Fritz Reiner: sadist, or genius?

Fritz Reiner: sadist, or genius?


norman lebrecht

October 13, 2013

Our Chicago psychotherapist, Dr Gerald Stein, concludes in this essay that he was both. The unanswered question is why, with such a natural abundance of talent, he needed to be such a bastard.

Read Dr Gerald here.



  • David Boxwell says:

    Scary guy conducts scary recordings of “Elektra” and “Salome.” Which I cherish. Yet I also wish he done more Mahler, too. . .

  • Mark Mortimer says:

    The point is Norman -did he have an abundance of talent? I remember watching him on an old video- can’t quite recall which one- perhaps the ‘Art of conducting’- in which he murders Beethoven 7th. He looks like a miserable old git with his short neck and bull dog face glaring at the musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who are playing in a distinctly joyless and pedestrian fashion. If I was in an orchestra I wouldn’t appreciate looking at that for too long.

    But many rave about him and call him a stupendous stick technician etc. Lenny Bernstein, his pupil at Curtis and his total antithesis surely, hailed him as a genius.

    By all reports George Szell was even more of a ‘bastard’ in Cleveland (but IMHO a totally superior musician to Reiner). It is often said these guys had to be the way they were in order to create these outstanding ensembles out of nothing (i.e. in the US where the symphonic tradition was in its infancy when the likes of Reiner came along). So I think Reiner should be remembered as an outstanding orchestra builder- few would dispute the CSO as one of the world’s truly great ensembles- and not a particularly great conductor

    • Greg from SF says:

      Mark Mortimer –

      “…in the US where the symphonic tradition was in its infancy when the likes of Reiner came along”

      You’re joking, right? Reiner moved to the USA in 1922.

      Infancy? REALLY? How about Stokowski/Philadelphia? Muck/Monteux/Boston? Mahler/Damrosch/NYP-S? Thomas/Stock/Chicago? Hertz/San Francisco?

      How about Mahler/Damrosch/Hertz/Seidl/Toscanini/Metropolitan Opera?

      Where the hell do YOU come from – Basingstoke? Pretoria?

      Reiner certainly had his personal faults, but he was a genius conductor. You may recall (or not, judging from your comments) that he was welcomed at Covent Garden as conductor of

      Learn a bit of history, bucko, or don’t shoot off your mouth.

      • Greg from SF says:

        Apologies – one sentence left incomplete – it should have read “…as a conductor of Wagner operas”.

        -Greg from SF

      • David H. says:

        Infancy is correct. All those you named were building up something new. There was no tradition before in the “New World”. Thus the term “infancy” is correct.

      • Mark Mortimer says:

        Tx Greg for your comments. It is irrelevant where I come from and actually Basingstoke is a nice place.

        Judging from your language it would appear you are a bit of a cowboy and we don’t have any of them in the UK

      • Staci Reiner says:

        Reiner was a jerk – moron. idiot. he was one of the worst conductors of all time. everyone in chicago knew it. he wouldn’t last an hour in todays ultra competitive environment. no talent hack. looser. but, one of the luckiest guys in music. total, stupid blind luck.

  • R. James Tobin says:

    Not all players bucked under the abuse. I think it was about Reiner that I was told an account of a rehearsal in which the conductor told the concertmaster to repeat a tricky entrance at a point he was to pick up a phrase from the end of a flute solo. The violinist had done it perfectly but the conductor demanded that he do it again. And again. And again. Finally the conductor turned to the violinist and asked, “how long can you keep this up?’ The latter calmly looked at his watch and said, “I have forty-eight minutes.”

    • John kelly says:

      I heard this was Bud Herseth first trumpet in the challenging midsection of Zarathustra. No one was firing Bud, not even Fritz.

      When Stokowski was done in Philadelphia, his ex Olga Samaroff was instrumental in getting Ormandy selected ahead of Reiner, a frequent guest conductor as well as a guest at Philly Opera. She wrote to the Board recommending O as the right man she thought of Reiner as more of an opera conductor. Of course he ended up at the CSO.

    • R. James Tobin says:

      My “bucked” should have been buckled.” Sorry about the typo.

