George Szell (/ˈsɛl/; June 7, 1897 – July 30, 1970), originally György Széll, György Endre Szél, or Georg Szell, was a Hungarian-born Jewish-American conductor and composer. He is widely considered one of the twentieth century's greatest conductors. He is remembered today for his long and successful tenure as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra of Cleveland, Ohio, and for the recordings of the standard classical repertoire he made in Cleveland and with other orchestras.
Szell came to Cleveland in 1946 to take over a respected if undersized orchestra, which was struggling to recover from the disruptions of World War II. By the time of his death he was credited, to quote the critic Donal Henahan, with having built it into "what many critics regarded as the world's keenest symphonic instrument." Through his recordings, Szell has remained a presence in the classical music world long after his death, and his name remains synonymous with that of the Cleveland Orchestra. While on tour with the Orchestra in the late 1980s, then-Music Director Christoph von Dohnányi remarked, "We give a great concert, and George Szell gets a great review."
Life and career
Szell was born in Budapest but grew up in Vienna. His family was of Jewish origin but converted to Catholicism and so as a young boy he was brought up as a Catholic and taken regularly to Mass
He began his formal music training as a pianist, studying with Richard Robert. One of Robert's other students was Rudolf Serkin; Szell and Serkin became lifelong friends and musical collaborators. In addition to the piano, Szell studied composition with Eusebius Mandyczewski (a personal friend of Brahms), and with Max Reger for a brief period. Although his work as a composer is virtually unknown today, when he was fourteen Szell signed a ten-year exclusive publishing contract with Universal Edition in Vienna. In addition to writing original pieces, he arranged Bedřich Smetana's String Quartet No. 1, From My Life, for orchestra.
At the age of eleven, Szell began touring Europe as a pianist and composer, making his London debut at that age. Newspapers declared him "the next Mozart." Throughout his teenage years he performed with orchestras in this dual role, eventually making appearances as composer, pianist and conductor, as he did with the Berlin Philharmonic at age seventeen.
Szell quickly realized that he was never going to make a career out of being a composer or pianist, and that he much preferred the artistic control he could achieve as a conductor. He made an unplanned public conducting debut when he was seventeen, while vacationing with his family at a summer resort. The Vienna Symphony's conductor had injured his arm, and Szell was asked to substitute. Szell quickly turned to conducting full-time. Though he abandoned composing, throughout the rest of his life he occasionally played the piano with chamber ensembles and as an accompanist. Despite his rare appearances as a pianist after his teens, he remained in good form. During his Cleveland years he occasionally would demonstrate to guest pianists how he thought they should play a certain passage.
In 1915, at the age of 18, Szell won an appointment with Berlin's Royal Court Opera (now known as the Staatsoper). There, he was befriended by its Music Director, Richard Strauss. Strauss instantly recognized Szell's talent and was particularly impressed with how well the teenager conducted Strauss's music. Strauss once said that he could die a happy man knowing that there was someone who performed his music so perfectly. In fact, Szell ended up conducting part of the world premiere recording of Don Juan for Strauss. The composer had arranged for Szell to rehearse the orchestra for him, but having overslept, showed up an hour late to the recording session. Since the recording session was already paid for, and only Szell was there, Szell conducted the first half of the recording (since no more than four minutes of music could fit onto one side of a 78, the music was broken up into four sections). Strauss arrived as Szell was finishing conducting the second part; he exclaimed that what he heard was so good that it could go out under his own name. Strauss went on to record the last two parts, leaving the Szell-conducted half as part of the full world premiere recording of Don Juan.
Szell credited Strauss as being a major influence on his conducting style. Much of his baton technique, the Cleveland Orchestra's lean, transparent sound, and Szell's willingness to be an orchestra builder all came from Strauss. The two remained friends after Szell left the Royal Court Opera in 1919; even after World War II, when Szell had settled in the United States, Strauss kept track of how his protégé was doing.
In the fifteen years during and after World War I Szell worked with opera houses and orchestras in Europe: in Berlin, Strasbourg — where he succeeded Otto Klemperer at the Municipal Theatre — Prague, Darmstadt, and Düsseldorf, before becoming principal conductor, in 1924, of the Berlin Staatsoper, which had replaced the Royal Opera. In 1923 he conducted the premiere of Hans Gál's opera Die heilige Ente in Düsseldorf. In 1930, Szell made his United States debut with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. At this time he was better known as an opera conductor than an orchestral one. He was conductor of the Scottish Orchestra (which later became the Royal Scottish National Orchestra) in Glasgow for three seasons, 1936-39.
Move to the U.S.
