b. Ebersbach, Germany, April 12, 1821
d. New York, August 16, 1876
Carl Bergmann, trained as a cellist, began his conducting career at an early age, having led many major European orchestras by the age of 20. Motivated by his implication in the 1848 revolutions in Vienna, Bergmann immigrated to Boston as first cellist in the Germania Musical Society, a touring orchestra of young German refugees. When its conductor resigned that same year, Bergmann took over. During this period, Bergmann directed the Society in performances with the Handel and Haydn Society, including the Boston premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and was also invited to direct the Chicago Philharmonic Society, where he stayed for only two concerts.
When the Germania Musical Society disbanded in 1854, Bergmann left for New York City and began his two-decade association with the Philharmonic as a replacement for the ailing Theodore Eisfeld on April 21, 1855, with 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.” The concert was so successful that the Philharmonic’s directors invited him to be the sole conductor for the 1855–56 season. After Eisfeld’s return from Germany, the two shared the position until 1865, when Eisfeld resigned; Bergmann continued alone until failing health and alcoholism compelled him to resign in March 1876.
Carl Bergmann’s importance was twofold. As a conductor, he helped shape the New York Philharmonic into a great orchestra, boosting its size from 58 to 81 musicians. Additionally, 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 Philharmonic regularly championed the music of Wagner, Liszt, Berlioz, Schumann, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. In 1862, the Orchestra 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.