George Szell: A Life of Music.
Among the public emblems that symbolize some great cities are various iconic architectural and engineering wonders like the Eiffel Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge. while other municipalities take pride in championship sports teams. Cleveland may be unique in that its most revered civic gem may he its orchestra. an ensemble that ranks today among the world's finest. In bet. the Cleveland Orchestra has been at or near the pinnacle of classical orchestras fOr over a half century. including the mon. than [bur decades since the death of the conductor who transformed a moderately good regional group into a powerhouse ensemble with few peers. And like his adopted city of Cleveland among other major United States metropolises, that conductor, George Szell (1897-1970), has often been overlooked or taken for granted when the greatest conductors of the twentieth century are mentioned.
Whatever the reasons for Szell's lower historic profile -- especially in comparison to other widely admired twentieth-century conductors like Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwiingler, and Bruno Walter, whose careers have attracted significant biographical interest -- Michael Charry has corrected that oversight somewhat with this first book-length treatment of Szell's life. As a member of the Cleveland Orchestra's conducting staff for nine years tinder Szell, Charry is well qualified for the task, and he draws on a wealth of primary documents, chiefly the archives of the Musical Arts Association, the trusteeship that oversaw the Cleveland Orchestra, as well as other unpublished letters and documents, personal interviews, innumerable published concert reviews, and similar sources to tell Szell's story in a straightforward fashion.
Most of the book -- in fact, the final eight of twelve chapters -- deals with Szell's career after he assumed the leadership of the Cleveland Orchestra. Charry also includes discussions of Szell's long associations with the New York Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and the (New York) Metropolitan Opera; brief stints in charge of' other orchestras; and numerous guest appearances throughout Europe and the United States. Anyone who might have thought of Szell as merely a provincial conductor who built his career in Cleveland will have to reconsider their misconceptions after reading this book.
Charry's first chapter covers Szell's first thirty-three years, from his birth in Budapest to conducting and teaching positions in Berlin. Following his family's move to Vienna around 16-03-41 and change of name from the Hungarian Szel, the young George was entrusted to Richard Robert, who oversaw the boy's piano training and general music education. At age ten Szell made his debut as a pianist in Vienna, followed by other well-received appearances throughout Europe; he was also a promising composer, who by age fifteen had a contract with Universal Edition. Wisely, the family limited the boy's professional performances and did not exploit the prodigy. Still, his talent was such that he spent most of his time surrounded by colleagues who were several years older; and growing up in an adult world, he never really developed a good sense of empathy for the feelings of others (p. 6). At age sixteen, Szell's career path was set when he substituted for an indisposed conductor at a spa orchestra performance. Although he soon gave up performing, his prodigious skills at sight-reading and especially playing scores at the keyboard would serve him well for the rest of his life and become the subject of numerous anecdotes throughout his career.
As a natural talent on the podium, Szell never had formal lessons in conducting. Rather, he learned on the job-as a rehearsal pianist-coach-conductor in the opera house. Hired by Leo Belch as a Repetiteur for the Berlin State Opera, Szell quickly ingratiated himself with the company's music director, Richard Strauss, who became a conducting model and mentor for him. Strauss recognized the teenager's talent to the degree that he entrusted him with rehearsals for a 1916 recording of Don Juan, and when Strauss was late for the session, Szell conducted the orchestra for the first two sides of the four-disc recording. After his arrival, Strauss declared those takes more than acceptable, arid so Szell's first recorded performances can still be found on that early recording credited solely to Strauss (pp. 14-15). A year later, Strauss supported Szell's move to Strasbourg and after the war attempted unsuccessfully to bring him to Vienna as an assistant.
With his apprenticeship complete, Szell began his climb through guest-conducting and various short-term appointments. One important opportunity came in 1930 when the St. Louis Symphony included him among a handful of candidates for its permanent music directorship. Each conducted the orchestra in a series of concerts over two years that led to the appointment of Vladimir Golschmann, even though Szell may have been the most talented and successful contender. Factors beyond mere musicianship mattered, however, and Charry does an excellent job of explaining how each candidate's programming, order of performances, concert reviews, covert support, and personality all came into play in the decision (pp. 23-30).
