Hungarian-born conductor George Szell led the Cleveland Orchestra for nearly three decades, raising it to world-class level. His exceptionally high standards also helped set the bar for other American orchestras. His attention to detail and demand for perfection from everyone around him was very intimidating for not only the orchestra members, but also all of the board and all of the other employees involved. Despite his intimidating nature, Szell was very much respected as a conductor. Evidence of his extraordinary work with the Cleveland Orchestra is documented extensively in the ensembles numerous recordings.
George Szell’s talent as a child was painfully evident. By the age of two he was able to sing in a variety of languages and displayed exceptional pitch recognition. Unfortunately for his mother, an amateur pianist, this resulted in some unpleasant practice sessions. If she were to make a mistake while playing, the young Szell, then just 2.5 years old, would slap her on the wrist and exclaim strictly, ‘It’s false, mother, it’s false!’
Szell was born in Hungary, but raised in Vienna, where he studied composition with Eusebius Mandyczewski and piano with Richard Robert. In Prague he also studied composition with J.B. Foerster.
At just the age of 10, Szell could be heard performing a Mozart piano concerto with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. By this time, he was also quite competent as a composer. His early works include a number of chamber and orchestral works, all in a late-Romantic style. Szell had the unique opportunity to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic at the age of 17 with a programme that included one of his own works.
Szell’s first posts as conductor were at opera houses, beginning with the Royal Opera of Berlin (1915-17), followed by Strasbourg (1917-18), Prague (1919-21), Darmstadt (1921-2) and Düsseldorf (1922-24). After this series of short-term positions, Szell was appointed first conductor of the Berlin State Opera (1924-29), during which time he also taught at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. He left the Berlin State Opera in 1929 in favour of the German Opera and Philharmonic in Prague, where he held the position of general music director until 1937.
Despite his early success as an opera conductor, Szell was more interested in the vast orchestral repertoire. In 1930, he made his American conducting debut with the St Louis Symphony. Several years later, Szell was appointed conductor of the Scottish Orchestra in Glasgow. During this period, he was also regularly involved with the Residentie Orkest in The Hague.
Upon the outbreak of World War I, Szell was in America, where he remained throughout the war. He made a living as a guest conductor before becoming a regular conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in 1942. It was his Wagner performances which were praised the most.
After taking American citizenship in 1946, Szell was appointed music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, a post he would cherish for the rest of his life. Aside from his post in Cleveland, Szell held the post of music advisor and senior guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic during his final two years. Szell also appeared as conductor at many of the top music festivals around the world during the summer seasons.
At the time of Szell’s arrival in Cleveland, the orchestra had been nearly destroyed by the number of members drafted for World War II. In fact, during the war, even the conductor, Erich Leinsdorf, was drafted.The musicians that remained were able, though the orchestra was not at all satisfactory to Szell, who fired 12 of the 84 members of the orchestra within his first days as conductor. While this action was met with much critique, Szell knew that he needed better players to raise the level of the orchestra.
Szell was known to be indifferent to musicians’ feelings, even cruel, especially in his early days with the orchestra. It seems that he grew milder with age, though his musical demands always remained high. Orchestra members often felt as if every rehearsal was an audition, terrified to make a mistake.
He was also very strict with the board, demanding that they make acoustical improvements to Severance Hall, the orchestra’s home. Eventually, they caved into making a million dollars’ worth of improvements. He also went as far as to tell the cleaning crew how to do their job. The floors had to be cleaned in a particular manner and certain pencils should be available in the library. Furthermore, nobody was allowed to have a beard.
As a result of his demands, the orchestra improved greatly; within 10 years they were one of the five best orchestras in the world. Szell managed to successfully combine the fine musicality of his European roots with the brilliant sound of the American orchestra. He also always aimed to communicate what the composer intended, spending many hours contemplating the composer’s intentions of any given work.
Szell would tirelessly rehearse the orchestra, taking every work completely apart, even those from the standard repertoire. It was this manner of perfectionistic rehearsing and intense focus that allowed the orchestra to perform such inspiring live concerts and make spectacular recordings.
Sometimes even Szell would go too far. His apprentice, Charry, remembers “a rehearsal so filled with foul language that the musicians revolted…at intermission, they refused to come back on stage, and they waited for Mr. Szell to make an apology”. Eventually, they decided that “he hemmed and hawed long enough for them to feel that he was at least constrained enough” and they returned to the stage.
The orchestra was so accustomed to performing at its best at every moment, that a recording session was no different. Szell took the recordings very seriously though, ensuring that the music was ready months ahead of the recording session, sometimes even one season ahead. The majority of recordings of the orchestra were made on Friday mornings, following the Thursday night concert, though no fatigue could be detected from the orchestra.
For Szell, it was important to replicate a real concert experience in the recordings, in order to give them more feeling and impact. To achieve this, he chose to record in large segments—sometimes even whole movements of works. For this reason, some of the recordings feature single takes. The possibility of recording small inserts for editing was also available.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Szell made some recordings in Europe on the Decca label and a number of recordings towards the end of his career on the EMI label in Cleveland, the majority of his recordings are on the Columbia Records label, as they enjoyed a long collaboration with the Cleveland Orchestra.
Of particular interest within his discography are the performances of Austro-German composers ranging from Haydn to Strauss. He was also praised for his interpretations of the works by 20th-century composers such as Bartók, Prokofiev, Janácek and Walton. He also premiered and recorded works by William Walton (Partita for Orchestra, Symphony no. 2), Mennin (Symphony no. 7) and Hindemith (Variations).
A recording of Szell with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in the 1950s of Dvorák's Symphony no. 8 is considered to be unequalled to this day. Other notable recordings include those recorded for the radio station WCLV beginning in 1965.
While highly praised for his interpretations of the aforementioned composers, Szell was often criticized for his performances of French works, as many claimed they lacked atmosphere and were almost too precise. Some even criticized his interpretation of Mozart, whom he admired, claiming it wasn’t warm enough, Szell reportedly retorted, ‘One does not pour chocolate sauce over asparagus’.