical composition—especially his exceptional melodic imagination—began to make an impression. His early String Quartet in D-Major was praised highly by Joachim. Waghalter’s next major composition, a Sonata for Violin and Piano received the Mendelssohn Prize, the highest award of the Academy of Art. He also composed during this early period of his musical career a Violin Concerto, a Rhapsody for Violin, and several song cycles. The intense lyricism of a Nottorno for Cello and Piano so impressed Joachim that he encouraged Waghalter to direct his gifts to the composition of operas.

Back to top

Waghalter and the Deutsches Opernhaus

But Waghalter, before he could devote his time to composing operas, had to earn a living and complete the apprenticeship that was expected of promising young musicians in turn-of the-century Berlin. So Waghalter turned his attention to conducting, benefiting considerably from the tutelage and example of the legendary Artur Nikisch. Before long, Waghalter was making a name for himself as a conductor at the Komische Oper in Berlin, where he conducted for five years. Then, after a brief engagement at the opera house in Essen, he was recalled to Berlin to become the principal conductor, at the age of 31, at the newly constructed opera house in the Berlin suburb of Charlottenburg. It was opened on November 7, 1912 with a performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio under the baton of Waghalter.

The founders and patrons of the Deutsches Opernhaus in Charlottenburg-Berlin envisioned it as a popular and democratic alternative to the patrician Staatsoper. Critical to this identity was the development of a repertoire that could attract a broader public than that which traditionally patronized the Staatsoper. In this project the musical inclinations and talents of Waghalter played a central role. Waghalter’s melodicism had led him in a direction that was highly unusual for a German composer – toward the music of Giacomo Puccini, whose operas Waghalter championed enthusiastically. He was convinced that Puccini’s music—despite the failures experienced by earlier efforts to introduce the Italian master’s works—could find an audience in Germany.

The great Italian composer was skeptical about the possibility of achieving a breakthrough in Germany, and it was with considerable reluctance that he acceded to appeals by Georg Hartmann, the Intendant of the Deutsches Opernhaus, that he sanction a premier of his newest opera, La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) in Berlin. Hartmann entrusted to Waghalter the musical direction of the work. Puccini, fearing that the entire project would end in disaster, traveled to Germany to attend the rehearsals. The letters written by the composer in the days before the Berlin premier testify to his extreme anxiety. But the premier in March 1913 was an absolute triumph: the new opera house was rocked by ovations at the conclusion of the final act. According to contemporary press accounts, Puccini and Waghalter shared an astonishing 70 curtain calls!

After the performance, an immense gala was organized to honor the composer. Following the dinner, the guests urged Puccini to perform on the piano selections from his operas. But the composer’s memory failed him. Thereupon, according to an account published in Musical America (April 12, 1913), “Waghalter unobtrusively took up the thread where the composer had lost it, took his place at the piano and played, played, played, humming also the voice parts at times. But Puccini could scarcely believe his ears when Waghalter bade him to give him any cue he liked from any of his operas and he would follow it out. The trial was made and Waghalter acquitted himself brilliantly.”

Astonished by the unexpected triumph, Puccini immediately agreed to a proposal by Hartmann and Waghalter for the reintroduction of the composer’s Manon Lescaut. Five years had passed since its disastrous Berlin premier. In December 1913 Manon Lescaut was performed at the Deutsches Opernhaus. Under Waghalter the opera achieved such a sensational reception that the success was noted in the international press. The New York Times wrote: “The conspicuous event of the early winter music season of Berlin is the signal triumph won by the young conductor, Ignatz Waghalter (leader of the orchestra at the Deutsches Opernhaus at Charlottenburg), with Puccini’s ‘Manon Lescaut.’ The piece failed lamentably when produced for the first time in Berlin five years ago at the Komische Oper, but now as a consequence of the brilliant orchestral treatment given under Herr Waghalter’s direction it is hailed as a masterpiece, certain to retain a permanent place in German operatic repertoires.”

Other Puccini works that received their premier at the Deutsches Opernhaus under the direction of Waghalter were La Bohéme and Tosca.

Back to top

Waghalter’s Operas


In 1914, the Deutsches Opernhaus premiered Waghalter’s comic opera, Mandragola, a ribald tale based on Machiavelli’s Renaissance play. It is the story of an old rich man who, unable to consummate his marriage with a very beautiful young woman and produce an heir, is led to believe that the problem can be solved through the administering of an exotic herb (the Mandragola). However, the experiment is entrusted by the old man to a doctor – who, as it turns out, is really the ardent young lover of his wife. And so the opera ends with the young lovers in bed, while outside their room the old cuckold happily awaits the result of the “wonder-cure.” It was with some difficulty that the opera made it past the Kaiser’s censors, and it was received warmly by the Berlin audience and critics at its premier. The review published in January 1914 by the authoritative Signale was both appreciative and perceptive in its appraisal of Waghalter:

“One cannot avoid the conclusion that we have found in Waghalter the man who can compose for us an entire repertoire of this type of finely conceived comic operas, for which the public has yearned for so long. And he seems to be more capable of this than others for the following reason: While Waghalter has acquired from his training in the German school the most advanced and completed technical capabilities, he has allowed his melodic sentiments to be worked upon by other influences. It is these influences – especially that of the Italians – that enable Waghalter to protect his work against the bloated and clumsy qualities that characterize the German Meistersinger imitators. …

“The musical lightheartedness of the work would not alone guarantee its success. What is decisive is that Waghalter has achieved real musical and rhythmic discoveries. And as he is not miserly in dispensing them, it appears that he is able to rely on having an immense supply in his possession.”

