As conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra for almost a quarter-century, Hungarian-born George Szell (1897–1970) built the ensemble into one of the world's greatest symphony orchestras. For sheer precision and accuracy of interaction, the Cleveland Orchestra under Szell was unmatched.
In many ways, Szell lived up to the image of European conductors that Americans frequently had and enjoyed. He was an absolute authoritarian who drilled his players relentlessly in order to produce the detailed and fully thought-out interpretations of classical works he demanded. An imposing figure who stood six feet tall on the podium, he loomed larger than life for the orchestra's players, who often feared his withering stare and chilly personality. Szell was the kind of figure around whom anecdotes circulate, each more outrageous than the last. It was said that when a member of the orchestra's violin section suffered a serious fall, Szell phoned the dressing room solely to ask whether the man's violin had been damaged. But the end result of Szell's single-mindedness was an orchestra that could match any other in the world and that excelled those in other medium-sized U.S. cities by far.
Showed Prodigal Talent
The son of attorney and businessman Georg Charles Szell and his wife Margarethe, Szell was born in Budapest, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, on June 7, 1897. He sometimes used the Hungarian form of his name, György, and Americanized it to George when he settled in the United States. Szell grew up mostly in Vienna, Austria, and he showed tremendous talent on the piano from an early age. He made his debut with the Vienna Tonküstler Orchestra (Vienna Musical Artists' Orchestra) when he was 11, playing, in addition to established classical piano concertos, a Rondo for piano and orchestra of his own composition. He quickly performed in several other European capitals and was hailed as a child prodigy in the Austrian tradition of Mozart.
Szell's parents, however, realized that child prodigies often burn out, and they insisted that their son get a better-rounded musical education. Szell studied theory and composition with some of the top figures in the German-speaking musical world, including the composer and organist Max Reger and the musicologist Eusebius Mandyczewski. He began to look to the German capital of Berlin as the height of musical art and was quoted as saying in Opera News that he had left before picking up "that phony Viennese gemütlichkeit"—the relaxed sociability exemplified in Vienna's great waltz tradition. Szell was serious-minded from an early age.
Szell found his life's work the first time he picked up a conductor's baton, leading the Vienna Konzertvereins-Orchester (Vienna Concert Association Orchestra) in a 1913 performance. The following year he appeared as piano soloist, guest composer, and conductor with the mighty Berlin Philharmonic; as conductor he led the high-spirited orchestral work Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, by Richard Strauss. Strauss was a noted opera conductor as well as a composer, and Szell offered himself up as an intern. He spent two years as Strauss's assistant, never earning a cent but absorbing the intricacies of the European classical tradition, especially opera. The internship paid off when Strauss recommended his young disciple for a conducting post at the opera house in Strassburg. When that city reverted to French control, Szell moved on to a series of opera conducting posts in mostly German cities—Darmstadt, Düsseldorf, and, from 1929 to 1937, the German opera house in Prague, Czechoslovakia. He married Olga Band in 1920, but the couple divorced six years later.
Szell was by now in demand as a guest orchestral conductor as well, and he made his American debut with the St. Louis Symphony in 1930. Of Jewish background, Szell was unnerved by the rise of fascism in Germany in the mid-1930s. He sought out orchestral posts in Western Europe, landing one with the Scottish Orchestra in Glasgow in 1937. He married Helene Schultz Teltsch the following year. Traveling to Australia in 1939, Szell heard that war had broken out in Europe. He started back to Glasgow via Canada and the United States but then learned that the Scottish Orchestra had disbanded and that he thus had no job to return to.
Taught Compositionin New York
Staying on in New York, Szell landed a job as a composition instructor at the Mannes College of Music. After two years in Scotland he was a competent English speaker, and during his years in Cleveland, Ohio, he spoke English with a heavy German accent but perfect grammatical correctness. Szell's name was well known among European conductors who had already ventured to the U.S., and it did not take him long to find major conducting engagements. Szell conducted Strauss's Salome at the Metropolitan opera in December of 1942 and appeared as guest conductor with various American orchestras, including the Detroit Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra. Szell became an American citizen in 1946, and after several appearances in Cleveland he was offered the post of conductor and music director there that year.
"A new leaf will be turned over with a bang," Szell announced (according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.) "People talk about the New York, the Boston, and the Philadelphia [orchestras]. Now they will talk about the New York, the Boston, the Philadelphia, and the Cleveland." The claim seemed rash; Cleveland had a long tradition of classical music dating back to the large population of German immigrants who settled there in the nineteenth century, but the Cleveland Orchestra was not regarded as a major presence in American music. Szell, after making sure he had the backing of the orchestra's board, immediately set about making changes. He enlarged the orchestra, fired a group of well-entrenched players who he felt were not up to snuff, and scoured American orchestras and music schools for the best new talent. His aim, he was quoted as saying by Harold C. Schonberg in The Great Conductors, was to create "a combination of the best elements of American and European orchestral playing. I wanted to combine the American purity and beauty of sound and their virtuosity of execution with the European sense of tradition, warmth of expression, and sense of style."
By the early 1950s the Cleveland Orchestra was essentially an ensemble that Szell had created. The large group of string players interacted seamlessly, like a string quartet, and if emotion was not Szell's strong suit, his attention to detail and his absolute control over the orchestra were widely praised. The Cleveland Orchestra was heard all over the country on the radio, and world-class soloists put Cleveland's east-side Severance Hall on their itineraries. Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra began making a long series of recordings for the Columbia label, covering the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms, and much of the rest of the standard nineteenth-century Germanic repertory. In music close to his central European roots, such as the Symphony No. 8 of Antonín Dvořák, he was regarded as perhaps the finest conductor alive. Szell was not exactly enamored with contemporary music, and often assigned concerts of new works to assistant conductors, although, he did lead numerous world premieres in Cleveland, including that of Paul Hindemith's Piano Concerto (1947).
