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George Szell

A Life of Music

Michael Charry

Publication Year: 2011

This book is the first full biography of George Szell, one of the greatest orchestra and opera conductors of the twentieth century. From child prodigy pianist and composer to world-renowned conductor, Szell's career spanned seven decades, and he led most of the great orchestras and opera companies of the world. A protege of composer-conductor Richard Strauss at the Berlin State Opera, his crowning achievement was his twenty-four-year tenure as musical director of the Cleveland Orchestra. Under Szell's baton, the orchestra developed into one of the world's greatest ensembles, recording extensively and touring triumphantly in the United States, Europe, the Soviet Union, South Korea, and Japan._x000B__x000B_Michael Charry, a conductor who worked with Szell and interviewed him, his family, and his associates, constructs a lively and balanced portrait of Szell's life and work, detailing his personal and musical qualities, his recordings and broadcast concerts, his approach to the great works of the orchestral repertoire, and his famous orchestrational changes and interpretation of the symphonies of Robert Schumann. The book also lists his conducting repertoire and includes a comprehensive discography of Szell's recorded performances.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Series: Music in American Life

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiv

My years with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra were a life-changing experience that I could not have imagined a decade earlier when I first heard the orchestra under Szell. I was a freshman piano major and oboe minor at Oberlin College’s Conservatory of Music in 1950. The Cleveland Orchestra then gave four concerts a season in Oberlin’s Spanish-style Finney Chapel. ...

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pp. xv-xviii

Many people over many years have helped me with their support, memories, expertise, and guidance. I wish to thank them all, and if I have omitted any, I beg to be forgiven. Mrs. Helene Szell gave me encouragement and tangible support over the years. I received grants from the Mather Foundation in Cleveland, headed by James D. Ireland III , ...


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pp. xix-xx


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pp. xxi-xxii

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pp. 1-2

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. ...

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1. The New Mozart (1897-1929)

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pp. 3-22

At one o’clock in the afternoon on June 7, 1897, György Endre Szél was born in Budapest, Hungary, the only child of Kálman and Malvin Szél.1 Kálman Szél, a successful businessman, called himself an “entrepreneur.” He was born in Marczali, in Somogyi County, south of the great Lake Balaton. György’s mother hailed from Ipolyság, northwest of Budapest on the Ipoly River, ...

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2. The Conductor Spreads His Wings (1930-38)

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pp. 23-41

In the spring of 1927, George Szell was on the staff of the Berlin State Opera and beginning his tenure as professor at the Hochschule für Musik. At the same time, an American orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony, was searching for a new conductor. ...

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3. Musical Pioneering in Australia (1938, 1939)

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pp. 42-55

Szell received an invitation from the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC, now the Australian Broadcasting Corporation) to lead the Celebrity Concerts, the most prestigious subscription series of their winter season, with five of their orchestras from May to August 1938. They would take place in the major cities of Melbourne and Sydney, ...

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4. New World, New Beginnings (1939-46)

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pp. 56-77

The luxury liner Aorangi landed in Vancouver on August 25, 1939, and the Szells made their way to New York City. Friends from Prague lived in an apartment building at 7 Park Avenue, and by October the Szells were settled there.1 ...

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5. Cleveland: Contest and Commitment (1942-47)

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pp. 78-104

The Cleveland Orchestra’s twenty-fifth anniversary season, 1942–43, was Artur Rodzinski’s tenth with the orchestra, a double cause for celebration. Instead, the orchestra faced a major disappointment: Rodzinski announced that he would be leaving Cleveland after the season to succeed John Barbirolli at the New York Philharmonic. ...

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6. Szell, the Orchestra Builder (1947-54)

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pp. 105-140

Szell was a hands-on musical director in Cleveland, involving himself in every aspect of the orchestra’s operation. To make the orchestra “second to none,” he devoted as much time and hard work as necessary. Szell’s talent, experience, and energy well equipped him for the task. ...

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7. George Szell and Rudolf Bing (1953-54)

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pp. 141-148

In 1948, a year after the Glyndebourne fiasco, Bing sounded Szell out about the possibility of his and the Cleveland Orchestra’s participation in the Edinburgh Festival. It did not work out, but no hard feelings arose. So it was not entirely surprising that a few years later, Bing invited Szell to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera, of which Bing had become general manager in 1950. ...

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8. Keeping the Promise: "Second to None" (1954-57)

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pp. 149-171

George Szell began 1954 in Cleveland with an all-orchestral program: Beethoven’s Leonore Overture no. 3 and Symphony no. 8, and Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony. In the audience were the participants in a ten-day conducting workshop, a project of the American Symphony Orchestra League, supported by a grant from the Kulas Foundation. ...

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9. The Golden Years (1957-65)

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pp. 172-222

The 1957 European tour had been phenomenally successful. Cleveland could now believe that its orchestra was the equal of the best in the world. This was not just local pride, but a fact. Through Szell’s training and his addition of great players, the orchestra had become a great instrument. ...

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10. The Cleveland Orchestra in the World (1965-68)

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pp. 223-253

The exchange of performing artists, including soloists, dance companies, and orchestras, played a role in the post–World War II world ideological struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. The American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA), which had managed the Cleveland Orchestra European tour in 1957, ...

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11. Summers at Home

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pp. 254-269

Szell had firsthand experience with the summer activities of many American orchestras. In the 1940s, he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival, and the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Robin Hood Dell. ...

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12. Finale: Cleveland, Japan, Korea, Anchorage, Cleveland (1968-70)

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pp. 270-288

George Szell had reached the pinnacle of his career: the Cleveland Orchestra was universally acknowledged to be among the greatest, and the Blossom Music Center was a brilliant success. Szell and the orchestra continued to record for both Columbia and Angel Records, and the syndicated broadcast concerts were enrolling an increasing number of stations nationwide. ...

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pp. 289-290

A month after Szell’s death, Irving Kolodin, who had reviewed Szell concerts over the years and had written the script for the 1966 Bell Telephone Hour featuring Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, prophesied Szell’s future place in the pantheon of musicians: “The size of his figure,” Kolodin wrote, “will grow as time recedes ...

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In Szell's Words

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pp. 291-294

In life, George Szell always had the last word, so it seems entirely fitting that his biography should end with a collection of his own words. They show the depth of his thinking and feeling about moral leadership for conductors, his artistic integrity, and his passion for music—his “hobby”—and his life. ...

Appendix A. On the 150th Anniversary of Schumann's Birth

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pp. 295-298

Appendix B. Staff and Kulas Foundation Conductors under George Szell

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pp. 299-300

Appendix C. Apprentice Conductor Qualifications

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pp. 301-302

Appendix D. 1957 European Tour Repertoire

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pp. 303-304

Appendix E. 1965 European Tour Repertoire

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pp. 305-306

Appendix F. Szell's Repertoire

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pp. 307-330


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pp. 331-354


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pp. 355-396


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pp. 397-398


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pp. 399-412

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About the Author, Further Reading, Publication Information

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Michael Charry has conducted widely in the U.S. and internationally. He was a member of the conducting staff of the Cleveland Orchestra for nine years under George Szell and for two years after Szell’s death. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780252093104
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252036163

Page Count: 464
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Music in American Life

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Subject Headings

  • Szell, George, 1897-1970.
  • Conductors (Music) -- United States -- Biography.
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