b. Ebersbach, Germany, April 12, 1821
d. New York, August 16, 1876
Carl Bergmann, trained as a cellist, emigrated to New York in 1849, in the wake of the German Revolution the previous year. He joined the Germania Musical Society, a touring orchestra of other German immigrants, and settled in New York when they disbanded in 1854. He began his two-decade association with the Philharmonic as a replacement for the ailing Theodore Eisfeld on April 21, 1855, a concert that included a daring performance of the radical, new Overture to Tannhäuser by Wagner. Theodore Thomas, who later would also conduct the Philharmonic, recalled the performance in his autobiography as one that “shook up the dry bones and made the dust fly.” That one ovation by musicians, the public, and critics essentially made Bergmann’s career, and the Orchestra’s directors invited him to conduct all of the next season’s concerts. Bergmann and Eisfeld then shared the position until the latter retired in 1865; Bergmann continued alone until failing health compelled him to resign in March 1876.
Carl Bergmann’s importance was two-fold. As a conductor, he helped shape the New York Philharmonic into a great orchestra, and as an evangelist for “modern” music, he helped forge audiences’ ideas about the orchestral canon. Bergmann conducted the first American staging of a complete Wagner opera—Tannhäuser—on April 4, 1859 at the German-language Stadt-theater in New York. Under Bergmann’s baton, the New York Philharmonic Society regularly championed the music of Wagner, Liszt, Berlioz, Schumann, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. In 1862, they gave one of the earliest American performances of Brahms’s Second Serenade and four years later introduced New York audiences to Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan und Isolde.