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Marcia Hansen Kraus, George Szell's Reign

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This is the most recent of biographies about one of the foremost conductors of the 20th century. There are many conductors who became very closely associated with one particular orchestra - Mravinsky in Leningrad, Karajan in Berlin, Barbirolli in Manchester - but there are few who are credited with turning a good orchestra into one of the world's greatest. That s what George Szell did in Cleveland, a city more traditionally associated with heavy industry and engineering. But like the Victorians in northern England who invested in spectacular architecture, the citizens of Cleveland liked to show off their wealth by demonstrating their patronage of the arts. The Cleveland Orchestra had a great number of wealthy sponsors, donors and patrons and would not have survived without them. Until Szell's arrival in 1946, the orchestra wasn't really on the map; by the time of his death in 1970 it most certainly was.

 

Like a good many of his contemporaries, Szell didn't suffer fools gladly. There are innumerable stories of how conductors like Toscanini with the NBC Symphony in New York, Reiner in Chicago and Mravinsky in Leningrad terrorised their musicians and willed them into submission. Today, in a world which has largely gone mad in its obeisance to political correctness, such men would have been hounded out of town. Yet the artistic results speak for themselves. As Karajan once famously said, you don't create artistic policy through committees, a notion with which Walter Legge, creator of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, would surely have agreed. There are advantages to dictatorship, in the political sphere as well as in the world of music. Charlatans and dilettantes stand no chance as dictators, whereas these days having the right agent and PR machine as well as optical charms work wonders for mere average conducting talents. Nothing demonstrates the iron rule that Szell exercised more than the story about the vacant concertmaster's position in the late 1960s. Szell wanted one of the assistant concertmasters, Daniel Majeske, a born-again Christian, to take over. Majeske was extremely reluctant to assume such enormous responsibility. "Oh well," he eventually sighed, "if God wills it." To which Szell replied: "God, doesn't come into the matter, I will it."

 

The author is the widow of the Cleveland Orchestra's No 2 oboe and draws on a fund of stories about Szell's long reign, his exacting standards and refusal to compromise for the sake of harmony, and the astonishing excellence he achieved. He directed scores from memory, his sharp eyes were everywhere, he hired and fired as he pleased ,and he interfered relentlessly in many administrative and non-musical aspects, so much so that when the Orchestra was touring one winter and the coach got stuck in a snow drift, he ordered individual musicians to stand in a particular formation in order to maximise their body weight and get things moving again. There was a wry sense of humour which informed his interaction with individual musicians and he cultivated a pastoral relationship with many of them. He had recently appointed a new principal viola and, knowing that Szell determined the salary of each individual musician, this man approached Szell one day to tell him that he had recently got married and the couple were now expecting their first child. The player referred to the many new purchases that had become necessary and asked his boss for a pay rise. Eventually, Szell agreed. Two years later, the player returned with a similar request. This time Szell raised an eyebrow but, because he liked this particular musician, he conceded a further increase in salary. Two years further down the line Szell was astonished to hear the content of previous conversations being repeated: the couple were now looking forward to the patter of tiny feet for the third time, and the player wanted an even bigger salary. "But Abe,' Szell cried out in exasperation, "have you never heard of f****** for pleasure?!"

 

Kraus is good at dealing with many of the intricacies of musical life in Cleveland, and there are some fine photographs of Szell and others closely associated with the Cleveland Orchestra. However, she is clearly not a born writer: there are a number of unnecessary repetitions, and though the book will give many moments of amusement the writing is at times rather pedestrian and would have benefited from rigorous sub-editing

 

 

 

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