At the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, Szell was returning via the U.S. from an Australian tour; he ended up settling with his family in New York City. From 1940 to 1945 he taught composition, orchestration, and music theory at the Mannes College of Music in Manhattan; his composition students at Mannes included George Rochberg and Ursula Mamlok. After a year devoted primarily to teaching, Szell began to receive frequent guest conducting invitations. Important among these invitations was a series of four concerts with Arturo Toscanini's NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1941. In 1942 he made his Metropolitan Opera debut; he conducted the company regularly for the next four years. In 1943 he made his New York Philharmonic debut. In 1946 he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.
The Cleveland Orchestra: 1946 to 1970
In 1946, Szell was asked to become the Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra. At the time the Cleveland Orchestra was a highly regarded regional American orchestra (the top-tier American orchestras were Philadelphia Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic and NBC Symphony Orchestra). For Szell, working in Cleveland would represent an opportunity to create his own personal ideal orchestra, one which would combine the virtuosity of the best American ensembles, with the homogeneity of tone of the best European orchestras. Szell made it clear to the trustees of the Orchestra that if they wanted him to be their next conductor, they would have to agree to give him total artistic control of the Orchestra; they agreed. He held this post until his death.
The next decade was spent firing musicians, carefully hiring replacements, increasing the orchestra's roster to over one hundred players, and relentlessly drilling the orchestra. Szell's rehearsals were legendary for their intensity. Absolute perfection was demanded from every player. Musicians would be dismissed on the spot for making too many mistakes or simply questioning Szell's authority. Although Szell was not alone in this practice — Toscanini was nothing if not dictatorial — such firings would not happen today: musicians' unions are much stronger now than they were then. If Szell heard a player practicing backstage before a concert and did not like what he heard, he would not hesitate to berate the musician and give detailed notes on how the music should be played, despite the concert being minutes away. Szell's autocratic style extended to giving suggestions to the Severance Hall janitorial staff on mopping technique and what brand of toilet paper to use in the restrooms.
Szell proudly boasted: "the Cleveland Orchestra gives seven concerts a week and the public is invited to two." Some critics found the Orchestra to sound over-rehearsed in concert, lacking spontaneity. Szell conceded this critique, saying that the orchestra did much of its best work during rehearsals. But Szell's high standards paid off. According to music critic Ted Libbey, "Szell's formidable musicianship and paternal authority commanded equal measures of respect from the Cleveland players, who under his baton achieved what was probably the highest executant standard of any orchestra in the world."
By the end of the 1950s it became clear to the world that the Cleveland Orchestra, noted for its flawless precision and chamber-like sound, had taken its place alongside the greatest orchestras in America and Europe. In addition to taking the Orchestra on annual tours to Carnegie Hall and the East Coast, Szell led the orchestra on its first international tours to Europe, the Soviet Union, Australia, and Japan. Among the awards he received in his lifetime was that of an honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire (C.B.E.) in 1963. He was also a Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur.
From 1964 to 1965, James Levine served as an apprentice to Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra, and then served as its assistant conductor until 1970.
Szell's manner in rehearsal was that of an autocratic taskmaster. He meticulously prepared for rehearsals and could play the entire score on the piano from memory. Preoccupied with phrasing, transparency, balance and architecture, Szell also insisted upon hitherto unheard-of rhythmic discipline from his players. The result was often a level of precision and ensemble playing normally found only in the best string quartets. For all Szell's absolutist methods, many of the orchestra's players were proud of the musical integrity to which he aspired. Video footage also shows that Szell took care to explain what he wanted and why, expressed delight when the orchestra produced what he was aiming for, and avoided over-rehearsing parts that were in good shape. His left hand, which he used to shape each sound, was often called the most graceful in music.
As a result of Szell's exactitude and very thorough rehearsals, some critics (such as Donald Vroon, editor of American Record Guide) have censured Szell's music-making as lacking emotion. In response to such criticism, Szell expressed this credo: "The borderline is very thin between clarity and coolness, self-discipline and severity. There exist different nuances of warmth — from the chaste warmth of Mozart to the sensuous warmth of Tchaikovsky, from the noble passion of Fidelio to the lascivious passion of Salome. I cannot pour chocolate sauce over asparagus." He further stated: "It is perfectly legitimate to prefer the hectic, the arhythmic, the untidy. But to my mind, great artistry is not disorderliness."
He has been described as a "literalist", playing only what is in the score. However, Szell was quite prepared to play music in unconventional ways if he thought the music needed these; and, like most other conductors before and since, he made many small modifications to orchestrations and even notes in the works of Beethoven, Schubert and others. His recordings of the four Schumann symphonies contain changes to the composer's orchestration (slight changes, admittedly, and fewer than most other prominent conductors have made).
