One of a group of Hungarian-born orchestral conductors who shaped American musical life in the decades on either side of World War II, Fritz Reiner (1888–1963) brought American orchestras in Cincinnati, Ohio, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Chicago, Illinois, to new levels of competence during his years of autocratic rule.
Reiner was a perfectionist and, some said, a sadist. Notorious for losing his temper in rehearsals, he berated players who he felt did lot live up to his high standards, and he did not fail to back up his words with actions; in a time when the will of orchestral conductors reigned supreme, he fired players without hesitation. A player in the Pittsburgh Symphony, where Reiner conducted in the 1930s, was quoted (by Michael Anthony of the Minneapolis Star Tribune) as saying that "his look was like a stigmata. It could turn a fellow to stone." The results of Reiner's blustery discipline, though, were spectacular; leading the Chicago Symphony on a series of recordings made during the early years of the high-fidelity LP record, he created an orchestral sound so precise, detailed, and lush that many of the recordings were reissued on compact disc and remained in print half a century later.
Heard Hungarian Rhythms
Reiner was born on December 19, 1888, in Budapest, at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. His family was Jewish but was highly assimilated into Hungarian society, and he later converted to Catholicism. Reiner grew up speaking both Hungarian and German, and he used different forms of his name according to his linguistic situation; when he studied at the Budapest Academy of Music between 1898 and 1908, he was Reiner Frigyes, following the Hungarian custom of putting the family name first. He was interested in music from a very early age and was encouraged by his mother, especially after it was discovered that he could play through major orchestral works on the piano from memory. He made his concert debut as a pianist in a performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 26 at age nine, enrolling at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music the following year. The young composer Béla Bartók, who had made pioneering studies of Eastern folk music, was one of Reiner's teachers, and it is possible that Reiner's later skill in conducting rhythmically difficult contemporary works had roots in his early exposure to Hungarian folk rhythms.
Going along with pressure to follow his father into the legal profession, Reiner studied law at the University of Budapest. He turned to music after his father's death. Reiner supported himself partly by teaching music, and one of his students got an early taste of his famous temper: she reported that he threw volumes of music around the studio. He quickly landed conducting jobs after finishing his schooling at the Academy, starting out as a rehearsal coach at the Comic Opera of Budapest and then becoming, at age 22, conductor of the Landestheater (Regional Theater) of Laibach (now Ljubljana, Slovenia). He also led symphony performances there.
Returning to Budapest to take a post of the Volksoper (the People's Opera House), he became enamored with the gigantic operas of German composer Richard Wagner, which at the time could only be performed at the theater Wagner had built in Bayreuth, Germany. Reiner organized a performance of Parsifal in Budapest and mounted it the day after the opera's original copyright expired. Gaining more and more attention as a conductor, Reiner moved on to the central German city of Dresden, becoming city music director, conductor of the Saxon State Orchestra, and a much-in-demand opera conductor. He became friends with composer Richard Strauss and would later specialize in Strauss's huge orchestral works. He was also inspired by Hungarian-born conductor Artur Nikisch, whose minimal arm movements he imitated.
Those minimal arm movements became one of Reiner's trademarks; he could control the baton with tiny flicks of his wrist. Orchestral players sometimes complained that they were hard to see, and one musician in the Pittsburgh Symphony invited the ax by bringing a telescope with him to a rehearsal one day. But Reiner maintained that his technique actually compelled close attention to his direction on the part of the musicians. He stressed the importance of using the eyes as well as the arms in conducting, making eye contact with players and giving them cues. Reiner was well-liked in Dresden, remaining there until 1921. He married twice, had two children, and seemed to have been settling into a secure position. But he wrangled with the orchestra's management and resigned his position so that he could pursue other opportunities. Reiner was often restless, and among the top rank of conductors he held an unusually large number of positions over his long career.
Moved to Cincinnati
American orchestras were growing by that time, and Reiner was already receiving attention from agents anxious to lure him across the ocean. Vacationing in Italy with his wife, Reiner was tracked down by two of them and accepted an offer from one, a German-born representative of the Cincinnati Symphony. Reiner took to the podium in Cincinnati in the fall of 1921, and it was not long before he was arguing over pay for recording sessions with the symphony's board. Reiner took a meat ax to the orchestra's established roster and went about building his orchestra. By 1926, of the orchestra's 92 players, he had hired all but 26 of them. Compounding fears about employment security for the players was Reiner's often abusive attitude (with criticism dished out in German, Italian, and English); one local writer quoted by Reiner biographer Philip Hart noted dryly that "Any day on which he failed to lose his temper was a day on which he was actually too sick to conduct."
The changes Reiner made quickly showed results, however. After an initial plan to take the orchestra to perform in New York fizzled, Reiner led the group on several East Coast tours in the late 1920s. The orchestra's concerts in Cincinnati were widely heard on the powerful radio station WLW, building a strong following around the Midwest. Reiner's programming was adventurous. His carefully chiseled interpretations clarified dense symphonic works, and he programmed Bartók's music even as other American orchestras were turning it down on the grounds that it was too difficult. Reiner also showed a commitment to the music of his adopted country, becoming one of the first major symphony conductors to champion the crossover music of George Gershwin. Gershwin performed his Rhapsody in Blue and Piano Concerto in F under Reiner's baton in Cincinnati in March of 1928. Reiner became an American citizen that year.
