When George Szell died in 1970, Irving Kolodin wrote, "the size of his figure will grow as time recedes and the magnitude of his accomplishment emerges in ever greater grandeur against its background." Szell, born in 1897, was one of the greatest orchestra and opera conductors of his time. He has been the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine articles. this is his first biography.
Szell's most significant life accomplishment was as musical director of the Cleveland orchestra. He raised it from the ranks of respected second-tier ensembles to the highest level of world class. The Szell/Cleveland orchestra combination is legendary. Szell's Cleveland performances from 1965 to 1970 are preserved in broadcast recordings, and his commercial recordings with the Cleveland and concerts and recordings with other orchestras are continually being reissued on compact disc.
A product of central Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, Szell was a child prodigy pianist and composer, but in his mid-twenties he gave up both for conducting. He served as a protégé of composer-conductor Richard Strauss at the Berlin opera, and Strauss recommended him for his first musical post at the Strasbourg opera when Szell was twenty years old.
Szell is known throughout the musical world. He was a guest conductor of the most prestigious orchestras and festivals in north America, Austria, Australia, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. On tours, he led the Cleveland orchestra throughout the United States, to Canada, Europe, the Soviet Union, Korea, and Japan. Coming from Prague, where he was chief conductor of the German opera House (1929–1937), Szell made his United States debut in 1930 with the St. Louis Symphony, returning in 1931. He made his New York orchestral debut with the NBC Symphony orchestra in 1941, at the invitation of Arturo Toscanini, with whom he has often been compared.
Szell was one of the chief conductors of the Metropolitan Opera from 1942 until he assumed leadership of the Cleveland Orchestra in 1946. From 1936 until the end of his life, Szell was a regular guest conductor of the royal Concertgebouw orchestra of Amsterdam. Until his death, he served as musical director in Cleveland, and in 1969 was named "music advisor and senior guest conductor" of the New York Philharmonic, of which he had been a regular guest conductor since 1943.
From early on and throughout his career, Szell championed the music of numerous living composers, including Béla Bartók, Paul Hindemith, Rolf Liebermann, Peter Mennin, and William Walton. Szell's support of Pierre Boulez and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski helped establish their international conducting careers.
Szell was born in Budapest of Jewish parents. His family converted from Judaism and moved to Vienna when he was three, and there he was raised a Catholic. throughout his life Szell felt ambivalent about his Hungarian origin, claiming Czech ancestry through his mother's side. He became a citizen of the newly formed Czechoslovakia in 1919 and of the United States in 1946, the year he became musical director in Cleveland. Time magazine quoted him as saying, "I'm so damned normal," but many would dispute that vigorously. "No one is indifferent to George Szell," wrote Joseph Wechsberg in a long profile in The New Yorker. In 1953–54 Szell returned briefly to the Metropolitan opera and departed abruptly after conducting half of his contracted performances, because of a dispute with the Met's general manager, Rudolf Bing. When Szell died, it was said that some musicians celebrated. on the other hand, when the dying Szell's deteriorating condition prevented Leonard Bernstein from visiting him in the hospital, Bernstein, knowing he would never see Szell alive again, cried. He was not alone.
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Mindful of the effect of Szell's powerful personality, I have sought to give a balanced portrayal of this enormously gifted musician and complex human being. in the course of researching this biography, I have interviewed numerous soloists, orchestra musicians, and many others associated with Szell over many years. Many of the photographs are unique and never before published. An appendix lists Szell's conducting repertoire and important world premieres. Also included is a discography of Szell's original recordings, with a selection of live concerts on CD and DVD.