George Szell

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George Szell, January 5, 1954
Photograph by Carl van Vechten , from the Van Vechten Collection of the Library of Congress

George Szell (born June 7, 1897 in Budapest , Austria-Hungary , † July 30, 1970 in Cleveland , Ohio ) was an Austro-Hungarian conductor , pianist and composer. He was an American citizen. From 1946 until his death he directed the Cleveland Orchestra . With the exception of Eugene Ormandy , no conductor in the 20th century led one of the American Big Five orchestras longer than George Szell. The conductors Szell, Ormandy, Solti , Doráti and Reiner , all of whom came from Budapest, brought the American orchestras to a level equal to that of the European orchestras from the middle of the 20th century.


Origin and name

Szell was born in 1897 to a Hungarian father and a Slovak mother. The family moved to Vienna when Georg was only six years old and converted from the Jewish religion to Catholicism.

The sources give birth name as different variants again, due to the diversity of languages in Austria-Hungary, the kuk -time: (Hungarian) Széll György or Széll György Endre or (German) Georg Szell . At least since his arrival in America in 1939 he called himself George Szell .

Artistic career

Szell began his training in Vienna as a pianist with Richard Robert. Here he met Rudolf Serkin . He became his musical cooperation partner and a lifelong friend. In addition to the piano, Szell studied composition with Eusebius Mandyczewski , a personal friend of Brahms , and with Max Reger . At the age of 14, Szell signed a ten-year exclusive contract with the Viennese publisher Universal Edition . In addition to his own compositions, he arranged Bedřich Smetana's 1st string quartet , From my life , for orchestra.

In 1908, when he was eleven, he made his first public appearance as a pianist and composer. He made his debut as a conductor at the age of 16 with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. At the age of seventeen he led the performance of his own composition by the Berliner Philharmoniker . Even before his 20th birthday, he worked with the Berlin Philharmonic as a pianist, composer and conductor.

Richard Strauss brought Szell as a répétiteur at the Berlin Opera (1914–1917). Szell then succeeded Otto Klemperer as chief conductor of the Strasbourg Philharmonic (1917-1919). This was followed by positions at the Deutsches Theater in Prague (1919–1921), in Darmstadt (1921–1922) and in Düsseldorf (1922–1924) before he was engaged as first conductor at the Berlin State Opera (1924–1929). At the same time he directed the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and taught at the Berlin University of Music (1927–1930) and also made recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic .

After 1933

1936-1939 he took over the direction of the Scottish National Orchestra and 1937-1939 at the same time of the residence orchestra of The Hague. In 1939 Szell returned to Prague as general music director and opera director . The Prague Masonic Grand Lodge "Lessing to the Three Rings" lists him under the name "Georg Szell" as a member.

After the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Szell was just finishing a tour through Australia, he settled in New York with his family because of his Jewish origins. He taught for a year, then received occasional invitations as a guest conductor. Important among these invitations were four concerts with Arturo Toscanini's NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1941. In 1942 the Metropolitan Opera debut took place; he conducted the orchestra regularly for the next four years.

In the years 1940–1942 he played chamber music as a pianist with Paul Hindemith and Rudolf Serkin as partners . From 1942 to 1946 Szell worked regularly at the Met and from 1943 to 1956 with the New York Philharmonic .

After 1945

George Szell (1965)

In 1946 Szell received American citizenship. In the same year he took over as chief conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra , which he brought to world-class level and which he directed until his death in 1970. He has performed at the Salzburg Festival , where he 1954 Penelope 1957, The School for Wives of Rolf Liebermann and 1955, the Irish legend of WERNER EGK brought premiered. But here, too, he performed mainly with Austrian classics such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. He saw himself as one of the greatest Beethoven interpreters of his time.

In 1967 Szell was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences .

At the beginning of the 1969/1970 season he became Music Advisor to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra .


Szell described the role of the conductor with the words: "Conductors must give unmistakable and suggestive signals to the orchestra - not choreography to the audience." ("Conductors must give the orchestra unmistakable and suggestive signs - not a choreography for the audience.")

As a conductor, Szell had a reputation for being relentlessly strict with himself and his musicians. His rehearsal work was feared. He said, "The Cleveland Orchestra gives seven concerts a week and the public is invited to two." ("The Cleveland Orchestra gives seven concerts a week, the audience is invited to two.") His authoritarian nature was not accepted by all orchestras, but not infrequently led to outstanding results. His recordings of the symphonies by Dvořák, Haydn and Brahms as well as the Brahms piano concertos (with Serkin and Fleisher) are highly praised.

If he was dissatisfied with a recording, Szell prohibited its publication; This is what happened with a recording of Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra , which was only released years after his death - and is considered one of the best of this work.

Szell was also able to articulate himself quite rudely. In 1957 Beethoven's 2nd piano concerto was rehearsed in Cleveland, with Glenn Gould as the soloist . He always brought his own piano chair with him. When Gould tried to adjust the height of the chair during rehearsal, Szell is reported to have said, "If you scrape maybe a sixteenth of an inch off your bum, Mr. Gould, we could finally get on with this rehearsal." The reports of how hearty Szell is then put it, diverge. Gould later said he hadn't heard the sentence.