  • Tully Potter says:

    Reiner liked to make out that he was Generalmusikdirektor in Dresden, although in truth he was just one of three Kapellmeisters. He also gave in to pressure in Italy in the 1930s and played the Fascist song Giovanizza before a concert at La Scala. I find most of his music making chilly in the extreme, although I make exceptions for his two recordings with Emil Gilels. Typically, Reiner said nasty things about Gilels, who admired his conducting. I think his personality showed itself in his conducting, just as Furtwängler’s showed in his. Give me Toscanini every time.

    • IP says:

      WHAT? You #therealtullypotter? And you produce a judgement on one of the greatest conductors of all time based on a couple of ANECDOTES, not on musical criteria? Good to know, I will never bother to read your notes on CD jackets and such.

      • msc says:

        “I find most of his music making chilly in the extreme…” is clearly based on his listening experience, not on any anecdotes.

  • Warren Cohen says:

    The Reiner Beethoven 7 video was done when he was already in very poor health, and the performance is pretty awful, as you noted. If you want to see the stick technique they are talking about you need to look at film from earlier in his career, of which there is some. Also the Symphonic tradition in America was really not in its infancy in the immediate post war period. As early as 1893, Nikisch had been in Boston; Mahler was in New York i 1910, Stokowski was in Philadelphia from 1912, Monteux had been in Boston and San Francisco and Koussevitzky in Boston long before the war.

    I think the appeal of these “Dictators of the Baton” (a book written at the time by David Ewen) came out of an authoritarian mind set that was prevalent at the time and also from the mass public appeal of Toscanini, who was promoted not only as the “greatest conductor in the world” but also as the uncompromising Maestro who screamed and yelled to get what he wanted. The abuse was considered part of their standards, their search for excellence, and it was widely believed that you had to do this to get results. Of course, there were people who were far less abusive who also got results, (Monteux and Munch, to name just two) but that did not ft the narrative. I find some of the Reiner performances even in his prime to be a bit tight assed, (and some of the Szell ones as well) which I attribute to the players being afraid to make mistakes. Sometimes things “clicked” and you can hear them just playing,and some of those performances are absolutely spectacular, but I think if things started going slightly wrong with those guys at the front everyone would go into “Safety Mode” and the music suffered as a result. This happened less with Toscanini. When things started going bad in some those late performances the players would not start to play tight, but they would get panicky sloppy and you can hear some members of the sections rushing. I think this reflected the very different personality of Toscanini from the Szells and Reiners of the world. Not all abuse is the same! That said. I firmly believe that you will, in the long run, get better and more consistent results by not being abusive but by really knowing your stuff and inspiring your players.

    • R. James Tobin says:

      “the players being afraid to make mistakes.” Bernstein, a conducting student with Reiner at Curtis, told this, so it is surely authentic. Invited to a rehearsal, Bernstein arrived just as Reiner was saying to a mandolin soloist, “One more mistake out of you, and out you go.” Naturally the player made a mistake right away, and without a word being spoken, he packed up his instrument and departed. A violist now retired from the CSO amended this by reporting that when the mistake was made Reiner simply made a sweeping gesture with his baton in the direction of the exit.

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        “Bernstein, a conducting student with Reiner at Curtis, told this, so it is surely authentic.”

        Yes, it must be. Bernstein was not given to hyperbole and colorful storytelling.

        • Warren Cohen says:

          Actually, I did not make the observation about being afraid of making mistakes because Bernstein said it. I heard that from a player in the orchestra, who actually greatly admired Reiner. He and many of the others excused his abuse, but I consider this part of a “Stockholm Syndrome” mentality that is often maintained by people who have been abused. His sadism was relentless and inexcusable. I spoke to a singer who did a major choral work with him (I forget which) in which he lined up the singers on a ledge with a significant drop that was barely wider than their bodies and she remembers being in a state of continual fear both of the wrath of the bastard conducting them and of falling.

