Was Georg Szell as horrid as described?main
The London clarinet player Murray Khouri remembers visits from the Cleveland monster:
During George Szell’s twenty-four year tenure as musical director of the Cleveland Orchestra no less than forty percent per cent of the players were seeing or had seen a psychiatrist. Szell’s tenure in Cleveland produced an orchestra of world renown built by an autocrat who brooked no opposition, on or off the podium.
Szell spent his summers in Europe relaxing and conducting orchestras in Holland, Germany and England. I crossed paths with him in March 1969 when he came to conduct the London Philharmonic in a performance of Gustav Mahler’s 6th Symphony. I was amazed to see four or five rehearsals for this concert, an almost unheard of luxury at the time. On his London visits he’d usually conducted the London Symphony Orchestra but relations weren’t the best there, resulting in recordings made but not approved.
Things were much worse with the Philharmonia which had slid from the world’s best to a shadow of its former self, after being abandoned by its founder, Walter Legge. Players were smoking and reading newspapers in rehearsals, actions calculated to arouse Szell’s bitter condemnation. The London players weren’t receptive to his bullying manner. They were quite liable to walk out if abused.
The London Philharmonic was next on the list and I was agog at would transpire with us. Bernard Haitink introduced him at the first rehearsal, reminding us of Mr Szell’s eminence and hoping that we would all give him the greatest co-operation. That finished, Szell sprang to the podium and his words remain with me:
“ I last conducted this orchestra in 1937. I don’t see any familiar faces.” Staring at a half dozen players who’d been there then. “We’ll play the Symphony through, I trust there won’t be any technical errors.”
We then played the Symphony through, from beginning to the end with only a couple of stops. From Szell not a word.
It was just like that during the following days. I think he was watching and waiting, disappointed at not being able to take us apart and put us back together. The day before the concert he suddenly stopped. Pointing at Gordon Webb, our wonderful First Trumpet, “Mr. Webb, you’re the best First Trumpet I know”. That was all and we continued with the music. The morning rehearsal on the day of the concert he drove the orchestra to the point of exhaustion. The concert was a predictable disappointment. He’d taken everything from us at the rehearsal. He also made several mistakes in the concert, immediately pointing to himself as the offender.
But how extraordinary was this musical meeting, staring at a man who worked with Richard Strauss, recorded the Dvorak Concerto with Pablo Casals and had been a product of the best that central Europe had to offer. A musician in the line of Fritz Reiner, Georg Solti, Bela Bartok and Antal Dorati.
Szell was born in Budapest in 1897 to a Hungarian father and Slovakian mother. The family moved to Vienna when Georg was only six, converting from Judaism to Catholicism. Vienna was, and still is, a notoriously anti-Semitic city. Szell’s musical gifts were manifest early and he was fortunate to study with some fine teachers, including Max Reger.
And let us remember that this was the Vienna of Mahler, Schoenberg and Zemlinsky. Szell heard the Vienna Philharmonic under Arthur Nikisch – an event that left a powerful impression.
Like so many of the Golden Age of conducting, Szell was an able composer, producing Brahmsian works that won him a contract with Universal Edition.
He’d played in public for the first time as an 11 year-old, performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major K488. On holiday five years later, at the spa town of Bad Kissingen, came the lucky break that really set him on his way. The Vienna Symphony was in a summer residency there, together with the Szell family holidaying in these beautiful surroundings. The young Szell was to be found daily at the orchestra’s rehearsals and concerts soaking up the music. As fate would have it Martin Sporr, the conductor, fell ill with no available replacement at short notice. Never reticent about his abilities, the young man offered his services and in that evening his career was set in motion.
Szell was a product of the German opera houses. Coaching singers, conducting the chorus and playing for stage rehearsals. It was whilst doing a stint at the Berlin Royal Opera that he met Richard Strauss, the pre-eminent German musician. Strauss’s attraction for the young Szell was fired when the aspiring conductor played Till Eulenspiegel from memory on the piano, simulating percussion effects with his cuff-links on the keyboard. All very similar to the young Otto Klemperer who’d played his piano arrangement of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony for the flattered composer.
