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George Szell

George Szell: A Life of Music

Michael Charry
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 464
  • Book Info
    George Szell
    Book Description:

    This book is the first full biography of George Szell, one of the greatest orchestra and opera conductors of the twentieth century. From child prodigy pianist and composer to world-renowned conductor, Szell's career spanned seven decades, and he led most of the great orchestras and opera companies of the world, including the New York Philharmonic, the NBC and Chicago Symphonies, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and Opera, and the Concertgebouw Orchestra. A protege of composer-conductor Richard Strauss at the Berlin State Opera, his crowning achievement was his twenty-four-year tenure as musical director of the Cleveland Orchestra. Under Szell's baton, the orchestra developed into one of the world's greatest ensembles, recording extensively and touring triumphantly in the United States, Europe, the Soviet Union, South Korea, and Japan._x000B__x000B_Michael Charry, a conductor who worked with Szell and interviewed him, his family, and his associates over several decades, draws on this first-hand material and correspondence, orchestra records, reviews, and other archival sources to construct a lively and balanced portrait of Szell's life and work from his birth in 1897 in Budapest to his death in 1970 in Cleveland._x000B__x000B_Readers will follow Szell from his career in Europe, Great Britain, and Australia to his guest conducting at the New York Philharmonic and his distinguished tenure at the Metropolitan Opera and Cleveland Orchestra. Charry details Szell's personal and musical qualities, his recordings and broadcast concerts, his approach to the great works of the orchestral repertoire, and his famous orchestrational changes and interpretation of the symphonies of Robert Schumann. The book also lists Szell's conducting repertoire and includes a comprehensive discography._x000B__x000B_In highlighting Szell's legacy as a teacher and mentor as well as his contributions to orchestral and opera history, this biography will be of lasting interest to concert-goers, music lovers, conductors, musicians inspired by Szell's many great performances, and new generations who will come to know those performances through Szell's recorded legacy.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09310-4
    Subjects: Music, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xix-xx)
  6. Chronology
    (pp. xxi-xxiv)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-2)

    When George Szell died in 1970, Irving Kolodin wrote, “The size of his figure will grow as time recedes and the magnitude of his accomplishment emerges in ever greater grandeur against its background.” Szell, born in 1897, was one of the greatest orchestra and opera conductors of his time. He has been the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine articles. This is his first biography.

    Szell’s most significant life accomplishment was as musical director of the Cleveland orchestra. He raised it from the ranks of respected second-tier ensembles to the highest level of world class. The Szell/Cleveland Orchestra combination is...

  8. 1 The New Mozart (1897–1929)
    (pp. 3-22)

    At one o’clock in the afternoon on June 7, 1897, György Endre Szél was born in Budapest, Hungary, the only child of Kálman and Malvin Szél.¹ Kálman Szél, a successful businessman, called himself an “entrepreneur.” He was born in Marczali, in Somogyi County, south of the great lake Balaton. György’s mother hailed from Ipolyság, northwest of Budapest on the Ipoly River, which formed a border with Slovakia. After World War I, Slovakia, Moravia, and Bohemia were joined to form Czechoslovakia. The connection to this area in which many ethnic Czechs lived formed the basis of Szell’s later claim to Czech...

  9. 2 The Conductor Spreads His Wings (1930–38)
    (pp. 23-41)

    In the spring of 1927, George Szell was on the staff of the Berlin State Opera and beginning his tenure as professor at the Hochschule für Musik. At the same time, an American orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony, was searching for a new conductor. By the time Szell became a leading candidate in that search, he had become musical head of the German Opera House in Prague.

    The St. Louis Symphony was looking forward to celebrating its golden jubilee fiftieth anniversary season in 1929–30, but all was not well. The orchestra faced artistic and financial crises. It was in...

  10. 3 Musical Pioneering in Australia (1938, 1939)
    (pp. 42-55)

    Szell received an invitation from the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC, now the Australian Broadcasting Corporation) to lead the Celebrity Concerts, the most prestigious subscription series of their winter season, with five of their orchestras from May to August 1938. They would take place in the major cities of Melbourne and Sydney, as well as in Brisbane, Adelaide, and Perth. The orchestras were conducted by resident Australian conductors and distinguished guests from Great Britain and the Continent, such as Maurice De Abravanel (as Maurice Abravanel was then known), Hamilton Harty, George Schneevoigt, and Malcolm Sargent.

    Szell’s musical life was divided between...

  11. 4 New World, New Beginnings (1939–46)
    (pp. 56-77)

    The luxury linerAorangilanded in Vancouver on August 25, 1939, and the Szells made their way to New York City. Friends from Prague lived in an apartment building at 7 Park Avenue, and by October the Szells were settled there.¹

    Szell immediately took in New York’s concert life. On October 21, he wrote to Henri Temianka, his “dear old friend,” then living in California: “Your limericks were properlyschweinisch,” using a term of their old familiar banter, “but by far not soschweinischas a performance of the 7th Beethoven by my Glasgow predecessor [John Barbirolli, conductor of the...

  12. 5 Cleveland: Contest and Commitment (1942–47)
    (pp. 78-104)

    The Cleveland Orchestra’s twenty-fifth anniversary season, 1942–43, was Artur Rodzinski’s tenth with the orchestra, a double cause for celebration. Instead, the orchestra faced a major disappointment: Rodzinski announced that he would be leaving Cleveland after the season to succeed John Barbirolli at the New York Philharmonic. A search for a new conductor began.

    Hiring an American conductor received considerable support, as the president of the board of trustees of the Musical Arts Association, Thomas Sidlo, acknowledged: “We’d like nothing so much as to engage an American, but the number of available American conductors with the proper experience is very...