Mandragola seemed destined for a successful tour of the opera theaters of Europe. The Paris Opera initiated negotiations with Waghalter on the staging of his new work, but the outbreak of war between France and Germany in August brought these discussions to an abrupt halt.


Waghalter’s next opera was based on a decidedly German work – the celebrated realist drama Jugend (Youth), which had been written in the 1890s by the renowned playwright, Max Halbe. It is a tragic opera, composed in the midst of World War I, of the destruction of young love. The opera was premiered at the Deutsches Opernhaus in February 1917. It enjoyed a tremendous popular success. During the next three years it was to be performed over 40 times.

Numerous critics noted in particular the extraordinary power of Waghalter’s melodic gift. The critic of the authoritative musical journal, Die Tonkunst, wrote rapturously of Waghalter’s capacity to convey profound emotional truth melodically, and proclaimed that Jugend’’s climactic love duet ranked among the great moments in opera, rising even to the level of Verdi’s Aida!

But while the critics acknowledged the exceptional beauty of the music, this very quality made Waghalter appear somewhat suspect, if not anachronistic in the midst of the atonal revolution that was sweeping German music.

It was not only changing musical fashions that affected Waghalter’s career. The political climate in the aftermath of the war became increasingly inhospitable. Waghalter was a Polish-born Jew; and this had become an issue once he attained a position of prominence in German music. Though he was a self-described “free thinker” and agnostic who neither attended synagogue nor observed religious holidays, Waghalter – in contrast to other important conductors such as Bruno Walter, Leo Blech and Otto Klemperer (to name only a few) — would not convert to Christianity. He was among the very few prominent Jewish-born conductors of his day in Germany and Austria who rejected conversion as a means of deflecting the continual pressure exerted by anti-Semitism.


In 1923 Waghalter’s opera Sataniel, received its premier. It failed with the critics, which Waghalter attributed in his autobiography to an increasingly nationalistic environment that was hostile to the Polish origin of the dramatic material. At about the same time, the bankruptcy of the opera house, a consequence of the devastating inflationary crisis that shattered the German economy, led to a dramatic reorganization of the Deutsches Opernhaus. The forced resignation of its long-time “Intendant,” Georg Hartmann, marked a significant change in the political climate at the theater. Waghalter, who had been Hartmann’s closest collaborator since 1912, suddenly faced a sharp reduction in his own influence on the shaping of the Deutsches Opernhaus repertoire. He decided to leave the opera house. Despite the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Waghalter’s departure from his beloved Deutsches Opernhaus, his achievements as both a composer and conductor during his more than decade-long tenure were substantial. The Opera house, in an assessment of its own artistic history posted on the organization’s web site, judges the premiers of Waghalter’s Mandragola, Jugend and Sataniel to be among the “weightier” (“gewichtigeren”) opera premiers of the house’s first decade.

Back to top

Waghalter as Head of the New York State Symphony

Waghalter traveled to New York, where he immediately enjoyed great success as a guest conductor at the New York State Symphony Orchestra, the predecessor of the Philharmonic. When its principal conductor and music director, Josef Stransky, suddenly resigned in 1924, Waghalter was chosen to succeed him.

If the contemporary newspaper reviews are to be believed, Waghalter quickly established himself as a major and popular figure in New York music. His exceptional gifts as a conductor were widely praised by New York critics. However, he was not comfortable with an artistic environment in the United States that exemplified the “business-making culture” (geschäftemachertum) that Waghalter abhorred.

In a lengthy interview published in the Musical Courier, Waghalter spoke, as was his habit, with extreme bluntness about the absence of sufficient financial support for the arts in the United States.

“In the very first place it seems to me little less than a shame and a disgrace that every American city should not have a symphony orchestra of its own. Think of there being no orchestra in such a city as Washington! Think of the few cities that support their own opera companies! In Germany such conditions would be impossible … The hundreds of great artists who come annually to America do so primarily for the money they make. It becomes a matter of business rather than a pilgrimage with a fundamentally artistic object.”

Back to top

Return to Germany and Subsequent Exile

After the conclusion of his first season, Waghalter decided to return to Germany. Not knowing what lay in store for German Jews, Waghalter could not have imagined the fateful consequences of this decision. When he was to return to America, 13 years later, it would be as an obscure refugee.