Relationship to other artists

Collaboration with soloists

In Leon Fleisher , Szell found his ideal interpreter for the piano concert repertoire in the 1950s and early 1960s. The recordings of the piano concertos by Beethoven and Brahms, as well as the piano concert No. 25 by Mozart and the piano concertos by Grieg and Schumann, the “Symphonic Variations” by César Franck and the rhapsody on a theme by Paganini by Rachmaninoff are of outstanding quality .

In the 1950s and 1960s he performed frequently with the cellist Pierre Fournier . He recorded the Dvořák Cello Concerto with him and the Berlin Philharmonic . Szell also worked with the pianists Gilels and Serkin as well as with the violinist Oistrach and the cellist Rostropovich .


His students included u. a. James Levine , his assistant in Cleveland Louis Lane , the Berlin-born composer Ursula Mamlok and Robert Shaw. James Levine later became director of the Met , the Munich Philharmonic, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra . He was George Szell's assistant in the 1960s. Ursula Mamlok has taught composition at New York University, Temple University and for over forty years at the Manhattan School of Music in New York. Robert Shaw became known for leading the choir of the Cleveland Orchestra. He later directed the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra .

Szell as composer and arranger

In 1908, when he was eleven, he made his first public appearance as a pianist and composer. He wrote a symphony in E flat major, a quintet in D major, a rondo for piano and other works.

In addition to his own compositions, he also worked on well-known works of classical music: He recorded these on record, so u. a. Smetana's string quartet “From my life” and its arrangement of Schumann's four symphonies. In the case of the 2nd and 4th symphonies, however, Szell used a great deal of Weingartner's retouching, in the case of the 3rd he made - in addition to Weingartner's suggestions - his own retouching, and in the case of the 1st symphony he also took over individual retouchings from Gustav Mahler (1st movement, after measure 280).

In a remarkable article from 1960 - published in the New York Times on the occasion of Schumann's 150th birthday (and then reprinted in several languages ​​in the re-publication of his recordings by Sony in 1996) - he describes his great love for Schumann's music, but gives also an exact account of his instrumentation retouching to the symphonies. His student Michael Charry later reported that Szell took the position: "You should sound like this ... as if Schumann had as much sense of orchestration as Weber, but not as much as Richard Strauss."


With the Cleveland Orchestra, he recorded almost the entire standard repertoire of classical music, mainly for Epic Records , but almost never reached the sales figures of Leonard Bernstein, who recorded with the New York Philharmonic for Columbia Records and thus for the same parent company (CBS) . In this context, the CBS management is ascribed the play on words “Szell never sells” (“Szell does not sell”). Strongly against it, however, speaks that CBS let him record the great classics en masse and many recordings are still available today, u. a. all Beethoven symphonies and concerts (with Leon Fleisher , a second time for EMI with Emil Gilels on the piano), all Brahms symphonies and the concerts (with Leon Fleisher and here a second time with Serkin on the piano, Oistrach and Rostropovich on the Violin and on the cello), the Dvořák symphonies 7–9, all Schumann symphonies (in own arrangement), the "Unfinished" and the "Great" by Schubert , Haydn and many works by Mozart (symphonies 28, 33, 35, 39, 40 and 41, Posthornserenade, “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” etc.).

Since 1990, many of Szell's recordings by Sony BMG Music Entertainment , which had taken over parts of CBS , were digitally remastered in the series "Essentials Classics" and brought onto the market for a reasonable price (around five euros) Rediscovery of Szell by the younger generation ensured.

Other recordings of Szell can be found at Philips with the Concertgebouw Orchestra , at Decca with his Cleveland Orchestra and with the London Symphony Orchestra .


  • Michael Charry: George Szell: A Life of Music. University of Illinois Press, Baltimore 2011, ISBN 978-0-252-03616-3 .
  • Alain Pâris: Lexicon of Performers of Classical Music in the 20th Century , dtv / Bärenreiter, Munich / Kassel 1992, p. 714 f.

Web links

Commons : George Szell  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Nicolas Slonimsky , Laura Diane Kuhn (2001): Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. G. Schirmer, New York, ISBN 0-02-865525-7 , Volume 6, pp. 3559 f. Here György is given as the original first name.
  2. Michael Charry (2011): George Szell: A Life of Music. University of Illinois Press, Champaign, ISBN 978-0-252-03616-3 . According to this source, the birth name was György Endre Szél .
  3. Article George Szell in: The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 2nd edition, MacMillan, London 2001, ISBN 0-333-60800-3 , Volume 24, pp. 880 f. In this source only the name form Georg is mentioned, but not the name form György .
  4. ^ Donald Rosenberg (2000): The Cleveland Orchestra Story: Second to None. Gray & Company Publishers, Cleveland, ISBN 1-886228-24-8 . Here Georg is given as the original first name.
  5. ^ Donald Rosenberg: The Cleveland Orchestra Story: "Second to None" . Gray & Company, Cleveland 2000, ISBN 1886228248 , p. 238.
  6. ^ American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Book of Members ( PDF ). Retrieved April 11, 2016.
  7. Newsweek, January 28, 1963, quoted in: Derek Watson, The Wordsworth Dictionary of Musical Quotations , Wordsworth Editions, Ware, 1994, p. 336.
  8. Kevin Bazzana: Glenn Gould. The biography. Schott, Mainz 2003.
  9. Review of the recording of the Schumann symphonies, February 1, 1998.