When George Szell and John Barbirolli chased the same wife

February 9, 2018 by norman lebrecht


Marcia Hansen Kraus’s recent book George Szell’s Reign, published by the University of Illinois Press, covers the great conductor’s years in Cleveland with the orchestra he created.

But early on, she reveals, while Szell was conducting the Scottish Orchestra in Glasgow from 1936 to 1938, he came into a heated collision with John Barbirolli, who was soon to become conductor of the New York Philharmonic.

Szell, turning 40 and still unmarried, had his head turned by the Scottish Orchestra’s principal oboe, a young Englishwoman called Evelyn Rothwell. Szell wrote a romantic piece for oboe and piano for them to play together and took her out to the most expensive restaurants. ‘He asked me to marry him and gave me an ultimatum,’ said Evelyn, who was 25. ‘If I didn’t accept his proposal within three months he was going to marry someone else.’

Unknown to Szell, however, Evelyn was involved with his predecessor, John Barbirolli, who was waiting for his divorce to come through. When JB came back to Glasgow and found Szell’s little romance on her music stand, he threw a tantrum and ripped the score to shreds. JB went on to marry Evelyn, while Szell laid siege to a married woman in Prague, enticing her away from her husband.

All ended happily.

I knew Evelyn late in life and never suspected her of having been any kind of femme fatale.

Barbirollis in Hollywood

Comments (50)

  1. Robert Roy says:

    There’s a story that Szell’s leaving speech from the Scottish Orchestra contained the following line…’Ladies and Gentlemen. I would like to thank you for your generosity during my time here. I’ve only ever asked for one pitch and you have invariably given me several…!’

    I believe Henri Temianka was leader during Szell’s tenure. If only there were recordings…

    1. esfir ross says:

      “Facing the music” by Henri Temianka ‘s a wonderful book, sometimes hilarious. I had chance express to him my admiration in Paris 1985.

      1. Simon Scott says:

        Henri Temianka! A wonderful violinist and musician. Also a great friend of my last violin teacher,Ernst Glaser.

    2. Michael Comins says:

      Temianka – founding member and 1st violinist of the Paganini Qt. who made recordings for RCA including piano quintets with Arthur Rubinstein.

    3. La Verita says:

      Here’s an incredible document of Temianka’s artistry:

      1. Simon Scott says:

        Listen to his Pugnani sonata in E major. It is not of this world…..

    4. Peter Phillips says:

      The same story is also ascribed to his last visit to the LSO. I think, but wouldn’t be sure, that it’s in Jack Brymer’s book. He certainly wrote about them being “appalled” by Szell.

      1. Martain Smith says:

        Well, Beecham wasn’t too “Gemütlich” either, from what one reads – but, like Callas and others truly dedicated to their art, they got results!

  2. Freddyng says:

    I presume there were different standards of “beauty” back in the day……

    1. Bruce says:

      Maybe she was nice. (And maybe Szell & Barbirolli were less superficial than you.)


      1. Freddyng says:

        Ok perhaps but for a moment there I thought that was Steve Carell in drag…..

      2. Martain Smith says:

        ..but you can’t deny the truth – neither of them were oil paintings!

        Reminds of the tale of the man infatuated by a fat soprano. After their wedding night he woke up and said..
        “for God’s sake SING”!

        Not PC – but genes and hormones rule at the end of the day!

      3. Bruce says:

        ^ And as we see, upbringing can make a difference as well 🙂

        1. Martain Smith says:

          Bruce, face the truth – no amount of upbringing eliminates the essential instincts in ANY human culture across the planet, unfortunate though it may be.
          But you undoubtedly have reason for for your standpoint!

          1. Bruce says:

            That’s not what upbringing is supposed to do.

          2. Phillip says:

            Bruce, enough with the virtue-signaling, please.

          3. Bruce says:

            Sorry Phillip.

  3. Dorset Richard says:

    Both Szell and Barbirolli died within days of each other.

    1. esfir ross says:

      George Szell was Jewish. What fascist he support. Hungarian, that were first fascists before Austrian, German.

      1. Amos says:

        He was born Jewish but he and his family converted to Catholicism when he was quite young. He was never a fascist and the comment made earlier was ignorant.

  4. Ravi Narasimhan says:

    “All ended happily.”

    Well I’m confused. I thought we were against this kind of power imbalance thing?

  5. Simon Scott says:

    Seems that Evelyn Rothwell had the choice of a fascist or a drunk…..

    1. steven holloway says:

      An ignorant comment from a foolish boy trying to be clever.

      1. Simon Scott says:


        1. Mark Henriksen says:

          yes, you!!!

      2. Una says:

        You get that all the time on this site!

  6. Anthony Kershaw says:

    You mean that lovely dowager duchess who coached us in chamber music so artfully drove men wild! Cool. Who knew?!

  7. La Verita says:

    Being married to Szell required a sense of humor. When Mme. Szell was asked “What is it like to be married to a God?” she replied: “Well, it’s actually rather difficult, because the day before a concert he won’t, the day after a concert he can’t, and he gives 6 concerts per week!”