Nearly fifteen more years passed before he was appointed music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, and in those intervening years Szcll led orchestras in Scotland and Australia, and guest-conducted widely. Under the specter of war in 1939, Szell and his wife settled in New York, where he established working relationships with both the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. In 1943, Arun-Rodzinski resigned as music director of the Cleveland Orchesira, setting off a competition for his successor, similar to the events in St. Louis a dozen years earlier. Remarkably, Golschmann was again Szell's chief rival for the position, but this time Sze11 also faced and overcame a more formidable opponent in Adella Prentiss Hughes, one of the orchestra's founders and a force on the orchestra's board. Charry again provides a close look at both the public events and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that. won the job for Szell (pp. 78-85). Before accepting the position, however, he extracted a series of promises from the Orchestra's board that would enable him to make the ensemble "second to none."
The remainder of the book is primarily the story of that inexorable march to the top, which the Cleveland Orchestra reached by the beginning, of the 949-50 season, when Szell himself said that "the Cleveland Orchestra ranks among the five or six finest orchestras in the world" (p. 115). Throughout these pages, Chatty gives liberal summaries of the orchestra's concerts, lists of guest artists and conductors, and extracts from the usually glowing reviews and feature articles. While these chronologies and encomiums are not unexpected, their frequency and ever laudatory tone can be a bit numbing at times, since they add little of substance to our understanding of who Szell was. For that, one must read within and between the lines of (history admiring of the orchestra under Szell.
Long before this book, Szell's reputation was that of an exacting and demanding conductor, who could intimidate the most accomplished musician and demolish lesser talents, and among professional musicians, tales of his viciousness and even cruelty circulated widely. Charry never addresses this aspect. of his personality directly, but scattered throughout the book are many notices of such behavior. For instance, Charry reports that for his final appearance in Si. Louis, after learning that he had lost the position Golschmann, Szell made the orchestra's lite "sheer hell" (p. 28). In Australia in 1938-39, Szell was initially quite colnplimentary to the musicians whom he led, but when he worked with lesser ensembles in smaller cities. Szell became disinterested and wrote memos about the players' shortcomings to his superiors (pp. 18-51). Several more public incidents, including one with an unprepared soprano at t he 1947 Glyndebourne Festival (pp. 102-04) and a guest-conducting appearance with the San Francisco Symphony in 1962, from which Szell withdrew on short notice (pp. 204-06), are also discussed, while Szell's infamous blow-up at the Metropolitan Opera in 1954 receives a full chapter (pp. 141-48).
With the Cleveland Orchestra, Szell made his first waves with a large number of fired or demoted musicians in his first years, and when challenged by the hoard about the "bad feelings created by [his] methods of dismissal," he responded with a short. speech and then stalked out of the room betbre anyone could reply (pp. 98100). In rehearsal, he could utterly demoralize his men with nearly impossible demands (p. 203), and at one rehearsal, he was so abusive that the entire orchestra refused to return from a break until he had apologized (p. 241). To build "his Orchestra," Szell was not above stealing players from other ensembles that he guest-conducted. His enticement of concertmaster Josef Gingold away from the Detroit Symphony made national news (p. 98), and while luring away oboist Marc Lifschey and clarinetist Robert Marcellus from the National Symphony escaped headlines, Sze11 was never again invited to conduct in Washington. (pp. 117-18).
To his credit, Charry does not ignore these and other incidents, although his reporting of them often seems tempered by a matter-of-fact lone or may be followed by mitigating comments. One suspects that Charry, a conductor himself, is more than a hit sympathetic to his old mentor. On the other band, Charry notes innumerable instances of Szell's kindnesses to players both deserving and not, and his efforts to promote young talents. Beyond his work on the podium, Szell took a strong interest. in acoustics and worked to make Severance Hall, the Cleveland Orchestra's home, one of the best-sounding performance spaces in the country. Similarly, Szell lobbied patiently for a summer home for the Cleveland Orchestra, and when the Blossom Music Center was built, Szell insisted on amenities that included "air conditioning" of the open structure (pp. 268-69). Finally, Chaffy also does well to show other sides of Sze11's personality, such as his obsession with details of all kinds (the typeface on concert programs and the color of the back wall in Severance Hall), his amusing concern about miniskirts worn by Cleveland Orchestra staff members, and his enjoyment of travel, good food, and other pleasures.
Taken as a whole, Charry has clone a credible job in opening a door to the life of one of the twentieth century's most important conductors, and a man of complexity and contradictions. One might wish that he had delved more into the mysteries of how Szell made the Cleveland Orchestra into such an enduring ensemble. After all, Toscanini and others left only recordings, no matter how extensive the number. Szell built an orchestra that shows no signs of deterioration. Such a feat is worthy of additional investigation, which may begin with Charry's foundation.
SCOTT WARFIELD University of Central Florida