Before he could walk, Hungarian George Szell (1897-1970) was correcting his mother’s musicianship. At nine months he was talking, and by age two he could sing in four languages. His parents sent him to a noted music teacher, Richard Robert, who recognized his genius and contributed his share of technique and discipline to the child who soon began to be called “the new Mozart.”
In this exhaustive biography, Michael Charry
(himself a conductor who worked under Szell in Cleveland) has drawn on many sources to present a picture of the great musician – pianist, composer and conductor – whose artistic gifts graced and improved some of the most famous orchestras in the world.
Szell never got over correcting the musicianship of others; as a conductor, a role he assumed in his twenties, he was known for his rigid structure and his intolerance for any player who did not have what he called “artistic morality.” When he initially assumed musical directorship of the Cleveland Orchestra, he immediately culled out those he didn’t want and began to hire new musicians, causing shock waves among the orchestra board and fans. But he justified this by famously stating that “a good orchestra does not depend on who plays but who does not play,” and said he sought “star quality…but not star mentality.” Once his new ensemble began to give concerts, everyone who listened was convinced. In fact Szell, like many conductors, had a cult of personality, with audiences coming to admire his style as much as to hear the music.
In private we learn that Szell could be playful and “normal” – he was an excellent chef, having once had a relationship with Erma Rombauer, the author of
Joy of Cooking. When his orchestra was on tour, Szell, not regarding railway food very highly, would have bottles of wine, loaves of fresh bread and other delicacies brought on board and carefully guarded, to be consumed after the performance. But, having never had much ordinary contact with people (an only child, homeschooled, and performing from an early age with much older musicians), he could also be curiously cold. An example in Charry’s book is that he would walk through a certain swinging door, allowing it to swing back on his wife walking behind him.
He was certainly ruthless in his dealings with those under his charge; a musician could get fired on the spot for missing too many notes or simply for disagreeing with Szell. But Charry indicates that Szell, who had been trained in Europe and had played with some of the great prodigies of an older, pre-war generation, felt he had a duty to narrow his focus and present music in a strict classical way. Perhaps he saw this discipline as slipping away in post-war America.
Szell, who died suddenly in his early 70s, noted that “the temptations to vanity and vainglory where conducting is concerned are many and dangerous,” but he himself attempted to ignore outside influences and conduct in a style that sprang from an earlier tradition, a style that would inspire his orchestra as well as his audience. In his mind, that required structure and a moral vision. He held to the last that “great artistry is not disorderliness.”
One of Szell’s early students, George Rochberg, recounted once coming upon Szell playing alone at the piano. It was said that when Szell played, he played not just the piano but the entire orchestra. Rochberg described this as comparable to “the blinding light that Paul had experienced on the road to Damascus…it was one of the great experiences of my musical life.” One reviewer wrote, “There seemed to be a god of music last night – Richard Wagner – and his prophet was George Szell.”