Fried Horns, by William Melton


Today we welcome an article by hornist and scholar William Melton, with a link to a fascinating recording of Mahler 2 (the first complete recording!) and the story of an important horn player and conductor that is little known today.

We live in a great time to be an orchestral music fan, with ensembles worldwide posting live or recorded concerts for free listening. The internet offers more links to more brand new performances than you can possibly keep track of. But if you’ve got a moment, I’d like to steer you to a recording of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony that won’t win any sonic beauty contests, but makes for rewarding listening, anyhow. You could shell out cash for a commercial 2-CD set, but the European Archive will give it to you for nothing:

No brilliant sound here, but there is a lot to learn. The recording dates from 1923/24 (the exact date remains a mystery). The ensemble is the Berlin State Opera orchestra, formerly the Court Opera Orchestra. The conductor is Oskar Fried. To say he lived a very interesting life is a huge understatement.

Fried was raised in a large family by his shopkeeper parents. Money was a problem, so he was apprenticed to a suburban band at the age of nine. There he was overworked, not just playing light music, but doing manual labour between gigs. A hard school, but he came out of it a decent percussionist and an even better horn player. Shoestring tours took him east as far as Russia, but he jumped ship in Frankfurt at age 19. There he was destitute, living on occasional employment with the Palmgarten Orchestra, when he came face to face with one of the nicest human beings you could meet: Engelbert Humperdinck. As his biographer wrote, “Fried met him and took instruction from him. At least what one could call instruction in Fried’s case. His early unstable life, which had treated him roughly, had not left him with much desire to be a model academic pupil.” Humperdinck did better than that, giving Fried meals and lodging when needed and charging no fee for lessons (it’s no mystery why a gang of young composers, including Hans Pfitzner, gravitated to Humperdinck’s house at the time). Fried was grateful; his Lieder Cycle, Op. 3 is dedicated “in unqualified devotion to his teacher Engelbert Humperdinck.” But with his sketchy background of music study, all his talent and imagination were sunk by his impatience to create something immediately. So he wandered from Frankfurt to Düsseldorf, from Munich to Paris. In Berlin shortly before the turn of the century he left music behind and turned to breeding dogs (work in a stable and as a clown have also been rumored).

He could have disappeared off the map then. Instead Fried was acclaimed suddenly as a conductor of genius. But his life remained a roller coaster ride. This 1928 photo with Ravel and Gershwin at Ravel’s birthday party in New York shows him at a high. Fried is standing left, Gershwin right, and Ravel seated. A deep low occurred just a few years later when Fried, a Jew, fled Germany after murderous National Socialist thugs took power in 1933. He headed east, unfortunately exchanging one dictator for another when he landed at the Tbilisi Opera in Soviet Georgia. He died in uncertain circumstances in 1941.

For the above recording 1905 was the most important year in Fried’s biography. It was then that Fried had a fateful meeting with Gustav Mahler, and conducted a Berlin performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony that made him a podium star overnight. Bruno Walter was the closest of Mahler’s lieutenants, but Oskar Fried and Otto Klemperer also remained loyal disciples through Mahler’s death. It is no accident that Fried’s version was the first complete Mahler 2nd ever to be recorded.

Now for the horns. Fried’s Berlin State Opera hornists in 1923 or 1924 included the talented Paul Rembt (a star pupil of Würzburg Conservatory’s Josef Lindner, an influential B flat horn fan) and quite possibly Willem Valkenier on 1st and 3rd (uncertain because Valkenier left for Boston after the 1922/23 season), and hornists by the names of Böttcher, Einsel, Mössert, Stengl, and Viek filled out the section (if you want more detail on the recording than just the horn section, you can view David Pickett’s fine discussion at )

Just one more hornist left to name. The conductor of the choirs on this recording, Hugo Ruedel, was another former horn player. He’d studied with Fritz Lehmann at the Berlin Conservatory before stints on first horn with Cologne’s Guerzenich Orchestra and the Court Opera Orchestra in Berlin (where he was also Professor of horn at the Conservatory). Having picked up piano and conducting skills along the way, he began conducting the Berlin Opera Chorus in 1899 and took over the Bayreuth Festival Chorus in 1906. But, like they say about Marines, once a horn player, always a horn player. His conducting boss at the Berlin Opera was Richard Strauss, and together they published editions of Franz Strauss’ Posthumous Works for Horn in 1905 and 1909. Ruedel would have been a very interested listener to his former colleagues in the horn section when the old hornist Oskar Fried gave the downbeat for this first Mahler 2nd recording session. And if you’re willing to ease yourself into the nearly 90 year old sonics, you can listen in, too.

Bill Melton

University of Horn Matters