A Personal Reminiscence

(From Keynote Magazine, June 1987)

George Szell — His Hobby and His Life

By Michael Charry

George Szell, conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1946 until his death in Cleveland on July 30, 1970, was born 90 years ago this June 7th. Irving Kolodin, in an August 1970 article in Saturday Review (“The Size of Szell”), bemoaned the deaths within a 24-hour period of Sir John Barbirolli, Jonel Perlea, and Szell. “All will be missed, for qualities above and beyond the average, but Szell may also be rated irreplaceable, not merely for what he did but for what he was.”

George Szell in the late Forties

Kolodin ended with, “Szell was not, as has been said of some beloved in dividuals, all heart; nor was he, as some have contended, all head. But he was all music, and the size of his figure will grow as time recedes and the magnitude of his accomplishment emerges in ever greater grandeur against its background.”

What was George Szell and what did he do to merit Kolodin’s prediction? He began with a phenomenal and preco cious talent, which formed the basis for a depth of knowledge acquired during a lifetime of study and experience; he built the Cleveland Orchestra into a world- class ensemble; he conducted unforgetta ble performances with Cleveland, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Phil harmonic, and the great orchestras and festivals of Europe; although he had no false modesty in knowing his worth, he had a sincere humility; and he recog nized his responsibility in passing on his knowledge to generations of younger conductors.

Szell leads the Cleveland Orchestra in Leningrad's Philharmonic Hall during the Orchestra's 1965 tour. Photo: Oleg Makarov. Courtesy the Musical Arts Association Archives, Cleveland Orchestra

His was a complex and powerful personality, musically and otherwise. His effect on people was such that few were indifferent. That he could be careless of musicians’ feelings and even be cruel was truer of his earlier days than later. I knew him in his last nine years, when I was Cleveland’s apprentice and later assistant conductor. Comparing the tales of terror I had heard with the actuality, it was apparent that recognition and age had considerably mellowed that aspect of Szell. Yes, he was demanding for the music’s sake but comported himself mostly in a gentlemanly manner. He sometimes leaned heavily on new players in the Orchestra to toughen them up or bring them up to the Orchestra’s in credibly high standards. That process was sometimes painful to witness, much less for the player to undergo. Mostly what there was to see was sometimes painful to witness, much less for the player to undergo. Mostly what there was to see was a musician of awesome talent and experience who was eager for growth and improvement, not only for his orchestra but foremost for himself. The capacity for self-criticism was enormous, and through never rest ing on his laurels, he seemed to acquire more, up to his last concert. He gave in terested criticism freely, but praise from him was very rare. And he would not be flattered. The most I ever heard him say about his own work was in April 1970, before the final tour to Japan, after one of the most inspired “Eroicas” I could imagine: Back in his dressing room he said, “Now that was a performance!”

The Fearsome Gaze

Szell possessed a personal intensity that inspired fear and awe. His face could take on a stern expression, and his gaze, magnified by his strong glasses, seemed to penetrate with X-ray power. Even people who had to communicate with him by letter developed cases of nerves. And one could tell when he was in residence from the way Severance Hall was swept and polished. Hard to explain, but it was tangible. And for solo ists who worked with him or members of the Orchestra and conducting staff, there was constant tension.

Rudolf Serkin and Szell savor a felicitious moment while recording a Mozart concerto in november 1955.

I vividly recall an experience in October 1964: Mr. Szell had scheduled Pic tures at an Exhibition on subscription concerts, planning to take it on tour later in the season. When he decided not to tour with it, he turned it over to me on ten days notice. Mr. Szell conducted the first half of the concert, and Pictures took the second half He was backstage with me at intermission and gave me a personal sendoff. I expected him to walk around to his box and take in my per formance seated with Mrs. Szell.

