Erich Leinsdorf was a successful Austrian-born American conductor during the 20 th century. Despite his musical brilliance, he was notorious among orchestra members for his harsh personality and ‘utilitarian stage manner’. During his career, Leinsdorf led the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Opera, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Rochester Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony. In addition to demanding excellence from his orchestras, he trained two generations of conductors at Tanglewood.
Leinsdorf was born in Vienna, Austria on 4 February 1912 to Ludwig Julius and Charlotte Loebl Leinsdorf. He was exposed to music at an early age by his father, an amateur pianist. Despite losing his father at the age of three, Erich had become an accomplished pianist by the age of seven. He also studied the cello, musical theory and composition at the University of Vienna and the Music Academy in Vienna as a teenager. He later studied conducting at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. He also served as the rehearsal pianist for composer Anton Webern with the Singverein der Sozialdemokratischen Kunstelle, where he made his professional debut as a pianist in Stravinsky’sLes Noces.
In 1937, Leinsdorf emigrated to the United States, on the recommendation of the world-renowned conductorArturo Toscanini. The two had become acquainted in Salzburg at the Salzburg Festival, where Leinsdorf had worked as an assistant to bothBruno Walter and Toscanini from 1934 to 1937. It was with Toscanini’s help that Leinsdorf received the opportunity to give his successful conducting debut with the Metropolitan Opera in 1938, at the age of 25, with Wagner’sDie Walkure. After the sudden death of Artur Bodanzky in 1938, Leinsdorf was appointed the ‘head of German repertoire’ with the Metropolitan Opera, where he remained until 1943. Already at this early stage in his career, Leinsdorf was making enemies based on his musical demands. He insisted, for instance, on ‘textual accuracy and more rehearsal’ which led to tense relationships with singers such as Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad. Despite the musician’s concerns, the management of the Metropolitan Opera continued to support Leinsdorf until his departure in 1943. It was during this period that he also became a naturalized American citizen.
In 1943, Leinsdorf was appointed Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra. This post lasted just three years, as he was frequently absent. Much of his absence was due to the fact that he has been drafted in into the U.S. Armed Forces for World War II. While the orchestra chose not to renew his contract, they did invite him back later, between 1982 and 1984, to conduct several concerts during the transition from the leadership ofLorin Maazel to that of Christoph von Dohnányi. He described his position as ‘the bridge between regimes’.
He then went to Rochester where he was appointed Principal Conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, a position he held from 1947 to 1955. He once described Rochester as ‘the best disguised dead end in the world’.
Leinsdorf was appointed Music Director at the New York City Opera in 1956, though he left after just one year, as he made many enemies with his demanding policies. Following this brief appointment, he re-united with the Metropolitan Opera and was named Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1962. With the BSO, Leinsdorf conducted many recordings for RCA. Despite successful recordings, he was again met with much controversy. He left the orchestra in 1969.
Leinsdorf remained an active guest conductor for much of the remainder of his career. This seemed to suit him better, as he did not have to deal with the politics and management of the orchestras nearly as much. During his two decades as a guest conductor, he led orchestras and opera companies throughout the United States and Europe, gaining an international reputation for his utilitarian ways. He remained closely associated with the Metropolitan Opera and also worked often with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. His final post was as Principal Conductor of the (West) Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, which he held from 1978 to 1980.
Throughout his career, Leinsdorf recorded with the Cleveland Orchestra for Columbia records, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra for Capitol and the Boston Symphony Orchestra for RCA. Additionally, he conducted for a series of complete stereophonic opera recordings in Rome the 1950s on the RCA Victor label. Among these recordings is a spectacular recording of Puccini’sTosca with Zinka Milanov, Jussi Bjoerling and Leonard Warren. He made more operatic recordings later in his career for RCA, including the first complete stereo recording of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’sDie tote Stadt. Another recording that stands out is his recording entitledThe Rubinstein Collection with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and pianistArthur Rubinstein. This marked Rubinstein’s second complete recording of Beethoven’s piano concertos.
During his tenure with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Leinsdorf appeared regularly on television. One notable appearance was a two-hour primetime special,An Evening at Tanglewood, for NBC in colour, featuring violinist Itzhak Perlman. Leinsdorf wrote a book on conducting entitled The Composer’s Advocate, in which he not only gives meaningful advice, but also points out faulty music editing, cultural gaps and mistakes of his colleagues. During his time at Tanglewood, he introduced 32 works, including Benjamin Britten’sWar Requiem. He also mentored many students, including John Ferritto.
Leinsdorf experienced several unique performances, including one with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on 22 November 1963. During this concert he delivered this report to the audience, ‘Ladies and Gentleman, we have a press report over the wire…we hope that it is unconfirmed but we have to doubt it…that the President of the United States has been victim…of an assassination’. He was, of course, referring to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In response, he announced, ‘we will play the Funeral March from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Third Symphony’.
On another occasion, in 1967, he was scheduled to conduct a concert series with theIsrael Philharmonic Orchestra. In the middle of the series, he ‘abruptly fled the country at the start of the Six-Day War; he left so hurriedly that he even forgot to take his tuxedo’. After his sudden disappearance,Zubin Mehta went on to conduct the orchestra.
Erich Leinsdorf died at the age of 81 on 11 September 1993 in Zürich, Switzerland from cancer.