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            Those stories sound a little apocryphal, too. You know how urban legends usually begin with “I heard from somebody” or similar. Still, legends do often contain a small core of truth…

            I found your observations about the authoritarian mindset and its mass appeal at the time interesting. Why do you think is it that in those days, the public in particular in the US had such a fascination with “dictators of the baton” while in Europe, where societies often were ostensibly still more authoritarian and less democratic, that was not necessarily part of what a “great conductor” was expected to be and act like. For instance, Furtwängler, Strauss, Krauss, Knappertsbusch or Karajan all worked in Germany during the Nazi regime and some were accused of collaborating with the Nazis, but none of them were ever seriously accused of being abusive and authoritarian in that “dictator” sense. They didn’t seem to have to be in order to be taken seriously by their musicians or their audiences. At the same time, many conductors in the US, some of them refugees from dictatorships themselves, acted like little tyrants on the podium, and the audience apparently loved it. Seems paradoxical, doesn’t it?

  • I wonder why this apocryphal tale regarding Reiner’s stint as conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony hasn’t surface here as yet. As the story goes, Reiner’s notorious “vest-pocket” beat made life veritable hell for those bass players lined up at the back of the orchestra and farthest from the podium. In hopes of making a point, one bass player named Shapinsky brought a telescope to rehearsal one day, made his point, and was summarily fired on the spot.

    I had the experience of playing a concert with the Symphony of the Air under Reiner. As I recall, the baton was stubby, the motions those of a parsimonious hummingbird, the beat all there, but the facial expression redolent of dyspepsia.

  • Stereo says:

    There was a wonderful story about when Szell died and his widow seeing just one member of the Cleveland orchestra at his funeral commented that at least one member of his orchestra was there. His reply was “just making sure”!

    • R. James Tobin says:

      A nastier version of the Szell story, shockingly told by Christopher Keene to an audience in Chicago (I was there) had it that a Cleveland player telephoned Szell’s widow repeatedly, asking for the conductor, after the maestros’ death, with his final word being, “I just can’t hear it often enough!”

      • Stereo says:

        I heard that version re Solti. Strange though they are all Hungarians!!

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          Highly unlikely. Solti was an almost grotesquely energetic person and a demanding perfectionist in his own way, but he did not have a reputation of being mean at all. In fact, he appears to have been a genuinely nice person, as rare as that was among podium heroes of his or earlier generations.

          Most, if not all of the stories told here are very likely apocryphal anyway. These kinds of stories almost always are.

      • Kenneth Orr says:

        someone at the Met said that Szell was his own worst enemy… rudolf bing replied..”Not as long as I am alive”

  • Aaron Alter says:

    He did champion Bartok’s music, though, when few were playing it.

    • R. James Tobin says:

      And very well too. His performances of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, Stravinsky’s Le Baiser de la Fee and Hovhaness’ Mysterious Mountain are definitive.

    • ed says:

      After reading those comments that tended to denigrate Reiner’s work, I spent a few hours listening again to make sure my memory had not totally eroded. Apart from how he may have treated the players- and remember it was a different time when most conductors were martinets and dictated more than they schmoozed, and were often resented because of it- Reiner’s conducting was a model of structural and tonal clarity and for the works of Bartok, Strauss, and the Russian composers, had both a depth and intensity that was riveting and electric. For this listener he was one of the finest.

      • Gonout Backson says:

        Add Mozart. No one mentions him. His Jupiter is still the best I know (at that time, he was the only one to get the tempo right, in the 1st movement and in the Minuetto, as for the Finale – unparalleled), and the Andantino in K. 251 – a miracle. And add Haydn, not only the studio ones (88,95, 101), but the 104 live. Add anything in Wagner. And I could go on.

  • James Forrest says:

    As a stick technician, Reiner was the greatest conductor I ever heard and saw in person. No question. When in the mood, he could be an inspired interpreter. When bored, or in a bad mood, well . . . pity the poor composer and the audience. My dear friend from years ago, Bernie Zaslav says “dyspepsia”. That’s about it! I held the Orchestra Hall door for the S.O.B. every Friday for 2 years. He never even looked at me, much less said “thank you”. He just KNEW that God would have someone there to hold the door for him. That was probably after having eaten a roasted baby for lunch, eh . . . ? But, oh my God, what an orchestra he built in Chicago and some of those performances !!! The late George Neikrug told me of Reiner’s love-hate relationship with first cellist Stefan Auber in Pittsburgh. Every year they had auditions for the chair. Every year Reiner retained Auber–so he could abuse him another season. I disagree with the earlier commentator. I don’t think Szell was remotely Reiner’s equal in any way . . . . But Fritz was an unmitigated bastard. He just happened to be a great orchestral builder and leader.