Pictures began splendidly, with the solo trumpet joined by the brasses. Then came the first string entrance, and as I turned to my left I had the proverbial shock of my life. There, right behind the first violins, framed in the viewing window in the side of the stage shell, was Mr. Szell’s face staring out at me. I had been very pleased that he was staying for my performance, but the unexpected surprise of seeing him observing me throughout the performance was colos sally unnerving. I went on with the per­formance, of course, and had a good suc cess with the piece. But I must confess that from that moment on I took pains to concentrate on the front stands of violins and not back near the opening in the wall.

Helene Szell's favorite picture of her husband. Photo courtesy of Michael Charry

Mr. Szell must have been satisfied be cause, waiting for me when I came off stage, his only comment was that I paused too long between movements. In my concern for memorizing the music, I hadn’t given sufficient thought to that aspect of tying the piece together. At the next performance it made all the differ ence in the overall pacing—another of the many invaluable lessons I had from him. I remember hearing long ago that a musician should always practice as though a great teacher were listening. I often think back, as I work today, on performances like the Pictures, in which Mr. Szell took such a keen interest in my development, and remember what he would say. It always helps.

He never failed to give his utmost and expected nothing less from everyone around him. His talent and abilities were so great that it could be intimidating. As challenging, stimulating, and instruc tive as being in musical contact with him was, it was not easy. Members of the Or chestra felt as if they were constantly auditioning, and, indeed, they were. Mr. Szell felt a passionate calling in being a musician and a professional, and he made all those around him share that passion. And for that quality of music- making of which we were a privileged part, it was more than worth it.

A Hundred Little Szells

Inheriting the Cleveland Orchestra after its decimation by the draft during World War II (its conductor during the war, Erich Leinsdorf, was himself called into the Army), Szell raised within ten years what had been a respectable provincial orchestra into the ranks of world-class, as the 1957 triumphant tour of Europe proved. That the Cleveland’s greatness endures is living testimony of Szell’s unique method of instilling into the players a sense of musical purpose and involvement and his fierce sense of integrity, high standards, and, foremost, respect for the composer and the music.

It is said that in Leon Fleisher, Szell found his ideal interpreter of the piano-concerto repertoire. Their early Sixties' collaboration in the Beethoven Five may be the finest set recorded in stereo. Photo: CBS Records

George Szell’s goal and achievement was to combine the technical brilliance of the best American orchestras with the musical understanding and involvement of the best European ones. The Orchestra’s extraordinary sense of involvement in the music and music-making terrified some of its guest conductors, who felt that in facing that orchestra, they were standing in front of “a hundred little Szells!”

His personal goal was to approach each score with the clearest possible understanding of the composer’s style and intentions. This was an ever-growing process for him. When a new edition of a work was published, such as the Robbins Landon Haydn symphonies or the 1963 Universal critical edition of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, he would study it in minute detail, incorporating and putting into the orchestra parts all the changes that he considered valid. I was fascinated to assist him in this meticulous and in structive task.

What he said of Toscanini could also be said of Szell: “That he was a literalist in the trivial sense of the word is, I believe, nonsense. It is not possible for an artist like Toscanini to be a literalist; he was, I would rather say, a truth-seeker.” And, “That the letter of the text alone does not reveal everything and that it can be read in more ways than one is yet an other matter—but as a point of departure it transcends all others.” In a speech commemorating the opening of the new Conservatory of Music building at Oberlin College in 1964, Szell articulated his credo of reverence for the composer: “So let me urge you to consider that the com­poser is the alpha and the omega of everything we are doing, and our devotion to him must express itself in our endeavor to transmit his message—to communicate his message—which we can do only if we understand his message…. And I would like to say that in my life as a performing musician, the happiest moments were those where I had the feeling that! had approached to a certain degree the way to the goal of really understanding and transmitting the message of the composer.”

Clearly, Szell saw understanding the composer as a challenge to be hard won, a life of intensive work and soul-searching with those few glorious moments he described as reward.

