When George Szell and John Barbirolli chased the same wife

When George Szell and John Barbirolli chased the same wife


norman lebrecht

February 09, 2018

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


  • 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…

  • Freddyng says:

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

  • Dorset Richard says:

    Both Szell and Barbirolli died within days of each other.

    • esfir ross says:

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

      • 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.

  • Ravi Narasimhan says:

    “All ended happily.”

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

  • Simon Scott says:

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

  • Anthony Kershaw says:

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

  • 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!”

  • 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.

    • 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 :https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=P2OSXvWtZm0

      • 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?

        • Hilary says:

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

          • 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”?

        • Fritz Curzon says:

          definitely yelled at other road users when thwarted..in the filthiest terms!

        • Myron Bloom says:

          Just to clarify all of this – Myron Bloom, Szell’s principal horn for 25 years, so respected George Szell that all Marcia Kraus’ gossipy book does just shows one side of a veneer of Szell. Myron still misses Szell every day. He says that Szell was the greatest musical gift in his life – and Myron had so many others…
          I, Susan Moses Bloom, professor of cello now at Indiana University, had a similar privilege – I was in the Jascha Heifetz-Gregor Piatigorsky class at USC when I was studying cello. I see people writing terrible anecdotes about Mr. Heifetz. This is outrageous to me. Mr. Heifetz gave the world so much. He needed to protect himself to give so much to the world. If some people can’t understand that and want to say bad things – then too bad for them!

    • 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

      • Frank Berger says:

        You misused the word fascist. Admit it. Perhaps your whole generation does, I don’t know. Words have meanings. Learn them and stick to them. Otherwise no one will understand you and will lose interest in talking to you.

  • Webster Young says:

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Sue says:


  • 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.

    • 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.

      • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • C BELL says:

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

  • 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

  • Amos says:

    I’ve just finished Ms. Kraus’s chapter on CO oboe players and came away with the distinct impression that her comments about Marc Lifschey are strongly influenced by score settling on her and/or her late husband’s behalf. Was the detail that ML was barely 5 ft tall intended, not so subtly, to indicate he was the Napoleon of oboe players? Throughout her attack, because that seems the clear intent, there is a nasty and snide tone to re-telling tales. The only person who comes in for worse treatment is the unnamed player (Adrian Gnam?), who unlike ML is still alive, and didn’t study with MT until after the 1965 tour. Given the constant gratuitous digs at ML I couldn’t help wondering if the author and/or her husband resented the fact that GS never asked Mr. Kraus to play Principal? At the very least, given Ms. Kraus’s clear conflict of interest, it might have been appropriate to have contacted ML’s wife for a rebuttal (she like Ms. Kraus is also a musician). Then again as she grudgingly admits when ML did play the results were superb!

    • Myron Bloom says:

      This comment is extremely important! My husband Myron Bloom was so upset when he read about her treatment of his best friend Marc Lifschey that he threw the book on the ground and asked me to remove it from our home – even though Kraus did not attack Myron in any way. We TOTALLY agree with your comment. This was a jealous try to settle accounts – totally unfair – the comment that Marc didn’t know about reeds etc. was so wrong and slanderous.
      Myron Bloom is extremely grateful to you.

    • Paula Lfschey says:

      Thank you for this! It is gratifying for me and our son that people respond. I wish you would post it on Amazon. Susan Bloom contacted Kraus
      about this and Kraus was totally dismissive and said to her, “Why don’t you post it in the New York Review of Books and Amazon.”

      All the best,
      Paula Lifschey

      • Amos says:

        Ms. Lifschey & Mr. Bloom,

        To those of us who find the recordings of the CO during the Szell-era both essential listening and life-enriching I can’t possibly articulate how much we appreciate your efforts. Anyone who wants to hear what chamber music within a symphonic framework sounds like only needs to listen to the second movement of the 1958 Brahms D Minor piano concerto recording and hear Messrs Fleisher, Lifschey & Bloom spin gold. Again, if you will permit me the informality Paula for Marc & Mike I could never repay either of you for the countless hours of enjoyment I’ve received from your life’s work!!!!

