Sir Georg Solti is perhaps the most famous living conductor in international music circles, and certainly the most sought after. His wide operatic and orchestral repertory—and his no-nonsense approach to music-making—have brought him respect and admiration onstage and off. In a career that has spanned more than 60 years, Solti has received accolades from around the world and continue us conducting engagements with the best orchestras and opera companies.
Solti was born on October 21, 1912, in Budapest, Hungary, and displayed an early affinity for music. When he was 13 years old, he saw conductor Erich Kleiber lead a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and he knew then that he wanted to be a conductor. He studied piano, composition, and conducting atthe renowned Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, under the tutelage of eminent musicians Béla Bartók, Ernst von Dohnányi, and Zoltan Kodály. After graduating from the academy in 1930, he began work at the Budapest State Opera as a répétiteur —someone who assists backstage, coaches singers, and performs other miscellaneous duties.
In 1936 and 1937, Solti assisted world-famous conductor Arturo Toscanini at the Salzburg Festival in Austria, but he did not get his first conducting job until 1938, when he led a performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro at the Budapest State Opera. His debut was unfortunately overshadowed by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Austria; Solti, who is Jewish, fled to Switzerland for the rest of World War II.
While in Switzerland, Solti turned his attention to the piano, coaching an operatic tenor and winning first prize at the Concours International piano competition in Geneva in 1942. After the war, the American forces occupying Germany began a search for musicians who could rekindle the country’s musical life—but who did not have any Nazi associations. Solti was offered the post of music director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich in 1946 and served in that capacity until 1952. He also appeared at the Salzburg Festival and conducted in Paris, Berlin, Rome, Vienna, Florence, and Buenos Aires.
With his reputation on the rise and his operatic repertory increasing, Solti next accepted a position as music director of the Frankfurt City Opera and remained there for nearly a decade. Then, from 1961 to 1971, he worked as music director at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in England. His association with England and the English became a close one: he raised
For the Record…
Born György Solti (surname pronounced “Shoal-tee” ), October 21, 1912, in Budapest, Hungary; son of Mores (a grain merchant) and Theres Solti; married Hedi Oeschli, 1946 (divorced, 1966); married Valerie Pitts; children: (second marriage) Gabrielle, Claudia. Education: Studied piano, composition, and conducting at Franz Liszt Academy, Budapest, under Béla Bartók, Ernst von Dohnányi, and Zoltan Kodály; graduated 1930.
Répétiteur at Budapest State Opera, 1930-38, and at Salzburg Festival, 1936 and 1937, where he assisted Arturo Toscanini; conducting debut at Budapest, March 11, 1938, with Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro; went to Switzerland, 1939; appointments at Bavarian State Opera, Munich, Germany, 1946-52, Frankfurt City Opera, 1952-61, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 1961-71, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 1969-91, l’Orchestre de Paris, 1970-75, and London Philharmonic Orchestra, 1979-84; co-founder of Solti Orchestral Project at Carnegie Hall, June 1994; recording artist with more than 250 releases, chiefly with Chicago Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, and Vienna Philharmonic.
Selected awards: First prize in Concours International piano competition, Geneva, 1942; Gold Baton Award from ASCAP, 1970; dubbed Knight Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II, 1972; Kennedy Center Honors, 1993; winner of more Grammy awards than any artist, including awards for recordings of Verdi’s Aïda, Mahler’s Symphonies Nos. 8 and 9, the complete Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten; numerous honorary degrees and international awards.
Addresses: Management —Colbert Artists Management, 111 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
the visibility of both Covent Garden and British opera singers in general, and made a point of programming works by native composers such as Benjamin Britten. He also conducted the British premiere of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron —a production that won international acclaim. For his contribution to musical life in England, Solti was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1972. From 1979 to 1984, he served as principal conductor and artistic director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and later became its conductor emeritus. In 1992 he was made music director laureate at Covent Garden.
One of Solti’s biggest career undertakings was the recording of Richard Wagner’s monumental cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, which consists of four operas: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung. Work on the legendary recording began in 1958 and took eight years to complete. Record producer John Culshaw wrote in Ring Resounding, his book about the project: “Nothing comparable in scope, cost, or artistic and technical challenge had been attempted in the history of the gramophone.” The recording is still available and continues to serve as the definitive interpretation of the German composer’s masterpiece.
Many music specialists agree that Solti is at his best with German, Austrian, and Hungarian music from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries—a repertory that includes the works of composers Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner, and Richard Strauss. Yet Solti has also excelled in his performances of the music of Hungary’s Béla Bartók, Italy’s Giuseppe Verdi, and France’s Hector Berlioz. In addition, Solti is notable for his willingness to program works that fall outside of the traditional orchestral and operatic repertory. In 1970, he won the Gold Baton Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) for having programmed the greatest number of pieces written since 1940.
Solti’s conducting style is clear and direct. Although he is one of the more acrobatic conductors, his movements are never superfluous. “The things that intrigue me,” he was quoted as saying in Time, “are how to make forms clear. How to hold a movement together, or, if I am conducting opera, how to build an act or a scene.” While he is commonly believed to be a commanding presence both on and off the podium, Solti is not tyrannical, and musicians respect his businesslike attitude.