The Road to the Composer

The groundwork that permitted these glorious moments to occur was his painstaking attention to detail in rehearsal. When a standard repertoire work would be programmed, Mr. Szell rehearsed it as though it were new, playing it through at the first rehearsal, then taking it meticulously apart throughout the week before putting it together again at the dress rehearsal. This attention to detail would be the same whether for Beethoven’s Fifth, Brahms’s Second, or any other familiar work they had performed frequently in several previous seasons and perhaps even recorded. The players would gripe bitterly over this. Remarks like “we know this cold” or “he doesn’t trust us” were heard regularly.

The first concert of my initial season as a new apprentice conductor in October 1962 featured Rossini’s La Gazza ladra Overture, Alfredo Casella’s Paganini ana, Respighi’s Fountains of Rome, and Brahms’s Second Symphony. Mr. Szell began the first rehearsal telling the Orchestra that he had missed them over the summer and asked to begin with the Brahms. They played through without stop or incident and with the warmest, freshest, and most completely accurate polish that I had up to then heard in concert from any orchestra—it was intoxicating. Except for eight weeks of pops, which not all played, they hadn’t made music together since May, and their first rehearsal was what I would have imagined a final concert of a season would achieve. And what, I thought, would he have to rehearse besides the other pieces? Yes, he did work a lot on the others, but on the Brahms, still plenty.

It was taken apart, balanced, tuned up, inspected in detail, almost to a tedious extent, but at the dress and in the concerts it was even more glorious. By concert time, Szell and the Orchestra “owned” the Brahms once again. No wonder they could produce under the demands of recording sessions with neither factors of fatigue nor anti-climax affecting them.

Sprano Judith Raskin offers a child's view of heaven in Mahler's Fourth, which became one of Szell's loveliest recordings. Photo: Peter Hastings

Szell was no less meticulous with contemporary music. He performed several major works by the late Peter Mennin, former president of the Juilliard School. Szell had heard Mennin’s Third Symphony when it was played by the New York Philharmonic in 1947, and Mennin learned that he had programmed it for Cleveland the following year. When Szell happened to be in New York guesting with the Philharmonic, Mennin went to introduce himself at a rehearsal break. Although in the midst of another program and well before the scheduled Cleveland performance, Szell asked several questions that impressed Mennin with his knowledge of the score. One question Mennin recalled in exact detail was, “Near the end of the first movement, which do you want to hear more, the trumpets who play the first theme or the broad line in the strings?”

When Szell premiered Mennin’s Seventh Symphony, written for him and the Cleveland Orchestra, they had a lengthy correspondence about musical details and analysis of its structure. Mennin said, “He really knew the piece, knew it as well as I did.” Szell suggested saving a fortissimo marking for the real climax of the piece, holding it down in an earlier spot where Mennin had marked if And Szell also suggested doubling the horn line on page 114—exactly as Mennin had originally scored it. The composer immediately restored it, which is how it stands in the printed score. I asked Mennin why he was so impressed about Szell knowing the score in advance and not learning it in rehearsal: Wasn’t that the way with most conductors? In his experience, the answer was no.

With Sir William Walton, who composed his Partita for Orchestra for the Cleveland's 40th Anniversary. Szell gave the American premieres of Walton's Second Symphony and Hindemith Variations and recorded all three works.

Long Takes

If rehearsals and concerts were serious business, recordings, which were for posterity, were even more a life-and-death matter. Preparation for a concert included detailed preparation of the orchestra parts weeks ahead of the first rehearsal. Preparation for a recording could mean that the parts were ready months and even a season ahead of the recording session. Orchestra members were expected to take the parts out of the library and practice them until they were note-perfect at the first rehearsal, and they did just that. “We begin where others leave off” was not an idle wish for the Cleveland, it was a daily fact of life.

With five rehearsals a week, Szell could properly prepare for a concert with four, and use the fifth to read ahead new works of unusual difficulty or works that were going to be recorded in the future. The recording sessions were planned to take place after the piece had been rehearsed and performed at least once that season, even though it may have been in the Orchestra’s regular repertoire in previous seasons.