        Thank you,

      • Amos says:

        I realize this is very belated and you don’t need further evidence of your husband’s extraordinary talents but I just came across and would urge you listen to the 56/57 live performance of the Schumann 2nd at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ej0myD-n0Mk At the very least just listen to the beginning of the 3rd movement; the sound is nothing short of otherworldly. Perhaps Mr. Bloom remembers something about this superb performance.


      • Amos says:

        Ms. Lifschey,

        If you still follow this link I thought you’d enjoy a brief Living History interview with the first African-American member of The Cleveland Orchestra cellist Donald White. The video clip is ~ 4 minutes long and at the end he discusses his reaction to winning his audition in 1957. I won’t spoil his comments but I’m quite sure they will bring a smile to your face!



  • Myron Bloom says:

    Myron Bloom was totally devastated when Szell died. So much so that he left the orchestra and went to Paris. For years after he still dreamt about Szell. Not withstanding Szell’s “difficult” personality, there were many players who venerated Szell.

  • Amos says:

    Since the book focuses on the GS years in Cleveland I was hoping Ms. Kraus’s book would provide the details missing from Michael Charry’s more comprehensive biography and more depth than the recent Tales From The Locker Room. Unfortunately I found neither to be the case and a surprising number of both minor and more fundamental flaws. Based on what I’ve gleaned from the few sources, publicly available, the success of the Szell-era, at least the first 12 years, would not have been realized as efficiently if not for the efforts of Concertmaster Gingold. Both musically and personally he was as responsible as anyone in the orchestra, even ML, for the qualities which GS brought to fruition. Yet Ms. Kraus barely mentions JG and spent more time discussing a violinist with a personality disorder. Also in the footnotes she mentions that the hiring of oboist AG without a formal audition wasn’t unusual and sites the hiring of JG as another example. She fails to mention that in the case of JG Szell had already heard him play with the NBC and more importantly as concertmaster when he guest conducted in Detroit. Similarly, the story pertaining to Cloyd Duff playing the snare drum part in the Bartok is poorly re-told. JS didn’t just want him to play the part because he admired his tympani playing but because he had heard him play the snare when he guest conducted at the Robin Hood Dell in the 40’s and due to the usual anxiety about concerts in NY. These are 2 of many issues.
    Minor issues include the fact that Babe Ruth likely never played at Ebbets Field, the architect van Dijk thinking that GS learned a few words of Dutch to be polite ignores the fact that for 30 years he had conducted both the Resident Orchestra of the Hague and the Concertgebouw and as a polyglot likely learned what was necessary to communicate with the players and the incident involving cellist Donald White was not given its due. If it was Ms. Kraus’s choice to use the term Negro it is at best an anachronism but in this context I think inaccurate. In all likelihood she should have indicated that BB was told no n—– is playing here. This makes the fact that a letter was drawn up and signed by GS indicating we all play or no one plays all the more humane, proper and courageous.
    I wish some time had been invested in understanding why even GS admitted that the orchestras best playing usually occurred at the dress rehearsal. Was he driven in part by the fact that his genius was on display in Cleveland and not in one of the other big 4 cities? I found very little that was informative in this book about a conductor and orchestra that I admire greatly.

    • John says:

      How about the Donald Rosenberg book on the Cleveland Orchestra?

      • Amos says:

        It has been a number of years since I read both the Rosenberg & Marsh books but they have a great deal more to offer than this one. IMO Michael Charry’s book could have been the best by far given how superb his liner notes are for a number of the CD re-issues (Dvorak, Prokofiev/Bartok & Schumann[?]). Unfortunately, I think he was let down by his editor who must have insisted on drastic cuts. The Cleveland years of his book focuses more on documenting what was played each year rather than the informative interviews with the principal players that he conducted for the liner notes. There is certainly some analysis, especially covering from 1960-1970 after he joined as Apprentice and then Assistant Conductor. Again, imo MC’s is the best of the lot.