Szell’s operatic work culminated in a position at the German Opera House in Prague, previous home to some of the greatest figures in German music. His reputation was spreading beyond Central Europe and by 1930 Scotland, Holland and the USA were beckoning.
Szell had been present at one of Toscanini’s concerts with the New York Philharmonic in Prague, and experienced playing and conducting of undreamt of standards. It opened his eyes to the possibilities in the New World where wealth and vitality ruled the day. But before America there was England, Scotland and Holland, working with the new London Philharmonic, the Hague Residentie Orchestra and the Scottish National Orchestra. There was also a tour of Australia for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. From there he went on to America. The year was 1940 and together with so many other musicians, he decided to make New York his home. For nearly two years he was largely unemployed, doing some teaching at the Mannes School of Music. He busied himself making orchestral transcriptions for various publishers, orchestrating songs and major works – like Smetana’s Quartet No 1, called “From my Life” – to great effect.
His musical drought was ended by Edward Johnson who engaged him at the Metropolitan – a relationship which lasted for ten largely turbulent and unhappy years. Szell’s intolerance of slack management and performance standards finally came to a head not long after he took over the Cleveland position, resulting in a much publicized “walk out”. Not long after his departure a comment was made to the new intendant, Rudolf Bing, “ George Szell is his own worst enemy.” Quipped Bing, “Not whilst I’m alive!”
But Arturo Toscanini had taken an interest in the young Szell and had invited him to conduct his NBC Symphony Orchestra. With Toscanini’s endorsement, it was a short step to other orchestral invitations from the New York Philharmonic and Cleveland Orchestras. All this preparing for the moment when Artur Rodzinski, Cleveland’s Music Director, moved to the New York Philharmonic in 1943, leaving an opening in the mid-western city.
That opening wasn’t filled by Szell but by Erich Leinsdorf, another Toscanini protégé. Dogged by inexperience as a symphonic conductor and then being drafted into the army, his reign in Cleveland was a short one. It was no surprise to anyone when he was replaced by the dynamic Szell. When Georg Szell finally arrived in Cleveland he found an orchestra in excellent shape, blighted by serious problems. The period with Erich Leinsdorf had been well spent. Leinsdorf, a scrupulous musician of outstanding credentials, lacked only the last ounce of charisma which would have ensured his continuation as Music Director. Szell’s initial concerts had created a sensation and caused the Board to sway from Leinsdorf, their initial choice, to him.
The 2nd World War had seen many players drafted and this was only one of the problems Szell faced. The season of thirty weeks was short and the pay scale below the major East Coast orchestras. But that didn’t stop Szell from negotiating a rich contract for himself – a contract which gave him unprecedented powers, both musically and administratively. He was set to become a musical dictator.
He poached players from other orchestras, appointing them on short-term contracts, waiting for the war to end. At the start of each season he insisted on a full week’s play- through of repertoire to whip the orchestra into shape. He ordered all facial hair removed, jackets and ties to be worn on tour; he even chose the toilet paper for the lavatories!
A unique situation was being created in Cleveland. A situation in which perfectionism ruled without restraint, where one man decided everything – as one player joked, “Szell would have even been in the box-office selling the tickets”, if time had allowed.
His repertoire choices were conservative. He was devoted to the German and Viennese classics, working intensively on Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms. Every detail was rehearsed exhaustively, every interpretive nuance repeated, every tempo indication set in stone. Before first rehearsals for a work, the principal string players would assemble in his room where he would communicate his bowings and fingerings to them. The effect, I believe, was to gradually erode each musician’s feelings of individuality, subjugating them to his will and the corporate mass. But, I hear you say, isn’t that what an orchestra is all about? Possibly, but let’s compare it with another way.
I offer you two schools of thought on what makes a great symphony orchestra. On one hand, it’s often said that an orchestra is only as good as its conductor, that the man on the podium can pull it all together whether or not he’s faced with players of premium quality. In 1965, George Szell was in Berlin recording the Strauss Four Last Songs with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf. The Berlin Radio Orchestra chosen for the recording was in poor shape. Even Szell was surprised at the mediocre playing and boasted, “I’ll soon whip them into shape.” Well, he couldn’t.
The other way is to have an orchestra of corporate quality which has style but not a style, which can respond to differing kinds of direction quickly and flexibly and deliver premium results whoever is on the podium.
An orchestra like the Vienna Philharmonic, which has no musical director -wary of one individual turning into a musical dictator. Despite having grown-up in Vienna, Szell hated the ‘Vienna mentality’, calling the phony “gemutlichkeit” a sham. When he occasionally conducted the Vienna orchestra, the resulting tensions and conflict could produce electrifying results.
Back in Cleveland, Szell was proceeding with grand plans. Unlike Stokowski he had little interest in the media and schools concerts, though he was very interested in getting his orchestra into Carnegie Hall to show off its qualities. It was still hard to hire the very best players because of the 33 week season, low pay and the feeling that Cleveland was an unattractive city. Gradually a summer season was established at the Blossom Music Centre.
The Cleveland Orchestra continued to improve through the 1950’s and the path of its rise was mirrored in Szell’s public boasting. Reading contemporary interviews given in newspapers and music magazines, certain themes are repeated with monotonous regularity. Assertions that he strove for and achieved complete homogeneity in strings and winds, and that his Orchestra was nothing more than a giant chamber music group, with every player listening to every other single member constantly. It’s difficult to agree with all this and I’ll let other commentators re-enforce my own misgivings about his assertions:-
From Joseph Horowitz, best-selling author of seven books dealing with American musical history:
“The many niceties of execution are more programmed than spontaneous. The chamber music is commandeered, not egalitarian.”
From John Culshaw, Szell’s English Decca producer:
“Szell had a notorious tongue and a reputation for eating anyone alive who crossed his path. With very few exceptions, orchestral musicians loathed him, although no musician worthy of the name could fault him artistically. On the podium he was incapable of generating warmth. When he died almost all the obituaries could not resist the comment that he did not suffer fools gladly, but it would be nearer the truth to say that he did not suffer fools at all”.
From Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, “Szell’s nervous obsession with speed, which usually led to time-consuming rehearsals, his compulsive need to always have an opinion different from others and his considerable paranoia when it came to the orchestra’s ill-will”.
Homogenizing the sound means removing the characteristics which gives each instrument its individual tone colour. It presents no problems for the strings, each of which makes its sounds in the same way.
It becomes a contentious issue for the woodwinds, each of whom is a section player and soloist. Szell’s woodwind players sound drained of individual expression, and lacking in personality and flair.
Sitting in the middle of the orchestra, with instruments separated by dozens of yards from each other, it is physically impossible mostly to hear what others are doing, especially for wind and brass, with mouthpieces resonating through their aural cavities. By the mid-Fifties, Szell had reached his high-point with the Cleveland Orchestra. Earlier he’d poached Joseph Gingold from the Detroit Symphony to be a great leader. Gingold, the gentlest of men, had all the qualities needed to improve the Cleveland string sound, and to act as the interface between a sometimes abusive and aggressive Szell and the rest of the orchestra. Towards the end of his career Gingold made solo recordings which demonstrate his warm-hearted, impeccable musicianship:
Gingold resigned from Cleveland in 1960, tiring of the abuse heaped on him, and left to take up a teaching career at the music school in Bloomington, Indiana. Speaking of his time after Szell he reflected, “For the first time in fourteen years I sleep well at night”.
The turnover in Cleveland continued at a high level. The departures were of two kinds – Dismissal by Szell, or departures brought on by the crushing demands of the job, coupled with a search for easier working conditions.
Rarely has a conductor been so single-minded in his quest for a musical vision. Stylistically he was intent on a lean classical sound, with emphasis on precision of articulation. That’s the difference between short and long notes.
His demands on the string instruments was at the opposite pole from Leopold Stokowski. Stokowski favoured free bowing, to create long seamless legato lines. Szell’s string players are unified by precise tightly- controlled bow strokes, creating a dryer sound with short notes really short.
We’ve already mentioned the homogenizing of the woodwinds, sacrificing individuality for blend, and to that is added a restrained brass section, quite unlike other American orchestras – all contributing to ‘the Cleveland sound’:
By the beginning of the 1960’s, Szell had been in America 23 years and one wonders whether he had become wholly or partly Americanized. In a rare slip after returning from Europe, Szell was overheard saying, “ I admire European manners. I’m still polite from Europe. In 10 minutes I’ll be as vulgar as the rest of you”!
He lived in great luxury in Shaker Heights, the most salubrious quarter of Cleveland, in a house filled with valuable paintings. Visitors to the house found him a considerate host, though all were perturbed by marital tensions fostered by a wife making a practice of contradicting every word he had to say.
If he was compliant at home he was dictatorial with the Orchestra’s management, making conductor – manager relations difficult. But as always, he retained the support of his Board, which in the main remained loyal to him and continued with the never-ending task of fundraising.
Tours to Europe had begun with the Cleveland Orchestra feted and admired wherever they went. Well, not quite everywhere. In England and Belgium critics were enthusiastic about the Orchestra, but not Szell’s conducting, finding his performances bland, lacking real energy.
It was on one of his visits to London in the early 1960’s to conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra, that he first met the Orchestra’s Orchestral Manager, Michael Maxwell – a New Zealander making his mark in the big city.
Szell and Maxwell met again only a few years later in New York, where Maxwell had become Assistant Manager of the New York Philharmonic.
Szell was impressed with this ambitious young man and made a mental note
that he was now in the United States. So when a similar position became vacant in Cleveland Maxwell got the job, with assurances of promotion.
Events moved quickly after that. After only two years, Maxwell was offered the post of General Manager of the Detroit Symphony and in order to keep him in Cleveland, Szell promoted the young Manager who very soon succeeded to the top job in 1969, after Beverly Barksdale, the current incumbent, was eased out.
For a time all was well with Szell and Maxwell, but following the conductor’s untimely death in 1970, Maxwell assumed dictatorial powers -which in turn led to a major orchestral strike and conflict with Lorin Maazel, Szell’s successor. Conflict which led to Maxwell’s resignation in 1976.
The 1960’s, the last decade of George Szell’s life, was the beginning of the record industry’s downward path, and especially in the United States where prohibitive Union demands had priced the orchestras out of the market.
Loyal as he was to Cleveland, it didn’t stop him recording in Europe, but unlike other eminent practitioners he had no organized programme with a single company.
The CBS work in Cleveland had yielded some important titles, especially Mahler’s 4th and 6th, and Bruckner’s 3rd and 8th Symphonies, and the complete Schumann Symphonies.
For English Decca – Brahms’s 1st Piano Concerto with Clifford Curzon, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, which he never sanctioned for release. And an early Brahms 3rd Symphony with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, which at a stroke solves all the performances’ difficulties that have mired most other practitioners.
Among the finest of all Cleveland releases with Szell is the recording of William Walton’s 2nd Symphony and the Partita for orchestra. Those of us who have played in these pieces will confirm the extreme rhythmic and technical challenges that this music poses. Like some champion steeplechase, every obstacle is swept aside nonchalantly, the playing eliciting the composer’s highest praise.
When Szell’s rigor was applied to music from his homeland any thoughts of ‘folksy Dvorak’ were swept aside. Sentimentality is banished and the dance elements of the music brought into crisp focus.
There seems no evidence that Szell played any but the last three Dvorak Symphonies – the D minor, G major and E minor, called “from the new world”. These Symphonies, newly reissued on Sony Classical, make revelatory listening. The lyrical and the dramatic are perfectly fused, the structure taut and revealing. But more than that, Szell captures the scent and flavour of an old world Bohemia ruthlessly swept away by World War 2.
George Szell’s death in June 1970 brought to a close an era of music-making we won’t see again. His autocratic and despotic ways provoked a strong reaction immediately following his death, a reaction which led to the smiling face of orchestral democracy and the rise of the players’ committee within the orchestra, finally given power.
George Szell was a hard act to follow. His successor, Lorin Maazel, fought player hostility before departing for the Vienna State Opera. Truth to tell, Szell could have had no successor. He and Cleveland had fused as one.
A great music-maker was gone, and we are the richer for his legacy of fastidious perfectionism.