Oskar Fried (1871-1941).

Gustav Mahler and Oskar Fried (1871-1941) standing in front of a photo of Arthur Nikisch (1855-1922). Photo Mahler/Fried taken 08-11-1905 in Berlin.

Oskar Fried was a German conductor and composer. An admirer of Gustav Mahler, Fried was the first conductor to record a Mahler symphony. Fried also held the distinction of being the first foreign conductor to perform in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution. He eventually left his homeland to work in the Soviet Union after the political rise of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party, and became a Soviet citizen in 1940.

Born in Berlin, the son of a Jewish shopkeeper, he worked as a clown, a stable boy and a dog trainer before studying composition with Iwan Knorr (1891–92, Hoch Conservatory) and Engelbert Humperdinck (as private student) in Frankfurt. He later moved to Düsseldorf to study painting and art history. After a spell in Paris, he returned to Berlin in 1898 to study counterpoint with Xaver Scharwenka.

The performance of his composition Das trunkene Lied (“The Drunken Song”) for chorus and orchestra brought Fried his first public success and led to his appointment in 1904 as the conductor of a Berlin choral society.

  • 1905 Vienna: Oscar Fried first met Gustav Mahler;
  • 08-11-1905 Berlin: The meeting in Vienna resulted in an invitation to conduct Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony in Berlin 08-11-1905. As a conductor, Oskar Fried was not a great technician; but he was highly devoted to the music of Mahler. It was at Mahler’s own suggestion that Fried conducted a performance of the Second Symphony in Berlin. Mahler attended the dress rehearsal and, according to Otto Klemperer, who was in charge of the offstage band, gave Fried a last-minute coaching in the tempi and style of the work between the rehearsal and the performance;
  • 1906 St Petersburg: Oscar Fried introduced Russia to Mahler’s music when he performed the same work in St Petersburg;
  • 1907 Berlin: to 1910, Fried directed a choral society known as the Sternscher Gesangverein in Berlin;
  • 1913 Berlin: Fried conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in the second performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony;

Oskar Fried (1871-1941).

The first recording of a Mahler Sympony (No.2), 1923 or 1924

In 1923 or 1924, Fried recorded the symphony. This was an extremely adventurous undertaking for an acoustic recording. Not only was it made entirely without the benefit of microphones, but at 83 minutes it was also the longest piece of music to have been recorded up to that time. Despite the natural limitations of acoustic recording, the recording is highly successful and can only have been achieved by means of careful planning and experimentation.

Balance is generally satisfactory, with the exception of a couple of places in the first movement, such as the oboe at bar 131, and the flute and solo violin in bars 217 – 221. As is normal for acoustic recordings, the tuba can sometimes be heard helping out the bassline and the percussion instruments are the most compromised. While the timpani sound good and are well tuned, the cymbals, when audible, sound more like a slapstick. In the Scherzo, the Ruthe (a birch brush used to tap the rim of the bass drum) clearly had to be brought close to the recording horn, and the triangle was replaced by pitched tubular bells that in places are startlingly loud.

In making the first-ever recording of a Mahler symphony, Fried must surely have tried to follow the detailed advice that Mahler gave him about it nearly twenty years earlier:

  • Fried is the only conductor that I have heard on recordings who follows Mahler’s instructions to the letter at bar 235 of the first movement (Immer noch etwas vorwärts — always pressing forward ). Other conductors stay in tempo from this point for the next eight bars, whereas Fried rushes headlong into the abyss, fully justifying the climax and disintegration that follow. The tempo at the beginning of this extract is approximately M.M. 72 for the minim (half-note). By the end of the passage Fried has reached approximately M.M. 108 — an increase of 50%.
  • It is noticeable that Fried assigns bars 601 – 611 of the finale to the contralto, rather than the soprano specified in the score. Mahler had suggested to Fried that he did this for his Berlin concert, writing to him: “I always have this passage sung by the soloist whose voice is best suited to the music…” After the contralto entry in bars 560 – 587 (O glaube, mein Herz), there is a brief interlude and the next entry (O glaube: Du wardst nicht umsonst geboren!) is clearly sung by the same contralto singer (Emmy Leisner).


In 1922, he went to the USSR as the first foreign conductor invited to perform after the Russian Revolution, and was greeted by Lenin on the station platform. In 1924, he made the first recording of any Mahler symphony, the Second, with the Berlin Staatskapelle in a performance that has been praised as “remarkably successful” and a “highly adventurous undertaking for an acoustic recording” which required “careful planning and experimentation”. That same year, he also made the first recording of any complete Bruckner symphony: his Seventh.

In November 1927, at the invitation of the BBC programme planner and his own former student Edward Clark, he made his British conducting debut, in a program of Weber, Brahms and Liszt in London.

Birthday party honoring Maurice Ravel in New York, 08-03-1928. From left to rigt: Oskar Fried (1871-1941), Eva Gauthier, Joseph Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) (at the piano), Manoah Leide-Tedesco and George Gershwin.

Driven from Germany by the anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime in 1934, he emigrated to the Georgian city of Tbilisi in the Soviet Union. He conducted the Tbilisi opera and later the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, eventually becoming a Soviet citizen. He died in Moscow in 1941.


