Szell, George (actually, György)

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Szell, George (actually, György)

Szell, George (actually, György), greatly distinguished Hungarian-born American conductor; b. Budapest, June 7, 1897; d. Cleveland, July 30, 1970. His family moved to Vienna when he was a small child. He studied piano with Richard Robert and composition with Mandyczewski; also composition in Prague with J.B. Foerster. He played a Mozart piano concerto with the Vienna Sym. Orch. when he was 10 years old, and the orch. also performed an overture of his composition. At the age of 17, he led the Berlin Phil. in an ambitious program that included a symphonic work of his own. In 1915 he was engaged as an asst. conductor at the Royal Opera of Berlin; then conducted opera in Strasbourg (1917-18), Prague (1919-21), Darmstadt (1921-22), and Düsseldorf (1922-24). He held the position of first conductor at the Berlin State Opera (1924-29); then conducted in Prague and Vienna. He made his U.S. debut as guest conductor of the St. Louis Sym. Orch. in 1930. In 1937 he was appointed conductor of the Scottish Orch. in Glasgow; he was also a regular conductor with the Residentie Orkest in The Hague (1937-39). He then conducted in Australia. At the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 he was in America, which was to become his adoptive country by naturalization in 1946. His American conducting engagements included appearances with the Los Angeles Phil. NBC Sym. Orch., Chicago Sym. Orch., Detroit Sym. Orch., and Boston Sym. Orch. In 1942 he was appointed a conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in N.Y., where he received high praise for his interpretation of Wagner’s music dramas; remained on its roster until 1946. He also conducted performances with the N.Y. Phil. in 1944-45. In 1946 he was appointed conductor of the Cleveland Orch., a post he held for 24 years; he was also music adviser and senior guest conductor of the N.Y. Phil. from 1969 until his death. He was a stern disciplinarian, demanding the utmost exertions from his musicians to achieve tonal perfection, but he was also willing to labor tirelessly at his task. Under his guidance, the Cleveland Orch. rose to the heights of symphonic excellence, taking its place in the foremost rank of world orchs. Szell was particularly renowned for his authoritative and exemplary performances of the Viennese classics, but he also was capable of outstanding interpretations of 20th-century masterworks.


R. Marsh, The Cleveland Orchestra (Cleveland and N.Y., 1967).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire