My close-up on the sheer hell of George Szell

My close-up on the sheer hell of George Szell


norman lebrecht

March 24, 2019

Our third and final extract from the new book by ex-LSO leader John Georgiadis:

A great admiration for the many fine LP’s made by George Szell with his Cleveland orchestra, meant a high level of excitement when it was announced that he would make one of his rare trips outside the USA to be guest conductor with the LSO. Our first surprise was his small stature, although we shouldn’t have been, as so many of his most celebrated colleagues of the baton-wielding variety were also much smaller than publicity photos would have you believe. However, seeing this diminutive figure climb onto a quite high podium – now we understood why the platform was double its usual height – was far outweighed by the astonishment I experienced when, from my front seat position, I could see clearly his knees shaking inside his trousers. Could this be true? Was this great Maestro, with that famous reputation for ruling with an iron fist, really frightened of us? It would appear so!….

….After passing through a few of the introductory bars that the orchestra had played faultlessly, where he couldn’t easily find anything to correct, the first notes played by the harpist gave Szell just what he was looking for. He stopped the orchestra, looked in the direction of the gentleman wrapped around that angelic instrument, and said, “Sir, your instrument is not in tune, kindly adjust it”. No big deal, for even though this was not our regular harpist, he was a very competent and much respected player. There was a short period while the orchestra sat quietly, listening to the necessary twanging of strings and clanging of tuning key, and then a few seconds of silence which suggested he was ready to proceed.

Szell re-started, but once again stopped the orchestra at the same point. “Your instrument is still not in tune, kindly attend to it”, said the Maestro, only now a little more forceful. And so came the clanging and twanging once again, but this time definitely a bit longer and louder with a distinct element of defiance, as our colleague was starting to suspect a personal attack. We also, were beginning to wonder…….! After all, to pick on a harpist…… It’s like taking sweets from a child…..

….The third attempt to play the offending passage ensued but with a similar result. “I tell you once again, your instrument is not in tune and it is not possible to work with it in that condition.” After a moment’s silence came the quite aggressive response, “How would you like it Dr. Szell, sharper or flatter?” spoken with no small amount of belligerence. Our harpist colleague had no doubt decided that enough was enough and it was time to put a stop to this obvious victimisation.

What followed was an extremely brief monologue from the Maestro in which he intimated with great clarity that he didn’t want it sharper or flatter, or more to the point, he didn’t want it at all with that particular harpist…..

….So within the space of his first 10 minutes as a guest conductor, George Szell had fired the harpist. The result of this very unusual happening was that this little man on the box was suddenly not so small and his knees, or for that matter his baton, were definitely no longer shaking, whereas many of us sitting around him were feeling more than a little wobbliness around the mid-leg region!



  • sycorax says:

    Buuuh – sounds like a hot “show”! He showed the orchestra in the first 10 minutes who’s the boss, didn’t he?
    Well, as I was a student in Stuttgart I had friends in the Südfunk-Orchestra which was at this time under the baton of Sergiu Celibidache. I was often watching the rehearsals – and it made me think about later searching for a job in an orchestra! However, as a bassoon I would have hardly had another chance …
    It came others – I had to give up, but that’s another story. In any case I’ve gotten that the life of an orchestra musician isn’t easy, especially not when he’s got such a “difficult” conductor.

    • Novagerio says:

      Sycorax: Hearing Celi during his lectures in Mainz, aswell as following some of his rehearsals in Munich was a true mind-and-ear-opener for me some 30 years ago, no matter what sceptics might say today.

      The things is that those “authoritarian” conductors formed the orchestras. Now a days, it’s the orchestras who form the (younger) conductors.

  • Christopher Storey says:

    What JG doesn’t tell us is that the rehearsal would not have been able to continue . Orchestral conductors …. two a penny . Harpists …. rare as rocking horse sh*t

  • rainforth says:

    I know of no reports which suggest that Mr Szell had one ounce of humanity in him (not suggesting that he hadn’t, merely that none are on record). A great conductor? For sure. The recording sessions for Brahms’ 1st Piano Concerto with Sir Clifford Curzon provide a nice vignette: a disagreement developed between them (Curzon could also be very nervy, edgy and demanding) and this turned into a clash between two Titans…in front of a bemused London Symphony Orchestra. The two stormed off stage and were heard screaming at each other from the artists’ room. The result? Arguably the greatest recording ever put down….

  • anon says:

    As Boulez said (on some youtube video I can’t locate quickly) regarding correcting intonation: It doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong, you have to go with it if you think so.

    Perception is subjective (older people hear things as sharper), and unless a musician is going to pull out an electronic tuner and say, look maestro, if your hearing is going at least I hope your eyesight is not going as fast, looking at the readout.

    In any case, by not answering the harpist whether to go sharper or flatter, Szell did not demonstrate his superior ear, he demonstrated his superior ability to fire, the essence of abuse and bullying.

    As NL pointed out in a recent post, Abbado did the same indirectly through an intermediary.

    Today, an orchestra would stick with the colleague and dump the conductor.

    • Spenser says:

      Dear anon,
      “older people hear things as sharper”….
      I have never heard this before.
      Would you be so kind as to elaborate, or provide links to more info regarding your assertion?

  • Novagerio says:

    George Szell the teacher: objective, inspiring and kind. Jimmie Levine is one of the students.

  • Philippa Ballard says:

    ==to pick on a harpist…… It’s like taking sweets from a child…..


  • Raymond says:

    The maestro should have been told to go and f**k himself!

  • M McAlpine says:

    I remember John Culshaw saying what a bad relationship Szell had with the LSO.

    • Luigi Nonono says:

      Well, considering how they played………. Compare Stokowski’s recordings with them to the USA recordings he maid….

  • John Porter says:

    He was primed to be music director of the New York Philharmonic and the orchestra was dreading this. When word arrived that Szell had died, the story goes that many in the orchestra cheered. That said, his recordings with Cleveland and the live recordings with the Met Opera are splendid.

    • Amos says:

      Sorry but your facts are amiss. After Bernstein left the NYPO Szell was designated an Advisor. With his blessings he saw to it that Pierre Boulez relinquished his position with the CO as Principal Guest Conductor and became music director of the NYPO. When anyone, musician or politician not withstanding, is deceased & thus unable to defend themselves we all have an obligation to get our facts straight before making critical comments.

    • Herbert von Solti says:

      I could very much be wrong…..but seeing as Boulez had been Principal Guest Conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra wasn’t the original plan for Szell and Boulez to essentially “tag team” 2 American Orchestras….

  • Bruce says:

    That does give an interesting bit of insight into the mental workings of bullies: that they are deathly afraid of something-or-other, and can only feel safe from it when inflicting the suffering they fear on someone else.

    At least Toscanini’s famous tantrums seem to have been rooted in love of the music. Szell and Reiner’s (and many others’) mistreatment of musicians seems to have been based mainly on personal nastiness. That type is still out there, they just have to behave themselves a little better now.

    • Stereo says:

      And have you noticed they are all Hungarians!

    • Luigi Nonono says:

      It’s not bullying when you are trying to get a great performance out of recalcitrant, sometimes lazy, sometimes incompetent musicians! Consider their position for once. Musicians who choose orchestras over solo playing and chamber music are usually lesser talents. Technicians. Especially now. But now the union protects them so well, all we get is mediocrity.

  • Amos says:

    In what world is 6′ or 6’1″ diminutive? Hopefully, the rest of Mr. Georgiadis’s recollections are more accurate. My recollection is that Barry Tuckwell’s account of Szell’s work with the LSO was significantly more praiseworthy.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Did Szell clash with the Concertgebouw or the Vienna Philharmonic? Are there any related stories?
    Some of my favorite Szell recordings are with those orchestras. I am particularly thinking of the Sibelius 2nd and Beethoven 5th with the Concertgebouw, which I think of as among the best orchestral recordings I’ve ever heard.

    • Amos says:

      GS led the VPO shortly after the war and after a few bars of either a Mozart or Strauss overture supposedly stopped and said something to the effect “gentlemen you clearly are unfamiliar with …

    • Spenser says:

      I am thoroughly in agreement with you.
      The Sib 2 and Beeth 5 with the CO are stunning.
      That Beeth 5 is in fact my all-time favorite recording of the work, and the Sib 2 is not far behind.

  • Bill Gross says:

    Yet, in a conversation with Barry Tuckwell on conductors Szell came up. Tuckwell said say what you will we kept hiring him.

  • Chuck Stark says:

    I’m afraid your “close up” on Georgiadis’s recollection of Szell is selective and misleading. Georgiadis concludes his section on Szell as follows, quite a different take than the impression left by your excerpt:

    “As a young leader it was only my second contact with this type of authoritarian approach, (first was Celibidache in Stockholm) and I was very impressed by the results. There was no doubt that the fear he had generated by his initial attack at that first rehearsal had instilled a level of commitment and concentration amongst the LSO musicians that was not an everyday happening. The result had been a very exciting concert with some really commendable playing, and I was very sorry that he didn’t return to conduct us again.”

    • norman lebrecht says:

      It was JG who selected this text.

    • Stephen says:

      “…the fear he had generated by his initial attack at that first rehearsal had instilled a level of commitment and concentration amongst the LSO musicians…”

      Really? Reminds me of Voltaire’s quip (paraphrased): “Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps une harpiste pour encourager les autres.”

    • Saxon Broken says:

      JG writes: ” I was very sorry that he didn’t return to conduct us again.”

      That is hilarious. Because Szell told the LSO that he would gladly come and conduct them again, and would even waive his fee, but he was not prepared to come while JG remained. Basically, JG was “too nasty for Szell”, which is really some achievement.

  • muslit says:

    I have played for conductors most of my life – 50 years professionally. When unions were weaker, you could encounter conductorial behavior like this. When they became stronger, this kind of behavior was not permitted. In the old days, conductors ruled and management often sided with the conductor. Today, orchestral committees, union reps, and management input from orchestra members make management think twice about work related issues. The idea is to find a middle ground. One negative side to the status quo today is that you encounter fewer interpretive conductors. (Orchestras have reached such a technical level of expertise that that you don’t have the likes of a Reiner or Szell like you used to.) A friend of mind in a very good orchestra told me that his orchestra prefers a conductor who lets the orchestra play by itself, with the least amount of interference (of course, preferably with a good stick technique). This is why one often hears practically the same rendition of a work played over and over again by different orchestras. Sure, acoustics and orchestral sound come into play, and also the energy created (or lack of) between orchestra and conductor. But as far as a conductor’s personal vision of a work is concerned (Mahler, Furtwangler, Horenstein, Bernstein, etc.), those days are few and far between. Now it’s more like smooth sailing on the part of conductors and orchestras, with more cloned performances the norm.

    • Amos says:

      With all due respect what you describe is exactly why it is rarely worth attending concerts. An abusive workplace is unacceptable in any profession. Why an intelligent, well trained and fluent musician like GS was unable or unwilling to create a more harmonious environment in Cleveland is both unfortunate and mystifying. Lynn Harrell has described the orchestra’s relationship with GS as love/hate. The public record suggests that Szell did go out of his way to help members of the orchestra (for example arranging and paying for Arnold Steinhardt to study with Szigeti) yet he was unable to overcome the habit of over rehearsing the CO to the point that even he admitted that they often did their best playing at the dress rehearsal. From what I’ve read most members of the orchestra respected the commitment, knowledge and focus on the composer that GS brought to his craft. I’m just as certain most would have preferred a more consistently humane approach.

      • Monsoon says:

        I’d argue that the story of Szell is really quite simple: The smartest guy in the room sometimes makes the worst boss. Skill and expertise in your field of work doesn’t automatically make you a good manager.

        • Amos says:

          As with most simple explanations, your’s is left wanting. In the case of GS he took a very good regional orchestra and over the course of 24 years built a world-class ensemble. The vast majority of his recordings are still widely regarded as preferred listening and in some cases seminal. Last, through his leadership, he left the CO with a summer facility which enabled the orchestra to become a year-round enterprise. A flawed manager/leader perhaps but nonetheless an extraordinary musician who left the CO in infinitely better condition than he found it.

          • Novagerio says:

            Allow me to disagree. The very good regional orchestra” Cleveland was brought to topnotch excellence by Arthur Rodzinski in pre-Szell times, between 1933-43. But it was with Szell that they made their very succesful recordings.

          • Amos says:

            Sorry but is that why GS found it necessary to replace virtually every principal player from the AR era? He did get principal flute MS to return but everyone else was replaced. The CO of the AR-era was never mentioned as being in the same league as the NBC, CSO, BSO, NYPO or PO. Very good absolutely but not world-class.

          • Luigi Nonono says:

            Maurice Sharp. You can say his name. And the first principal female harpist was the incomparable Florence Wightman, followed after one season by the famed Alice Chalifoux.

          • Novagerio says:

            Well, dislike it if you like, but it’s a fact.
            And Rodzinski was a real “driller”, although he’s mostly remembered for carrying a loaded gun in his pocket in rehearsals!

    • Jk says:

      Very true. So which kind of conductor do you prefer?

    • Luigi Nonono says:

      I experienced the end of this era firsthand. I played with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, whose director, Hugh Wolff, had brought in his teacher, Charles Bruck, to shape up the orchestra and restore some discipline. We were playing Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. He very calmly announced that we would work our way through the entire piece, phrase by phrase, repeating each phrase three times. He did so, a brilliant move. By the third time, the details were clear and exciting. Then, after looking around, he fixed upon the second oboist, who exuded a weak personality. He pounced and chastised and shook her verbally. Her playing improved somewhat, got more gutsy.
      When the break came, one of the violinists, who, before the rehearsal had loudly proclaimed, we are all so great, we should be in, we should BE the New York Philharmonic, and here we are, across the river in exile… (what pathetic egotism…which is exactly what the playing sounded like when we started)… and it wasn’t like they weren’t making a good salary…anyway, she stood up and yelled, “We’re not going to tolerate this!” How dare he pick on one of us, let alone a woman, words to that effect. “I’m calling the union. Who’s with me on this?” A number of musicians applauded her or yelled something in agreement. The call was made. Someone from the union had words with the maestro, and he was effectively cowed. After that, he hid, all alone, in his dressing room. He conducted magnificent performances with an orchestra that sounded five times better than before, but his work was not appreciated. And as far as I know, that was the last time he conducted a major orchestra. I am glad that I thanked him and told him how inspiring he was. Those ungrateful wretches. It was later I learned from a Soviet conductor that the Machiavellian principle is to not attack a core player, one who is admired, but the weak one next to him, in order to scare him by example. But in this case, her playing was truly noticeably weak and lacking in basic energy. He was right and they were wrong.

  • A visitor says:

    His small stature? Szell was over 6′ tall.

  • Richard Wilson says:

    I grew up in the shadow of George Szell, attending over 100 of his concerts in the 1950s. I was at quite a few rehearsals and even ventured into his dressing room to get autographs of guest artists. The man was easily six feet tall. He rehearsed efficiently but with great attention to detail—all details. The anecdote about the harpist makes no sense. He would never have wasted time that could have been put to achieving a better quality of performance.

    • Bruce says:

      Well then. The author must have made it up.

      • John Kelly says:

        It does rather beg the question of where they rounded up another harp quickly. Rehearsal time at a premium and on the orchestra’s own self-governing nickel (or shilling……). Together with the “shortness of stature” claim, the witness should be considered unreliable at best here. I knew a player in the CO who played there for over 30 years, he said “the orchestra hated Szell”. Having said that the results sort of speak for themselves…………”Cyclops” could deliver the goods.

        • Luigi Nonono says:

          If there was just one work on the program, they could easily work on the other pieces, and round up another harpist, as there would be one nearby in central London, at the opera house, any number of places.

  • muslit says:

    Marc Lifschey, the great oboe player, had had enough of Szell and quit. 15 years was enough.

    • John Kelly says:

      A great player no doubt, though I once saw some wag suggest programs in Lifshey’s mind should read “Marc Lifshey, accompanied by the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by (in small text) George Szell. LOL. Having said that, what a gorgeous tone, and such a wonderful sense of line. Fabulous.

  • Philippa Ballard says:

    There was a story of NYPO being so cheesed off with GS that the concertmaster and some of his cronies decided to play slightly ahead (or maybe after) his beat in a concert performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream overture as a punishment.
    Let me see if I can dig it out. I may even have read this on SD ?

  • Philippa Ballard says:

    Yes, it was the Herbert Glass comment here (re driving Szell ‘batty’) :

  • Patrick says:

    The LSO were an undisciplined gang at that time. Still can be, but not so bad. Szell was accustomed to finer playing from his Cleveland band, and most certainly from their harpist Alice Chalifoux.

  • fflambeau says:

    Sound suspect.

    George Szell was a six footer. “An imposing figure who stood six feet tall….” from

    Numerous pictures (see Wikipedia) show him taller than the person he is with.

    If you get this wrong, what can be right about your “memory”?

  • fflambeau says:

    3 Strikes and You are out.

    1) height. I’ve already posted one source to the effect that GS was at least 6′ tall; the NYTimes, meanwhile, says he was 6′ 1″. Looking at photos of yourself, you’re the short guy. In a photo you took with cellist, Brian Hawkins, you are at least 1 head shorter than him. Projection?

    2) “I could see clearly his knees shaking inside his trousers… .” This also sounds very dubious. You could perhaps see his legs quivering but how can you see someone’s knees shaking when they are covered by ?trousers?

    3) on the harpist: You claim, “After all, to pick on a harpist…… It’s like taking sweets from a child…..” My question: why? A harpist is a professional musician and could very well be out of tune. It could also have been GS’s way of telling the harpist he simply was not good enough (you intimate he was not the regular harpist).

    3 strikes and you are out!

  • her royal snarkiness says:

    Dear me, but Mr Georgiadis needs an editor. Flowery, undisciplined writing. So un-Szell!

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    Well he built up the greatest orchestra in the USA, which remains so after all these years and with very much the same identifiable qualities. One of only two non central European orchestras to deserve a place in the top ten orchestras of the world (the other one is Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra). A truly small , timid man cannot achieve this.

    • John Kelly says:

      Yes, wherever the orchestra plays, it doesn’t matter who is conducting, Szell still gets great reviews………

    • Luigi Nonono says:

      What crap. The Boston Symphony Orchestra is the finest in the USA, followed by Philadelphia, Cleveland, New York, Minnesota, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City Ballet, Metropolitan Opera, in pretty much that order. NO European orchestra is better. The Berlin Philharmonic matches them but is no better. The Vienna Philharmonic sounds quite provincial by comparison, about like Milwaukee or Baltimore. I much prefer the Czech Philharmonic to Vienna.

  • M McAlpine says:

    I’m greatly puzzled to as to JG’s description of Szell as a ‘diminutive figure’ when the man was over 6 feet tall! Makes one wonder how accurate the rest of the book is in terms of facts! Szell could be a tyrant, but Michael Charry, who worked with Szell, says he could also be compassionate. Charry recalls overhearing a conversation between Szell and an orchestra manager about a violinist who was going blind.
    “And he said, ‘Poor man. I’m afraid I’ll have to let him go after the end of the season.’ And the personnel manager said to Szell, ‘This man has two more years to go before he gets a full pension. If you release him now, he’ll get a very small fraction of that,'” Charry says. “Szell said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that. Thank you.’ And he kept him on for two more years.'” So obviously two sides to the ogre.

  • Larry W says:

    This paperback book, Bow to Baton, sells for $50.00 on Amazon. The title has an alternate, perhaps unintended meaning, since concertmasters must bow to the baton of the conductor.

  • muslit says:

    Szell as a conductor was never my cup of tea. Of course, I was always impressed by the precision and ensemble playing of the Cleveland Orchestra on recordings. What lacked was a certain abandonment, which would have given greater urgency to the music. But everything was in place. I never had the pleasure of hearing him conduct live, and you can’t really judge by recordings. I have seen some youtube videos and I’ve been more impressed (Vienna Philharmonic, Walton”s Variations on a Theme by Hindemith). Now I have a certain nostalgia for him.

    • Luigi Nonono says:

      Severance Hall is a very dry hall. That has a great influence. It requires that kind of playing from the musicians and the conductor.

  • Ruben Greenberg says:

    Three subjects should be avoided in polite company: politics, religion, and intonation.

  • Herbert von Solti says:

    My apologies for ignorance here. I know that before Unions became more powerful how these things usually ended but a GUEST CONDUCTOR could fire someone???

  • John Kelly says:

    I just got the book and read a good deal of it, the sections on the various conductors. A lot is funny, but much is dubious at best. It’s very much a case of a mouse writing about the various cats he’s had to coexist with…..
    Aside from the claims that Szell was “short”, we have Ormandy (also – in this case – correctly) “short” and lumped in with others whose shortness is considered worthy of remark (HVK, Bernstein….). Leinsdorf and Bohm are dismissed in a single paragraph and Jochum is described as a “sack of potatoes” (probably this is Kleiber’s description of Bohm – see Conversations with Carlos by Barber.) Kleiber’s one and only concert with the LSO goes unmentioned. There are stories of the LSO violins standing on their chairs so the mikes could pick them up during recording sessions at Kingsway Hall with Solti (who is given very short shrift, apparently wanting the brasses as loud as possible – this part may be true, I experienced the Chicago Blare on many an occasion.) Standing on their chairs to be nearer the mikes? Really? How could they read the music? Just asking………
    Stokowski is recalled as a showman par excellence, giving “numerous” encores at Fairfield Halls to a half empty auditorium (they gave 3). His hokey accent is recalled of course. Underneath all that, a talented musician. Stoki’s “wife” is mentioned sitting in the Hall and reluctantly coming to the podium. Stoki’s most recent wife had been Gloria Vanderbilt, divorced in 1955. This was undoubtedly Natalie Bender who lived with Stoki in his dotage in Hampshire. A recording session was cited where Stoki “dropped off” during Stars and Stripes. This was not a session with the LSO, it was with the Sidney Sax pickup orchestra (National Philharmonic) and while it’s doubtful Stoki dropped off during something so loud, he was prone in his 90s to drop off. JG seems to imply that he was there (in which case he was moonlighting in the National) or if he wasn’t there this story goes along with numerous others where all he’s doing is recounting funny anecdotes. It wasn’t with the LSO that’s for sure. Dorati’s tempo changes in his recordings of Tchaikovsky Symphonies were apparently the result of clever editing by Cozart Fine of Mercury, that’s why they sound so good………and so on.

    I am not saying “don’t buy the book” because I think on balance it’s worth the $49 for the insights and humor, but don’t consider it an accurate recollection of events, there’s too much that’s just not credible……

    • Ruben Greenberg says:

      John Kellly: I don’t know whether this is your full-time occupation, but you’re an EXCELLENT reviewer. I should think 49 dollars can be better spent.

      • John Kelly says:

        Compliment appreciated. I am an enthusiast, not a musician or a professional reviewer (that’s not such a great occupation, not since the demise of Olga Samaroff and Harold Schonberg and Bill Mann – those were great reviewers)!

        I sent the parts of the book about Stoki to someone who was at all the rehearsals and concerts and recording sessions mentioned. Fairfield Halls was FULL for the concert mentioned, Stoki didn’t attempt to hit his companion Natalie Bender, he gave 3 encores not 6 and JG wasn’t the leader for that concert, it was John Brown. JG may not even have been there……and Stoki didn’t drop off during Stars and Stripes during that recording session with the National Phil. All hearsay.

        “The witness is unreliable your honor”

  • Luigi Nonono says:

    Well, duh, classic Machiavellian tactic. He knew it was a sub, and picked on the weakest link he could find, to put you all in your places, far beneath him. Why did you assume his knees would shake with fear? How about addressing his musicianship, not his behavior? And harps are far from angelic, what a sickening stereotype. At least it was a man, and he probably had some bad strings on it. After all, Szell was used to Alice Chalifoux, not David Watkins or Osian Ellis, with false gut strings, most likely.