Oskar Fried showed strong musical ability as a child, learning to play the piano, violin and horn. Coming from a humble background he was soon encouraged to earn money through his musical skills, which he did by playing in amateur orchestras in Berlin. He left Berlin for Frankfurt in 1889, where he initially played the horn in the Palmgarten Orchestra before joining the orchestra of the Frankfurt Opera House and taking composition lessons with Engelbert Humperdinck. He wrote an orchestral fantasy based on Humperdinck’s best-known work, the opera Hänsel und Gretel, and also made piano and orchestral arrangements of the same work for Schott music publishers. Fried also spent some time in Munich, where he was given tuition and advice by several musicians, including Hermann Levi. His first major composition, a setting of Richard Dehmel’s Verklärte Nacht for mezzo, tenor and orchestra, appeared in 1901, not long after Arnold Schoenberg’s 1899 work of that name for string sextet, inspired by the same text. More compositional studies followed with Scharwenka in Berlin, where Fried enjoyed great acclaim in 1904 when Karl Muck (1859-1940) conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Wagnerverein Chorus in his setting of Nietzsche’s Das trunkene Lied, taken from Also Sprach Zarathustra. He followed this with another Dehmel setting, Erntelied for male chorus and orchestra.

Also in 1904 Fried began to conduct, initially with the Stern Choral Society, where Otto Klemperer was the accompanist and his deputy. Having scored a major success with the choir in 1905 in a performance of Liszt’s Die Legende von der Heiligen Elisabeth, he was as a result invited to conduct the Neuen Konzerte in Berlin, and in the same year directed a highly praised performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 ‘Resurrection’, in which Klemperer conducted the offstage band. Mahler himself was in the audience for this performance and commented afterwards that he could not have conducted the scherzo movement any better. At this performance Fried evidently ran out of rehearsal time, and before the actual performance said to the members of the orchestra, ‘This evening I shall use entirely different tempi. Please follow me,’ thus giving some idea of contemporary attitudes to performance.

Fried was now establishing himself as a conductor: in Berlin he conducted the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde between 1907 and 1910 and the Blüthner Orchestra from 1908. His contemporaries admired his discipline and his knowledge of orchestral instruments, and his programmes were resolutely contemporary: he was the only German conductor to consistently introduce new works to Berlin during the first twenty years of the last century. Included in his concerts were works by, amongst others, Busoni, Delius, Pfitzner, Scriabin, Schoenberg and Richard Strauss; it was to Fried that Busoni dedicated his Nocturne Symphonique of 1912. Fried also studied all the symphonies of Mahler with the composer himself, conducting the Berlin premières of the Symphonies Nos 6 (1906) and 8 ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ (1910).

As Fried’s reputation grew, so the international demand for his services as a conductor also increased to the point where in 1913 he decided to give up composition altogether. In the same year he, together with a number of other contemporary conductors, was invited by the Messler Film Company of Berlin to conduct on the relatively new medium of silent film; but whereas the other conductors were asked to direct short overtures, Fried was invited to perform complete Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Evidently this film made a strong impression upon anther major contemporary conductor, Felix Weingartner, himself a noted exponent of this work. After World War I, Fried’s advocacy of the music of Mahler continued and in 1920 he conducted a complete cycle of the symphonies in Vienna. The following year, having previously led the first Russian performance of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony in St Petersburg in 1906, he was personally welcomed to Russia by Lenin as the first major musician from the West to visit the new socialist state. He went on to make more than twenty more visits.

With growing competition in the recording industry, Fried was invited to record several large-scale works by the German Polydor company. These included the first recordings, made in 1924, of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, Richard Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie, and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7, with the orchestra of the Berlin State Opera, the Berlin Staatskapelle; he also set down established repertoire such as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 and Brahms’s Symphony No. 1. The appearance by Fried on the Polydor label, alongside other major German musicians of the period such as Richard Strauss, Hans Pfitzner and Wilhelm Furtwängler, consolidated his reputation. He founded and conducted the Berlin Symphony Orchestra (actually the Blüthner Orchestra in other guise) during the 1925 and 1926 seasons and subsequently toured throughout Europe, the USSR and the United States. He continued his association with Polydor, in 1928 recording a memorable account with the Berlin Staatskapelle of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 ‘Choral’, to rival Weingartner’s first recording, made in 1926, of the same work for the Columbia label. Other recordings from this period for Polydor included powerful accounts of Liszt’s Les Préludes and Mazeppa and the Suite from Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird, all with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Fried also recorded Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 ‘Pathétique’, with the Orchestra of the Royal Philharmonic Society for Columbia.

The rise to power in 1933 in Germany of the National Socialist Party, with its racist policies, made it impossible for Fried, a Jew, to remain in that country. Unlike the majority of musicians in the same predicament he chose to go east rather than west, settling in Moscow in 1934. He was soon appointed chief conductor of the Tiflis Opera, and ended his career as chief conductor of the USSR State Symphony Orchestra. A recording of a 1937 broadcast of Fried conducting this orchestra in a performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique testifies to his continuing and extraordinary powers as an interpreter of Romantic orchestral music. He became a Soviet citizen in 1941, the year of his death.

Otto Klemperer described Fried as ‘a brilliant conductor and an extremely gifted composer’. His style of conducting may seem unrestrained to the modern ear, but perhaps less so to the ears of his contemporaries, to whom abrupt tempo fluctuations, consistent application of subtle rubato, and strong dynamic contrasts were all more common in performance. Fried frequently changed his interpretations, experimenting constantly. His recordings demonstrate clearly the individuality of interpretation, typified by great flexibility of phrasing, that flourished up to the middle of the last century and by which musicians were judged before the concept of the ‘single definitive performance’ arose, itself a product of the developing marketing strategies of the recording industry.

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