Wall Street Journal Review

Maestro and Martinet

The demanding conductor’s orchestra was said to play six concerts a week—only two of them open to the public.

By Tim Page

George Szell (1897-1970) was clearly among the most capable and influential orchestral conductors of the 20th century; he may also have been the most difficult. It was once suggested to Rudolf Bing, the longtime general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, that Szell was his “own worst enemy.” Bing replied: “Not while I’m alive.”

“Szell stories”—tales of his irascibility, hauteur and genius—are still popular when musicians gather to drink and dish after concerts. Pianist Glenn Gould referred to Szell’s “Dr. Cyclops” reputation and nearly walked out of his one and only collaboration with the conductor. (“That nut’s a genius” was Szell’s personal appraisal of Gould.) In 1946, his first year as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, Szell fired 22 of the 94 musicians in the group, and he later dismissed his brilliant principal oboist of almost two decades for a single insubordinate comment at a rehearsal. Most of his players were terrified of him; some frankly despised him. After Szell’s death, one Cleveland violinist refused to cut his hair, letting it grow down to his waist in posthumous rebuke to the martinet who could no longer object.

And yet Szell’s accomplishments in Cleveland cannot be overstated. He summed up his approach succinctly three years before his death. “My aim in developing the Cleveland Orchestra has been to combine the finest virtues of the great European orchestras of pre-World War II times with the most distinguished qualities of our leading American orchestras,” Szell wrote. “We put the American orchestra’s technical perfection, beauty of sound, and adaptability to the styles of various national schools of composers into the service of warmhearted, spontaneous music-making in the best European tradition.” And indeed, such was his legacy.

Szell’s career in Ohio has already been examined in detail by Donald Rosenberg, whose “The Cleveland Orchestra Story” (2000) may be the finest history of any classical ensemble. With “George Szell: A Life of Music,” Michael Charry, a distinguished conductor in his own right, gives us an affectionate but far from unsparing portrait of Szell from the vantage point of somebody who knew him and who worked with him for many years as part of the orchestra’s conducting staff.

Here is the young maestro, the boy from Budapest who was hailed as “the new Mozart” for his accomplishments as pianist and composer. Here is the fierce young conductor of the Berlin State Opera, where he led performances not only of his beloved Mozart and Wagner (a complete “Ring” cycle as well as several of the other operas) but also works that were far removed from his standard repertory, such as “Carmen,” “Boris Godunov” and “Tosca.”

And Mr. Charry examines Szell’s personal life in greater detail than has been afforded before, with a trove of previously unpublished letters. These chronicle his happy second marriage to Helene Schultz Teltsch, which lasted from 1938 until his death, and his devotion to his stepson. Szell spent his summers in Europe, where he became a skilled and eager golfer. He was much in demand as a guest conductor, although he won no friends at Lincoln Center when he suggested, in 1962, that the brand-new Philharmonic Hall (now called Avery Fisher Hall) be torn down and completely rebuilt.

Cleveland, of course, remains the heart of the matter. There was nothing inevitable about the establishment of a world-class orchestra in the city. The group was a relative latecomer, having played its first concert in 1918 (by comparison, the New York Philharmonic dates to 1842). When Szell arrived, it was a good orchestra of the second rank and certainly not to be spoken of with Boston, Philadelphia or Chicago. But Szell knew what he wanted and, with an efficiency that was usually blunt and sometimes brutal, went about his business. His rehearsals were so painstakingly thorough that it used to be said that the Cleveland Orchestra played six concerts a week—only two of which were open to the general public. “We begin rehearsing at the point where most other orchestras finish,” Szell used to say.

Mr. Charry’s prose is straightforward and erudite. He gives us the facts, pretty much in the order in which they happened, bolstering them with such welcome additions as a complete list of Szell’s repertory and his commercial recordings. There are times when I would have welcomed more detailed analysis (Mr. Charry acknowledges that the manuscript was cut considerably). My own interest in Szell is such that I would have followed the author through a work as long as Oliver Daniel’s exhaustive and gloriously over-the-top 1,000-page-plus biography of Leopold Stokowski. I suspect that this may be a minority report, however.

In any case, you will have to go elsewhere for some of the best Szell stories. André Previn recounts an occasion when Szell asked him to play the Richard Strauss “Burleske,” although there was no piano in the room. Szell ordered him to “play” it on a nearby tabletop, and then began to order him to play faster!—slower!—more expressively! Finally, exasperated, Previn told Szell that he couldn’t follow his instructions because he was used to his table at home, which had a different action. Szell was not amused.

Ultimately, Szell emerges as a great musician, an unforgiving boss and, despite himself, a strangely likable figure. Previn to the contrary, he had a sense of humor. Once his wife, Helene, was heard to tell him, yet again, that he was “his own worst enemy.” Szell answered: “Not while Rudolf Bing is alive!”