In the spring of 1930 Reiner divorced his second wife, Berta, in order to marry actress Carlotta Irwin. The marriage was a happy one and endured for the rest of Reiner's life, but at the time, in conservative Cincinnati, it caused a scandal. Reiner was forced to resign as conductor after subscriptions plummeted. For much of the 1930s he taught at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, making frequent trips to conduct opera performances. In London he conducted the first performance of the legendary Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad as Isolde in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, and at home in Philadelphia he conducted the premiere of Gian-Carlo Menotti's Amelia Goes to the Ball. Among Reiner's students was Leonard Bernstein, whose athletic leaps on the podium represented the polar opposite of Reiner's style. Yet Bernstein (according to Hart) felt that "Reiner was responsible for my own very high standards."
After several years of searching for a new symphonic post, Reiner was hired as music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony in 1938. He once again went on a firing spree, replacing 90 percent of the orchestra's personnel over his first three years at the helm. Players joked that at his own funeral, he would fire some of the pallbearers. But some members of Reiner's old Cincinnati Symphony, knowing that a high-quality musical experience was guaranteed despite all the abuse, followed him to Pittsburgh, and Reiner once again helped an only moderately well-known orchestra make its mark. Reiner led the Pittsburgh Symphony to its first recording contract (with the Columbia label) in 1941, and his programming in Pittsburgh testified to both his skill and his variety of interests; over ten years he conducted more than 500 works, at least half of them for the first time. A 1947 ranking of American symphony orchestras put Pittsburgh's in first place in both the amount of new music and the amount of American music programmed, and Reiner could claim credit.
Returned to Opera Pit
It was financial disputes once again that led to Reiner's departure from Pittsburgh, in 1948. He moved to New York and was signed to conduct a series of performances at the Metropolitan Opera, making a splash with his debut in 1949 with a performance of Richard Strauss's Salome; the performance featured soprano Ljuba Welitsch in the title role and is considered one of the great moments in Met history. Leading 113 performances over five years, Reiner confirmed his reputation as one of the opera world's conducting luminaries. His talents ran from the lush, decadent Salome to Igor Stravinsky's dry The Rake's Progress, which Reiner conducted in its first Met performance. Critics split hairs over whether Reiner was superior as an operatic or as a symphonic conductor, but he approached each task with the same rigor and perfectionist spirit.
In 1953 Reiner was hired as conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, remaining in the post until 1962. The Chicago Symphony was an organization with a long history, already ranked among the country's top ensembles, and Reiner cut less of a swath through the group of established players there than he had in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. He continued to challenge audiences with new music and also to challenge himself—even in his old age, about one-third of the roughly 500 works he conducted in Chicago were pieces he had not previously known. Reiner liked to shut himself away to study new scores closely, and in the case of a large Wagner opera he might meditate for years on parts of it before announcing that he was ready to perform it.
Feared by musicians, Reiner was respected by his fellow conductors. "To his colleagues he was a conductor's conductor …," noted Harold C. Schonberg in The Great Conductors. He was "a musician of formidable background and knowledge who could do anything with an orchestra. In certain kinds of contemporary music … he had a stupendous ability to clarify the most complicated writing. A score like Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin came out with titanic surges of sound and wild (but perfectly controlled) rhythms, and with textures that in their clarity and balances were positively Mozartean." Reiner's recordings in Chicago, released on the RCA label in top-notch recorded sound, remained strong sellers even after a new generation of conductors and sound engineers had come to the fore.
Reiner suffered from heart problems over his last few years in Chicago, and it was probably because of those that he canceled a major tour of Western and Eastern Europe with the Chicago Symphony in 1960—a decision that caused an uproar in Chicago, for the crossing of the Iron Curtain into the Communist world would have marked a major breakthrough for the orchestra. After several years of part-time conducting, Reiner left his post in Chicago in 1962. He was appointed musical advisor at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and signed to conduct a new performance of Wagner's The Twilight of the Gods, but he contracted pneumonia and died in New York on November 15, 1963.
Hart, Philip, Fritz Reiner, Northwestern University Press, 1994.
International Dictionary of Opera, St. James, 1993.
Morgan, Kenneth, Fritz Reiner, Maestro and Martinet, University of Illinois Press, 2004.
Schonberg, Harold C., The Great Conductors, Simon and Schuster, 1967.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 22, 2006.
Sensible Sound, January-February 2005.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), August 22, 2004.
"Fritz Reiner," Chicago Symphony Orchestra, http://www.cso.org/main.taf?p=7,3,1,4,6 (January 26, 2006).
"Reiner, Fritz." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/reiner-fritz
"Reiner, Fritz." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved May 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/reiner-fritz
"Reiner, Fritz." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/reiner-fritz
"Reiner, Fritz." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Retrieved May 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/reiner-fritz
Fritz Reiner (rīn´ər), 1888–1963, American conductor, b. Budapest. After serving as conductor of the People's Opera in Budapest (1911–14) and the Court Opera in Dresden (1914–21), he came (1922) to the United States as conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony (1922–31). He was later musical director of the Pittsburgh Symphony (1938–48), the Metropolitan Opera (1948–53), and the Chicago Symphony (1953–62). He was known for his ruthless insistence on precision and clarity.
"Reiner, Fritz." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/reiner-fritz
"Reiner, Fritz." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved May 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/reiner-fritz