  13. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  14. 6 Szell, the Orchestra Builder (1947–54)
    (pp. 105-140)

    Szell was a hands-on musical director in Cleveland, involving himself in every aspect of the orchestra’s operation. To make the orchestra “second to none,” he devoted as much time and hard work as necessary. Szell’s talent, experience, and energy well equipped him for the task.

    He had the full support of the board’s president, Thomas Sidlo, and the orchestra’s capable manager, Carl J. Vosburgh. Sidlo kept the trustees informed of Szell’s accomplishments and guided their decisions to meet his musical needs. Year-round, Szell, Vosburgh, and George Henry Lovett Smith, the manager’s assistant, remained in constant communication. No detail was too...

  15. 7 George Szell and Rudolf Bing (1953–54)
    (pp. 141-148)

    In 1948, a year after the Glyndebourne fiasco, Bing sounded Szell out about the possibility of his and the Cleveland Orchestra’s participation in the Edinburgh Festival. It did not work out, but no hard feelings arose. So it was not entirely surprising that a few years later, Bing invited Szell to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera, of which Bing had become general manager in 1950.

    Szell was not Bing’s first choice for the Met, but Bing found himself in a bind. He had tried unsuccessfully to engage other leading conductors for his fourth Met season, 1953–54, including Erich Kleiber,...

  16. 8 Keeping the Promise: “Second to None” (1954–57)
    (pp. 149-171)

    George Szell began 1954 in Cleveland with an all-orchestral program: Beethoven’sLeonoreOverture no.3 and Symphony no. 8, and tchaikovsky’sPathétiqueSymphony. In the audience were the participants in a ten-day conducting workshop, a project of the American Symphony Orchestra League, supported by a grant from the Kulas Foundation. The workshop aimed to provide up to thirty conductors the opportunity to observe a major professional orchestra in operation, to hone their skills in baton technique, and to deepen their understanding of the repertoire. They attended ten orchestra rehearsals, four concerts, and two chorus rehearsals. The attendees themselves conducted the orchestra...

  17. 9 The Golden Years (1957–65)
    (pp. 172-222)

    The 1957 European tour had been phenomenally successful. Cleveland could now believe that its orchestra was the equal of the best in the world. This was not just local pride, but a fact. Through Szell’s training and his addition of great players, the orchestra had become a great instrument.

    At his apartment in New York in late September, Szell auditioned a prospective violinist.¹ First-chair musicians were, naturally, critically important. Szell chose them with care not only for their musical excellence, but also for their attitude and leadership potential. He selected section players just as carefully; audiences might not note their...

  18. 10 The Cleveland Orchestra in the World (1965–68)
    (pp. 223-253)

    The exchange of performing artists, including soloists, dance companies, and orchestras, played a role in the post–World War II world ideological struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. The American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA), which had managed the Cleveland Orchestra European tour in 1957, had come under the new Cultural Presentations Program of the United States Department of State. The Boston Symphony Orchestra (1956), the Philadelphia Orchestra (1958), and the New York Philharmonic (1959) had already visited the Soviet Union. For its tour in 1965, the State Department chose the Cleveland Orchestra from seven organizations proposed...

  19. 11 Summers at Home
    (pp. 254-269)

    Szell had firsthand experience with the summer activities of many American orchestras. In the 1940s, he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival, and the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Robin Hood Dell. In 1943 and 1945, he conducted the New York Philharmonic in the first and third of its three wartime summer seasons at Carnegie Hall. And later he conducted in at least one summer season at the Lewisohn Stadium.¹ He never conducted the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood, but knew of Koussevitzky’s brainchild in the Berkshires.² When he took charge of...

  20. 12 Finale: Cleveland, Japan, Korea, Anchorage, Cleveland (1968–70)
    (pp. 270-288)

    George Szell had reached the pinnacle of his career: the Cleveland Orchestra was universally acknowledged to be among the greatest, and the Blossom Music Center was a brilliant success. Szell and the orchestra continued to record for both Columbia and Angel Records, and the syndicated broadcast concerts were enrolling an increasing number of stations nationwide. The international tours of 1965 and 1967 had solidified the West’s high perception of the orchestra. Szell was in demand as a guest conductor with the majority of the greatest European orchestras, and he guided the New York Philharmonic while it sought a successor for...

  21. Epilogue
    (pp. 289-290)

    A month after Szell’s death, Irving Kolodin, who had reviewed Szell concerts over the years and had written the script for the 1966 Bell telephone Hour featuring Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, prophesied Szell’s future place in the pantheon of musicians: “The size of his figure,” Kolodin wrote, “will grow as time recedes and the magnitude of his accomplishment emerges in ever greater grandeur against its background.”¹

    Szell’s achievement with the Cleveland Orchestra will associate him with that ensemble for all time. Shortly after Szell died, a concert review by Frank Hruby bore a telling headline: “Szell’s Spirit Hovers over...

  22. In Szell’s Words
    (pp. 291-294)
  23. APPENDIX A. On the 150th Anniversary of Schumann’s Birth
    (pp. 295-298)
  24. APPENDIX B. Staff and Kulas Foundation Conductors under George Szell
    (pp. 299-300)
  25. APPENDIX C. Apprentice Conductor Qualifications
    (pp. 301-302)
  26. APPENDIX D. 1957 European Tour Repertoire
    (pp. 303-304)
  27. APPENDIX E. 1965 European Tour Repertoire
    (pp. 305-306)
  28. APPENDIX F. Szell’s Repertoire
    (pp. 307-330)
  29. Discography
    (pp. 331-354)
  30. Notes
    (pp. 355-396)
  31. Bibliography
    (pp. 397-398)
  32. Index
    (pp. 399-412)
  33. Back Matter
    (pp. 413-422)