Recordings were usually made on Friday mornings, after the Thursday-evening subscription concert. The pressure and artificiality of recording, without the stimulus of a live audience, makes it difficult for artists to produce their best. Naturally, the results could not always achieve the spontaneity of a performance; in order to duplicate the concert situation as much as possible, however, Szell preferred to record in long takes, later supplemented by inserts for editing. On some recordings, movements and even whole works—the Moldau comes immediately to mind—were the results of a single take with no editing. That the players were able under recording conditions to perform at such consistently high levels speaks for their highly disciplined professionalism, pride, and artistry. And some of the recordings are spectacular! As invaluable as recordings are as a document of past artists, recordings made from live concerts are more reliable and, to me, the most valid and interesting indicators of their stature. Kolodin’s prediction as to the growth of Szell’s importance seems to be borne out already and may increase as generations who didn’t hear his concerts live become acquainted with his recordings, whose lasting power is bringing them into the CD age. But they are not all that we have left of that collaboration. The concerts recorded for dissemination by radio station WCLV, originator of the broadcasts since 1965, are, in my estimation, the most vivid and accurate representation of the Szell/Cleveland experience. Of these broadcasts, the Mahler Sixth was, after Szell’s death, released on LP by Columbia Records. It was edited from three performances (by Andrew Kazdin with my consultation), but each “take” was a live performance, with all the immediacy, passion, and risk involved. If only more such recordings could be made public, it would immediately reveal “what the fuss was about” to a generation who never heard Szell and the Cleveland in live concert.

The master conductor with his three apprentices, (left to right) Stephen Portman, author Michael Charry, and James Levine, prior to a Bell Telephone Hour program.

>The Life of an Apprentice

A long hand-written letter that Mr. SzeII wrote to me from Switzerland in August 1968 was typical of his patience with young musicians and conductors to whom he felt a deep responsibility. He was replying to my request on the part of a colleague who was planning to perform the Schumann Second Symphony that I relay Szell’s well-known re-orchestration to him. Mr. Szell was not in favor of giving out his retouched score, for, “even more than almost anywhere else, the annotations are inseparable from the interpretation—and the latter cannot be gleaned, let alone learned—from the former.” He could not recommend that anyone adopt his markings without the “soul-searching” of having lived with and experimented with the piece for many years. “It cannot be ‘photocopied,’ as it were. I find it one of the most distressing symptoms of our day that young musicians, even the more gifted ones, especially in America, believe in picking up effortlessly ‘foolproof’ solutions—or what they think are such.” Szell believed that one should first perform the original orchestration and only from that basis evolve one’s own interpretation. Then, Szell suggested, my colleague might want to listen to his recording of the Second, “and if he wishes to try to follow the lines of my interpretation he should find himself the means to realize it HIS way. By this process he will learn more than by mere copying. He won’t be successful the first time—I wasn’t either—but he will acquire something to build on, acquire it HIS way and not via a treacherous and non-organic short-cut.”

He also gave generously of his time in workshops with the Cleveland Orchestra under the auspices of the American Symphony Orchestra League and by the apprentice and fellowship program for conductors with the Cleveland, which he initiated, supported by the Kulas Foundation, and of which I was a grateful beneficiary.

Rehearsing with Pierre Fournier, soloist in two of Szell's greatest recordings—Richard Strauss's Don Quixote for Epic/CBS and Dvorak's Cello Concerto for DG.

Requirements for the apprenticeship position were rigorous. Candidates were thoroughly auditioned by Szell personally. Mine lasted two hours, along the lines described by Szell in the letter quoted below. The apprentice program was first introduced when Szell began with Cleveland in the mid-Forties and revived in the Sixties when I joined the program. In my case I was fortunate enough to have the standard year renewed four times until, by then doing the work of an assistant conductor, I was appointed to that post along with my then-apprentice colleague, James Levine.

An apprentice took a completely active part in the Orchestra’s musical activities. He played in the keyboard and percussion sections, assisted Mr. Szell in editing the orchestra parts from his scores, and helped listen for balances in the hall—an area of constant importance to him. The apprentices conducted a full work each under Mr. Szell’s supervision in rehearsal for a Kulas Concert. Under Louis Lane’s tutelage (he was by then, along with Robert Shaw, associate conductor of the Orchestra), we took over pieces on the many childrens’ concerts and eventually had our own children’s and subscription concerts.