The pinnacle of Solti’s career has been his association with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO). He began his post with the CSO in 1969, and, though he resigned formally in 1991, he holds the title of music director laureate and continues to work with the orchestra, though more sporadically than before. Solti brought the CSO to international prominence, increasing its repertory and its reputation. By the mid-1970s it had become one of the top five orchestras in North America. In an article in the New Yorker in 1974 Solti stated, “I have never found a group of musicians who take music so seriously. I think my Chicago Symphony is the finest in the world.”
In 1992 Solti began an appointment as artistic director of the Salzburg Easter Festival, and the next year he recorded the festival’s production of Strauss’s opera Die Frau ohne Schatten; the recording won a Grammy Award in 1993. Solti has won more Grammy awards than any artist—31 as of 1994.
In June of 1994 Solti embarked upon the Solti Orchestral Project at Carnegie Hall, a two-week workshop during which 80 instrumentalists aged 18 to 30 worked with principal players from five U.S. orchestras. The purpose of the project—which was conceived by Solti and by Carnegie Hall executive director Judith Arron—was to give younger players an opportunity to perform with, and learn from, experienced orchestral musicians.
In a Carnegie Hall press release, Solti was quoted as saying: “Working with young musicians is one of the great joys of my life. For several years I have hoped to find a way in which I could pass on to tomorrow’s generation of orchestral musicians the experience I have been fortunate to inherit from my teachers and from over 50 years of practical work with orchestras all over the world.”
(Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus) Bach: Mass in B Minor.
(London Philharmonic Orchestra, with pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy) Bartók: Piano Concertos 1-3; Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion.
(Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus) Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (“Choral”).
(Chicago Symphony Orchestra) Brahms: Symphonies 1-4; Tragic Overture; Academic Festival Overture.
(Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus) Haydn: The Creation.
(Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with Vienna Boys Choir, Vienna State Opera Chorus, and Vienna Singverein Chorus and Soloists) Mahler: Symphony No. 8.
(Chicago Symphony Orchestra) Mahler: Symphony No. 9.
(London Philharmonic Orchestra) Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro.
(Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with Franz Mazura and Philip Langridge) Schoenberg: Moses und Aron.
(National Philharmonic Orchestra, with Luciano Pavarotti, Margaret Price, and Renato Bruson) Verdi: Un Ballo in Maschera.
Vienna Philharmonic) Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen (complete).
Culshaw, John, Ring Resounding, Viking Press, 1967.
Furlong, William Barry, Season with Solti: A Year in the Life of the Chicago Symphony, Macmillan, 1974.
Robinson, Paul, Solti, Lester & Orpen, 1979.
Chicago, October 1987.
Chicago Tribune, November 28, 1993.
Christian Science Monitor, December 3, 1993.
High Fidelity, January 1967.
Musician, March 1993.
New Yorker, May 27, 1974.
New York Times, April 25, 1971; December 10, 1972; June 5, 1994.
Opera News, January 12, 1974; September 1976.
Pulse!, October 1992.
Stereo Review, October 1987.
Time, May 5, 1973.
Washington Post, December 5, 1993.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a press release for the Solti Orchestral Project at Carnegie Hall, February 17, 1993.
Solti, Sir Georg
SOLTI, SIR GEORG
SOLTI, SIR GEORG (1912–1997), conductor. Born in Budapest, Solti studied at the Liszt Academy with Dohnanyi, Bartok, and Kodaly and became an accomplished pianist. From 1930 to 1939 he was répétiteur at the Budapest Opera; he worked with Toscanini at Salzburg Festivals, making his debut as a conductor at Budapest (1938). As a Jew facing professional restrictions, he left Hungary in 1939. He spent the war years in Switzerland as a concert pianist, gaining the first prize at the 1942 Geneva competition. Solti's international conducting career began after the war. In 1946 he directed the Munich Opera and then in Frankfurt (1952–61), the Dallas SO (1960–61), and the Covent Garden Opera, London (1961–71). He was appointed director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1969–1990), transforming it to one of the most celebrated orchestras in the world. He subsequently took additional posts as "conseiller musical" at the Paris Opera (1971–73), music director of the Paris Orchestra (1972–75), principal conductor of the lpo and artistic director of the Salzburg Festival. Solti also appeared regularly with the Vienna Staatsoper, and from 1956, he frequently conducted the *Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, with which he also made several recordings. His dynamic and vibrant conducting style, and his preference for huge sound, demanded the outmost professional performance from the players and reflected his charismatic and powerful personality. Solti became known for his wide-ranging concert and operatic repertoire, and his special competence in conducting for recordings. He gave a large number of first performances, made more than 250 recordings, among them the major works of Strauss, Wagner, Mozart, and Verdi. Solti made the first complete Ring recording (1958–1966) and conducted it in Bayreuth in commemoration of the one hundredth anniversary of Wagner's death (1983). Outstanding among his other recordings is a Mahler cycle (with the Chicago SO). He was honored with 32 Grammy awards – more than any other artist. In 1971 Solti was knighted; in 1972 he took on British nationality and was entitled Sir Georg. In 1974 he was made a Commandeur of the Légion d'Honneur. He has received many other major honors from many countries. He wrote a memoir, Solti on Solti (1997).
Grove Music Online; P. Dawson-Bowling, "Sir Georg Solti kbe (1912–1997): His Achievement in Wagner," in: Wagner News, 123 (Oct. 1997), 14–18; J. Breuer, "Sir Georg Solti (1912–1997)," in: Hungarian Music Quarterly, 9:1–2 (1998), 2–4.
[Max Loppert /
Naama Ramot (2nd ed.)]