In the immediate aftermath of his return to Germany, Waghalter was among the most widely recorded conductors, and a large portion of his studio work is still in existence. He composed several operettas, including Der späte Gast, Der Weiberkrieg, Bärbel and Lord Tommy. Waghalter was also active as a guest conductor throughout Europe – even in Moscow’s Bolshoi Opera, where he served as guest conductor for a half-year in 1930. In 1931-32 he was appointed general musical director of the National Opera in Riga (Latvia). Waghalter enjoyed close friendships with composers Eugen D’Albert, Paul Hindemith, the young Kurt Weill, and Franz Schreker; the pianists Joseph Hoffman and Leopold Godowsky; the singers Richard Tauber, Leo Slezak and Joseph Schmidt; the dramatist Max Reinhardt; and an amateur violinist by the name of Albert Einstein. The latter often visited Waghalter’s apartment in Charlottenburg to participate in an informal chamber music group that Waghalter directed from the piano.

With the rise of the Nazis to power, Waghalter’s situation became untenable. In 1934 he and his wife fled to Czechoslovakia. While there Waghalter wrote an autobiography, Aus dem Ghetto in die Freiheit (From the Ghetto into Freedom). He concluded his story with the following words:

“Destiny has placed before the Jewish people new struggles – as if to demand that they strengthen themselves spiritually and intellectually. And so I as well am forced again onto the path of a difficult struggle for existence. But to where? Perhaps to the land of Israel… or to the eternally young North America? But wherever it may be, I am determined to serve the cause of Art and Mankind, in accordance with the words of Moses, “You were brought out of Egypt to serve your brothers.”

From Prague Waghalter went to Vienna, where he composed an anti-fascist opera entitled Ahasaverus und Esther, based on the Biblical Purim story of the Jewish princess who thwarted Haman’s plan to carry out the murder of all the Jews of ancient Persia. Waghalter himself managed to escape Austria shortly after the Anschluss in March 1938.

Now in his late 50s, Waghalter found little opportunity in the United States. He was one of hundreds of immensely gifted European refugees who found themselves cut off from a milieu appreciative of their great talent. Waghalter attempted to establish a classical orchestra of African-American musicians, but the social climate was too inhospitable to make the project viable.

The last years of his life were spent in isolation. Within the German émigré community he was widely respected. Ahasaverus und Esther was performed over radio in New York City in 1940. But there were still in America too few orchestras to accommodate the many gifted conductors who had fled Nazi Germany. He continued to compose, and a final work, an operetta entitled Ting-Ling, was performed at the well-known theater in Ogunquit, Maine, in the summer of 1948. On April 7, 1949, Waghalter died suddenly of a heart attack in New York City at the age of 68. The New York Times recorded his death with a lengthy obituary, and hundreds of European refugees who admired him as a conductor and composer attended his funeral. The noted rabbi Joachim Prinz, who had known Waghalter in Berlin, delivered a memorable funeral oration. Pointing at his coffin, he asked, “Who can believe that this coffin contains all that was once Ignatz Waghalter?” But as the years passed, Waghalter was largely forgotten.

But there were some who did remember Waghalter. In 1981 the Deutsche Oper (as it is now known) commemorated the 100th anniversary of his birth. A bust of Waghalter, cast in 1925, was placed alongside those of other major conductors who had led the orchestra of the Deutsches Opernhaus. In April 1989, the Deutsche Oper gave a concert performance of Waghalter’s Jugend.

Back to top

Waghalter’s Music: The Defense of Melodicism

These events were the first indications of renewed interest in Waghalter’s music after decades of oblivion. And there are signs that the musical and intellectual climate is becoming more hospitable for composers who worked in a lyrical idiom. For decades after the end of World War II, music composition and criticism were dominated by an anti-melodic aesthetic, whose principle champion was the influential German theorist, Theodore Adorno. His authoritative Philosophy of Modern Music (1949) denounced melodicism as illegitimate, banal and unacceptable as a mode of serious musical expression. Only that music which denied “the illusion of beauty” merited attention. The task of music, and art in general, was to give expression to the utter hopelessness of the human condition. “Modern music sees absolute oblivion as its goal,” wrote Adorno. “It is the surviving message of despair from the shipwrecked.”

At long last, this demoralized rejection of melodicism is being subjected to critical scrutiny. But the new halting efforts in the direction of a rebirth of melodicism confront immense cultural and even technical obstacles. After more than a half-century of scorn and neglect, the art and skill of expressing essential emotional truths in melodic form are not easily revived. It is in this situation that Waghalter’s music assumes new significance. His compositions speak directly to the listener, with a captivating beauty of the type that penetrates and embeds itself in the mind and heart.

Waghalter’s musical lineage passed, on one side of the Polish-German border, through his mentor Joachim to Brahms and Schumann. On the other side of that border, Waghalter’s musical personality was shaped by the heritage of Chopin, Dvorak and, still further east, Tchaikovsky. Moreover, especially in his earliest music, the influence of Jewish liturgical themes is apparent. But whatever the source of his inspiration, Ignatz Waghalter possessed an uncompromising melodic gift of the highest caliber. In remaining true to his musical voice, Waghalter’s work expressed artistic and emotional authenticity. For decades it may have seemed that Waghalter belonged to an old school of intense melodicism that was of little relevance to the helter-skelter world that emerged from the ashes and upheavals of two World Wars. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a musician whose work is so antithetical to the precepts of Adorno than Ignatz Waghalter. But this is itself a reason for a new consideration of Waghalter as the representative of a musical aesthetic that was lost for too long.

Back to top