A stickler for perfection, Szell could at times seem almost absurdly stubborn, but he always aimed only to get the best results. His great expertise regarding instrumental techniques assisted him in this respect.
Cloyd Duff, timpanist with the Cleveland Orchestra, once recalled how Szell had insisted that he play the snare drum part in Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, an instrument which he was not supposed to play. A month after having recorded the concerto in Cleveland (October 1959), it was to be performed at Carnegie Hall, as part of an annual two-week tour of the Eastern United States along with Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5. Szell had begun getting increasingly irritated about the side drum part in the second movement and by the time they reached New York City, Szell's escalation was going off the scale. "Starting with the one who had played on the recording, Szell tried out each of the staff percussionists on the side drum part. He made them so nervous that, one by one, they all stumbled. Finally Szell turned to timpanist Cloyd Duff."
This is the story as Duff tells it:
Szell came to me and said to me, "Cloyd I want you to play the snare drum part. I remember how you played these things in Philadelphia [over twenty years earlier at the Robin Hood Dell when Szell was guest conductor and Duff was a student at Curtis]." He had an awfully good memory, he liked my percussion playing. He said, "I want you to play the part," and I really blew my lid. I said, "You're ruining the whole section. Nobody can make a diminuendo to please you because they're so nervous. Every one of those men is capable of doing that." He said, "Even so, I want you to play the part." I said, "Do you realize how silly that will look, to see me get up from the timpani to go over to the snare drum and then back to the timpani and back to the snare drum at the end?" I said, "It's really uncalled for," or words to that effect. But, he said, "OK, but I want you to play that part. It's very important that we do it just right." I said, "OK, I'll play it for you, but don't you dare look at me." So when I played it, I played it louder than they had played it before so I had more room to make a diminuendo. Everybody was a little bit shocked that I had played it as loudly as I did. But Szell, true to his word, looked away, didn't look at me once and I didn't look at him under the circumstances.
Szell's reputation as a perfectionist was well-known, but his knowledge of instruments was deep. The Cleveland trumpeter Bernard Adelstein recounted Szell's knowledge of the trumpet:
He knew all the fingerings on the trumpet. For example, on the C-trumpet, the "E" on the fourth space is played open, with no valve, and it's a flat note. But there are two other options on the C-trumpet. You can play the same note with the first and second valves or the third valve. Both of them sound sharp. The third valve is a little sharp and the first and second valves together sounds even sharper. And he knew that. He called me in once when we were playing an octave in Don Juan. He said, "The 'E' is a flat note on the C-trumpet." I said, "Yes, that's why I play it on one and two." He said, "But one and two is sharp, isn't it?" I said, "Yes, but I make an adjustment, by lengthening the first slide a little bit." And he said, "Ah, yes, but it's still out of tune."
Szell primarily conducted works from the core Austro-German classical and romantic repertoire, from Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, through Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms, and on to Bruckner, Mahler and Strauss. He said once that as he got older he consciously narrowed his repertoire, feeling it was "actually my task to do those works which I thought I'm best qualified to do, and for which a certain tradition is disappearing with the disappearance of the great conductors who were my contemporaries and my idols and my unpaid teachers." He did however program contemporary music; he gave numerous world premieres in Cleveland, and he was particularly associated with such composers as Dutilleux, Walton, Prokofiev, Hindemith and Bartók. Szell also helped initiate the Cleveland Orchestra's long association with composer-conductor and avant-garde icon Pierre Boulez. At the same time, Szell championed the music of Haydn and Mozart in a period when those composers were little represented in concert programs.
After World War II Szell became closely associated with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, where he was a frequent guest conductor and made a number of recordings. He also regularly appeared with the London Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, and at the Salzburg Festival. From 1942 to 1955, he was an annual guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic and served as Musical Advisor and senior guest conductor of that orchestra in the last year of his life.
Szell married twice. The first, in 1920 to Olga Band, another of Richard Robert's pupils, ended in divorce in 1926. His second marriage, in 1938 to Helene Schultz Teltsch, originally from Prague, was much happier, and lasted until his death. When not making music, he was a gourmet cook and an automobile enthusiast. He regularly refused the services of the orchestra's chauffeur and drove his own Cadillac to rehearsal until almost the end of his life. He died from bone-marrow cancer in Cleveland in 1970. His body was cremated, and his ashes were buried, in Sandy Springs, Georgia, along with his wife upon her death in 1991.