A student at the University of Michigan in 1968 sent Mr. Szell a question naire about what skills he considered necessary equipment for a conductor. In stead of a perfunctory answer that one might give a questionnaire, he answered in a thorough, detailed analysis of what skills he considered important, where and how to acquire those which can be acquired, and ended with an intensely personal statement about what music meant to him. Quoting from that letter:

At playbacks for the 1964 recording of Samuel Barber's Piano Concerto are (l. to r.) producer Paul Myers, Szell, Cleveland concertmaster Rafael Druian (standing), Samuel Barber, and soloist John Browning.

“In my opinion the minimum requirements for being a professional conductor are, in the first place, great musical talent, including natural gifts such as a sharp ear, preferably absolute pitch, an unfailing sense of rhythm, and a good, quickly absorbing and retentive memory. Furthermore, thorough training in musical theory, including harmony, counterpoint, and analysis of form. He should be a very proficient performer on at least one instrument—in my personal preference the piano—and should have some training as [a] composer….

“In addition to theory, knowledge of the orchestral literature, including of course the great classical symphonies and concertos of the repertoire, he should know the most important operas by Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Strauss and should be familiar with the chamber-music literature, especially the Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven string quartets. It goes without saying that the better he knows these works by heart, the more complete a musician he will be. Some musicological knowledge, especially some notions on the practice of performance of 17th- and 18th-century music, is desirable. It is obvious that it will take at least eight or ten years of intensive study to acquire the above knowledge—probably more….

“Conducting from memory is not just a showmanship gimmick, although it can be one if done by the charlatans of our profession. Actually, conducting from memory is a private affair of the conductor and does not necessarily guarantee a superior performance, but if a conductor has absorbed the work so thoroughly that he can dispense with the score during a performance and yet exercise complete and thorough control, so much the better. There is no objection to his having the score in front of him during a performance if it is only for occasional reference purposes, without burying his nose continuously in it….

“My main hobby is music. Everything else is uninteresting.”

An Apt Summation

His hobby and his life were music. Even on his deathbed, he was thinking music. On one of my visits to him in the hospital, as I entered his room, he was lying on his back with lips pursed to form his characteristic and virtuoso whistle. His elbow was resting on the bed, and his forearm was moving in conducting gestures. I don’t know what he was silently imagining but somehow felt it was the introduction of the “Great” Schubert C- major Symphony that he loved so much.

An apt summation of Szell’s career and accomplishments in Cleveland was written on January 28, 1968, by Thomas B. Sherman, music critic of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, whose opinions Szell respected and with whom Szell had maintained a friendly acquaintance since his local debut in 1930.

“The Cleveland Orchestra is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary under the leadership of George Szell, who has been its conductor for the last 22 years. No institution of its kind, in the United States or elsewhere, is better entitled to the admiration and support of the musical public. And no one person has done more to bring the orchestra to its present eminence than its conductor….

“The consensus in this instance is not confined to concertgoers of Cleveland. Wherever the orchestra has played with in recent years, whether on the Eastern seaboard, the large cities of the Far West, the great festivals of Europe or the farther-lying musical centers of the Soviet Union, the response of press and public was the same….

“As for George Szell, at age 70, he is in a position that might be regarded as psychologically precarious. He has attained his heart’s desire—so where does he go from there? For one thing, he is going to New York in 1969 to replace the retiring Leonard Bernstein as artistic director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. This is only an interim commitment which will last until the Philharmonic has chosen Bernstein’s successor. Szell will retain his post in Cleveland. In his belief, there is none better.”

George Szell’s letter in reply, dated February 14, 1968:

“Thank you so much for sending me the tear sheet with your story. As to be expected, it is perceptive and elegant. I must register, however, disagreement with one statement you made: I have not [underlined in red] attained my life’s desire—I should like to play better golf.”