    1. Peter Phillips says:

      She’s also reported to have remarked, “Gemutlich he ain’t.” She must have been a remarkable woman.

  8. Amos says:

    It is not quite accurate that he was still unmarried in 1936. He had been married but was divorced. I seem to recall that his first wife decided she preferred his then concertmaster. Last, the earlier comment that he was a fascist is uncalled for. He was forced to emigrate to the US to escape fascism.

    1. Hilary says:

      This little film of him the warm, and good humoured Szell working with three young conductors (including James Levine) belies that brutal reputation somewhat :

      1. Jerome Hoberman says:

        “Brutal” here may be an example of a confused concept turning into a careless misuse of language. No one ever called Szell “The Screaming Skull,” and wouldn’t have even if he’d had less hair. Cold, ruthless, pedantic, controlling — but was he ever known to yell?

        1. Hilary says:

          For sure: “cold, dry, controlling…” is closer the mark according to anecdotes.

          1. Amos says:

            Controlling as in the story of the Cleveland Orchestra member on tour who, after passing Szell in a restaurant, tried to order dinner only to be told that Szell had already ordered for him. Supposedly said musician quickly retorted “is he also paying”?

        2. Fritz Curzon says:

          definitely yelled at other road users when the filthiest terms!

    2. Simon Scott says:

      I didn’t mean the term fascist in the accepted sense. Nowadays the term is applied to a person who,shall we say,is less than affable.
      However,I doubt if Szell was the sadist that Fritz Reiner was

  9. Webster Young says:

    Choreographers always marry the prima ballerina. Conductors marry the oboist.

  10. Oded Zehavi says:

    She was a great oboe player, and is quite liked in Israel for the world premiere of an oboe concerto written for her by Alexander Uriah Boskovich.

  11. John says:

    The book that you site has come under harsh criticism for its description of the fallout between Principal Oboe Marc Lifschey and Dr. Szell in the mid 1960’s. Even Myron Bloom (Principal Horn) has expressed his reservations on the record. So I have to wonder about the validity of this story.

  12. Bennett Melzak says:

    There is a story that Toscanini was at a Szell rehearsal with the NBC Symphony and was furious with Szell for his very frequent interruptions of the orchestra and the way he treated them.
    I do like many Szell recordings very much though, and have always been an extreme Toscanini fan.
    Szell did speak very well about Toscanini in interviews and the Saturday Review issue in 1967 devoted to the centennial of Toscanini’s birth.

    1. Kenneth Berv says:

      The story about Toscanini is true. My father and two uncles were in the NBC Symphony (French horn) and at the rehearsal, where Szell, as guest conductor, went over the same phrase more than one hundred times. AT had heard about this rehearsal style ofobsessive repetition, and was in the Hall. He mounted the stage, pushed Szell off the podium, and yelled. “This is my Orchestra! You treat them like babies! You don’t know how to rehearse!” The rehearsal did not continue, the concert occurrred, and Szell never conducted the NBC again. This encounter might explain Szell’s somewhat mixed comments in the Saturday Review celebrating Toscanini’s centennial.

      1. Amos says:

        Yes but Szell has left taped comments in which he goes on at length that AT’s NYPO tour of Europe in 1930 “revolutionized” the way conductors approached their craft. Supposedly the combination of articulation, clarity and vitality AT achieved made an enormous impression on GS.

  13. Jaybuyer says:

    Barbirolli and the Halle were regular visitors to Wolverhampton, just a short trip from Manchester. Attending a concert there in my late teens, I didn’t realise that the soloist in the concerto (Strauss’ Oboe) was, in fact, Lady B. A nice little earner for them both.

  14. David Meyer says:

    The news of the death of one past principal conductor when given to his orchestra was greeted with a moment’s silence and then the reply from one player – ‘It’s not enough’. The story is told of either Szell of Reiner, I’m not sure which. Probably apocryphal.

    1. Gerald Martin says:

      I read the conductor was Ormandy; so you are right that the anecdote is probably apocryphal.

  15. Simon Scott says:

    I’ve just been reading up on GS and JB. It seems that both could be thoroughly disagreeable.
    I once knew a senior London pro violinist who referred to JB as “a horrible little guttersnipe”, and “a half washed toad”. It seems that the London scene didn’t take to JB.

  16. C BELL says:


    KIRIL JB did RFH concerts with 4 London orchestras;recorded not only with them but also 2 freelance ensembles; did foreign tours with 2, besides more London Halle concerts than all his successors put together. This Southampton Row born gentleman was also offered ROH. So much for London.

    SPIKE JB did

  17. C BELL says:

    In my note about Barbirolli please ignore rhe words at the foot….Spike did Thanks

  18. Simon Scott says:

    Carnegie hall 1953. Alfredo Campoli’s NY debut with GS and NYPO. Campoli played the Lalo Symphonie Espagnol. However ,GS only wanted 4 movements,and Campoli wanted to play all 5. Campoli got his way.
    However,after the performance GS said to Campoli “that is the way this work should be played”
    It seems that Campoli’s american career was somewhat short lived. A pity,because he was a marvellous violinist

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