Szell often returned to Europe to conduct, and in 1957 he felt the Cleveland Orchestra was ready to face the Continent's notoriously tough newspaper critics. The orchestra won rave reviews and returned to Europe in 1965 and 1967. The orchestra also frequently appeared around the U.S., but Szell refused to allow the group to perform for segregated audiences in Southern cities, and the Cleveland Orchestra became the first top American orchestra to hire an African-American musician. In 1970 the orchestra toured Japan in connection with the Expo '70 world's fair there. His love of Mozart found an outlet in guest-conducting appearances at the Salzburg Festival in Austria, and he often returned to his first love, conducting opera.
Compared Mozart's Music to Asparagus
Szell was popular among Clevelanders; if he could not be said to be exactly friendly, he had a dry wit that appealed to classical music lovers. When asked about the charge that his interpretations of Mozart lacked emotion, he replied (according to the All Music Guide) that one does not pour chocolate sauce over asparagus. He encouraged young musicians and orchestra players and audiences alike were proud that he had put Cleveland on the international musical map.
Stories that circulated about Szell among the musicians of the orchestra, however, often had a less positive flavor. Szell's need for total control led him to act coldly, some felt. "He looks at us the way you study a bug," one musician was quoted as saying in Opera News. When musicians encountered Szell on the street he would not acknowledge their presence—to do so, he felt, would be to cross a boundary and thus to diminish his authority. Szell's rehearsals were exacting, and players reported that they were as exhausting as actual concerts. His authoritarian streak was only rarely displayed to audiences; one winter night he stopped the orchestra, announced that he would give audience members five minutes to cough and clear their throats, and stalked off.
Some in the musical community felt that Szell was his own worst enemy, but New York Metropolitan Opera general manager Rudolf Bing, hearing that, replied "Not while I'm alive" (according to Schonberg). Szell ordered around renowned soloists, and one, violinist Henryk Szeryng, decided that he would not put up with it. The two disagreed over the proper tempo for a movement in one concerto, and both refused to back down. The orchestra was forced to slow down when Szeryng started playing and to speed up when Szell was once again in control. But that was a rare lapse in a Szell performance, for his iron control, all agreed, resulted in playing of a remarkably high standard for a very long time. Szell made no friends by saying that the Cleveland Orchestra's rehearsals started where those of other ensembles left off, but the statement had a high degree of truth.
Szell was adamant about bringing out fine musical details. Schonberg quoted him as saying that "everything a good composer writes down is expected to be heard, except in obvious cases where a coloristic impression is intended," and the Cleveland Orchestra on a good night, which was almost every night under Szell, achieved an awe-inspiring clarity of texture. His talents extended beyond German music; he conducted the orchestral music of his adopted country enthusiastically, and he excelled in the work of composers, like Finland's Jean Sibelius, who specialized in complicated orchestral textures. His love for the challenges of good orchestration also made him an admired specialist in the oversized operas of Richard Wagner.
Suffering from cancer in his later years, Szell died in Cleveland on July 30, 1970. Subsequent conductors—Lorin Maazel, Christoph von Dohnányi, and Franz Welser-Möst—inherited a precision-tuned instrument, and the Cleveland Orchestra remained among the world's most renowned. The legacy of George Szell loomed large in American musical life.
International Dictionary of Opera, St. James, 1993.
Sadie, Stanley, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., Macmillan, 2001.
Schonberg, Harold C., The Great Conductors, Simon and Schuster, 1967.
National Review, June 16, 2003.
Opera News, December 5, 1992.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), December 31, 1999.
Washington Post, February 12, 1978.
"George Szell," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (January 26, 2006).
"George Szell," Sony Classical, http://www.sonyclassical.com/artists/szell/bio.html (January 26, 2006).
SZELL, GEORGE (Georg ; 1897–1970), conductor, pianist and composer. He was born in Budapest but grew up in Vienna, where he studied piano and composition with Richard Robert and Max Reger. As a composer and pianist, dubbed "the new Mozart," he turned to conducting at age 17. Szell assisted Richard Strauss at the Berlin State Opera (1915) and held conducting posts in German opera houses and in Prague, before his appointments as chief conductor of the Berlin State Opera (1924–29) and of the Neues Deutsches Theater in Prague (1929–37). From 1937 he conducted the Scottish Orchestra in Glasgow and the Residentie Orchestra of The Hague. Immigrating to the United States in 1939, he became principal conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, New York (1942–46), and was noted for his performances there of Wagner and Strauss. From 1946 until 1970 he was appointed permanent conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra and built its ensemble to one of world class by combining the profound European orchestral tradition with the brilliance of the great American orchestras. He won repute for his pedantic approach, his extensive repertoire of modern and classical works, and his lucid interpretations of the Viennese classics. Outstanding among his numerous recordings are the five Beethoven piano concertos (with *Fleisher), the four Brahms symphonies, and Dvořák's last three symphonies. His many world premieres included Hindemith's Piano Concerto (1947), Walton's Partita (1958), and Mennin's Symphony no. 7 (1964), and at the Salzburg Festival, operas by Liebermann and Egk.
Grove Music Online; Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (1997); D. Rosenberg. "George Szell: Portrait of a Perfectionist," in: Symphony Magazine, 31:6 (1980), 15–19; B. Surtees, "George Szell: 25 Years Later," in: Classical Music Magazine, 18:1 (1995), 30.
[Naama Ramot (2nd ed.)]