    • J CARR says:

      Perhaps Szell was not Reiner’s equal in your view, but Szell was also an orchestral builder and I feel that his interpretations of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn have never been matched – nor the Cleveland Orchestra matched. And the way he accompanied soloists!

  • Robert Oxley says:

    We all credit Reiner with building a great orchestra. I think he inherited a great orchestra. Rafael Kubelik (sp?) had the CSO playing terrifically , and, much of the repertory Reiner played had already been played and recorded by Kubalik. This is not to take away from the several great Reiner recordings, but!!!!

    • Steve says:

      Kubelik had a difficult tenure at the CSO, partly driven out by the local music critic for programming too much contemporary music.

      Tyrant among British conductors would seem to be the Sir Adrian Boult…i read on this website that he once threw an orchestral player down a flight of stairs.

  • ruben greenberg says:

    I feel that no interpreter deserves the accolade “genius” as he or she is not reall a creator. There is certainly creativity in interpretation, but the interpreter doesn’t really produce anything. Klemperer, Fürtwangler, Kubelick, et al were certainly great interpreters of other people’s music, but their own compositions were third rate.

  • sixtus says:

    Some music does just about play itself, no interpretation needed beyond strict adherence to the printed page (e.g. Ravel’s Bolero, much of Stravinsky). But other music just about requires musicians of uncommon sense and sensibility to fully bring the pages of a score to life (e.g. any Renaissance mass, the Scherzo of Mahler 5, the Finale of Mahler 7, Beethoven’s last quartets or his Missa solemnis). I have no problem labeling such creative musicians as geniuses.


  • As it has not been repeated here yet:

    “You heard about Reiner’s funeral?

    “He fired three of the pallbearers.”

    And the apocryphal story, heard in my case about the Philadelphians:

    In March of 1985 the orchestra was on a domestic tour with its then music director Riccardo Muti when the general manager boarded one of the buses to speak to the players:

    “I have some very sad news from home to share. Maestro Ormandy has died.”

    The news was met with silence until a voice called out from the back:

    “That’s not enough!”

  • Robert Roux says:

    I know that many people may not like to hear this message in our more egalitarian age but music making at the highest level can never be a democracy and one cannot expect that such a level can be achieved by allowing musicians to operate within their comfort zone. To be sure, the musicians in the CSO suffered and I, for one, would not like to have worked under a man like Fritz Reiner. However, look what this man achieved and has given to the public! Fritz Reiner, George Szell and Arturo Toscanini have left to posterity a recorded legacy of consistently stellar pedigree over large parts of the symphonic repertoire, so that their work is immortal and available now to people too young to ever have been lucky enough to hear them live. Has anyone before or since equalled Reiner’s Scherazade or Bartok Concerto for Orchestra? Ditto, Szell’s great Dvorak performances.
    This is to say nothing of both conductor’s readings of Richard Strauss. These are but a few of their unforgettable performances. Even the greatest of conductors have certain plusses and minuses: Szell had impeccable taste but his temperament tended to be on the cool side of the spectrum; Reiner was not a sentimental musician, but he was a fiery and emotional one. True, he could give some rather perfunctory readings when he was ill or “not in the mood.” Toscanini, for all his reputation for perfectionism, was perhaps the most human of the three and he could be more tolerant of less than complete orchestral polish, especially as he got older. Still, when one wants the kind of musical level that endures the test of time, one often turns to the performances of these three dead masters, now over a half-century old. They were trained in certain 19th century traditions and retain just a bit of that subjectivity and flexibility, but they very much cleaned up the excesses of 19th century musical interpretation. Regarding more recent conductors, only Carlos Kleiber has been able to look these men in the eye; on a more limited repertoire and often with more rehearsals per performance, he was able to soar to previously unheard of heights. One man’s opinion, of course. Thanks for reading.

  • Kenneth Orr says:

    Reiner’s Rossini Overtures are the best.. the sound is unbelievable. also Polka and Fugue by Jaromir Weinberger. Herseth holds a high note at the end for 19 seconds.