George Szell
George Szell (pronounced /ˈsɛl/) (June 7, 1897 – July 30, 1970), originally György Széll or Georg Szell,[1] was a Hungarian-born American conductor and composer. He is remembered today for his long and successful tenure as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, and for the recordings of the standard classical repertoire he made in Cleveland and with other orchestras.

Szell came to Cleveland in 1946 to take over a respected, but undersized, orchestra which was struggling to recover from the disruptions of World War II. By the time of his death he was credited, to quote the critic Donal Henahan, with having built it into "what many critics regarded as the world's keenest symphonic instrument."[2][3] Through his recordings, Szell has remained a presence in the classical music world long after his death, and in some circles his name remains synonymous with that of the Cleveland Orchestra. While on tour with the Orchestra in the late 1980s, then Music Director Christoph von Dohnányi remarked, "We give a great concert, and George Szell gets a great review."[4]

Life and career

Early career

Szell was born in Budapest but grew up in Vienna. He began his formal music training as a pianist, studying with Richard Robert. One of Robert's other students was Rudolf Serkin; Szell and Serkin became lifelong friends and music collaborators.[5] In addition to studying piano, Szell was schooled in music composition by Eusebius Mandyczewski (a personal friend of Brahms), and by the composer Max Reger for a brief period. When he was fourteen he signed a ten-year exclusive publishing contract with Universal Edition in Vienna. Szell's work as a composer is virtually unknown today. In addition to writing original pieces, he arranged Bedřich Smetana's String Quartet No. 1, From My Life, for orchestra.

At age eleven, Szell began touring Europe as a pianist and composer, making his London debut at that age. Newspapers declared him "the next Mozart." Throughout his teenage years he performed with orchestras in this dual role, eventually making appearances as composer, pianist and conductor, as he did with the Berlin Philharmonic at age seventeen.[6]

Szell quickly realized that he was never going to make a career out of being a composer or pianist, and that he much preferred that artistic control that was granted to conductors. He made an unplanned public debut as a conductor when he was sixteen. When the orchestra at a summer resort where he was vacationing with his family suddenly found itself without a conductor (due to his arm being injured), Szell was asked to substitute. Szell quickly turned to conducting fulltime. While he ceased composing, throughout the rest of his life he occasionally played the piano with chamber ensembles and as an accompanist. Despite his rare appearances as a pianist after his teens, he remained in good form. During his Cleveland years he occasionally would demonstrate to guest pianists how he thought they should play a certain passage.[6]

In 1915, at the age of 18, Szell won an appointment with Berlin's Royal Court Opera (now known as the Staatsoper). There, he was befriended by its Music Director, Richard Strauss. Strauss instantly recognized Szell's talent and was particularly impressed with how well he conducted his own music –- Strauss once said that he could die a happy man knowing that there was someone who performed his music so perfectly. In fact, Szell ended up conducting part of the world premiere recording of Don Juan for Strauss. Due to oversleeping, Strauss showed up an hour late to the recording session. Strauss had Szell rehearse the orchestra for him, and since the recording session was prepaid for, and there was no Strauss, but Szell was there, Szell conducted the first half of the recording (since no more than five minutes could be fit onto a side of a 78, the music was broken up into four chunks). Strauss arrived as Szell was finishing conducting the second part; he exclaimed that what he heard was so good that it could go out under his own name. Strauss went on to conduct the last two parts, leaving the Szell-conducted half of the recording as part of the full world premiere recording of Don Juan.[6]

Szell credited Strauss as being a major influencing force of his conducting style. Much of his baton technique, the Cleveland Orchestra’s transparent lean sound, and Szell's willingness to be an orchestra builder came from Strauss. The two remained friends after Szell left the Royal Court Opera in 1919. Even after World War II when Szell had settled in the United States, Strauss kept track of how his protégé was doing.[7]

During the 1920s and 1930s Szell moved around from opera houses and orchestras in Europe: in Berlin, Strasbourg, where he succeeded Otto Klemperer at the Municipal Theatre, Prague, Darmstadt, Düsseldorf and Glasgow before becoming principal conductor, in 1924, of the Berlin Staatsoper, which had replaced the Royal Opera. In 1930, Szell made his United States debut with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. At this time he was better known as an opera conductor than an orchestral one.

Move to the U.S.

At the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, Szell was returning via the U.S. from an Australian tour; he ended up settling with his family in New York City.[2] After spending a year teaching, Szell began to receive frequent guest conducting invitations. Important among these invitations was a series of four concerts with Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1941. In 1942 he made his Metropolitan Opera debut; he conducted the company regularly for the next four years. In 1943 he made his New York Philharmonic debut. In 1946 he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

The Cleveland Orchestra: 1946 to 1970

In 1946, Szell was asked to become the Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra. At the time the Cleveland Orchestra was a highly regarded regional American orchestra (the top-tier American orchestras were Philadelphia Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic and NBC Symphony Orchestra). For Szell, working in Cleveland would represent an opportunity to create his own personal ideal orchestra, one which would combine the virtuosity of the best American ensembles, with the homogeneity of tone of the best European orchestras. Szell made it clear to the trustees of the Orchestra that if they wanted him to be their next conductor, they would have to agree to give him total artistic control of the Orchestra; they agreed. He held this post until his death.

The next decade was spent firing musicians, carefully hiring replacements, increasing the orchestra's roster to over one hundred players, and relentlessly drilling the orchestra. Szell's rehearsals were legendary for their intensity. Absolute perfection was demanded from every player. Musicians would be dismissed on the spot for making too many mistakes or simply questioning Szell's authority. Although Szell was not alone in this practice — Toscanini was nothing if not dictatorial — such firings would not happen today: musicians' unions are much stronger now than they were then. If Szell heard a player practicing backstage before a concert and did not like what he heard, he would not hesitate to berate the musician and give detailed notes on how the music should be played, despite the concert being minutes away. Szell’s autocratic style extended to giving suggestions to the Severance Hall janitorial staff on mopping technique and what brand of toilet paper to use in the restrooms.[8]

Szell proudly boasted: "the Cleveland Orchestra gives seven concerts a week and the public is invited to two." Some critics found the Orchestra to sound over-rehearsed in concert, lacking spontaneity. Szell conceded this critique, saying that the orchestra did much of its best work during rehearsals. But Szell's high standards paid off.

By the end of the 1950s it became clear to the world that the Cleveland Orchestra, noted for its flawless precision and chamber-like sound, would take its place alongside the greatest orchestras in America and Europe. In addition to taking the Orchestra on annual tours to Carnegie Hall and the East Coast, Szell led the orchestra on its first international tours to Europe, the Soviet Union, Australia, and Japan.

Conducting style

Szell's manner in rehearsal was indubitably that of an autocratic taskmaster.[9][10] He meticulously prepared for rehearsals and could play the entire score on the piano from memory.[11] Preoccupied with phrasing, transparency, balance and architecture, Szell also insisted upon hitherto unheard-of rhythmic discipline from his players.[12] The result was often a level of precision and ensemble playing normally found only in the best string quartets.[13] For all Szell's absolutist methods, many of the orchestra's players were proud of the musical integrity to which he aspired.[11] Video footage also shows that Szell took care to explain what he wanted and why, expressed delight when the orchestra produced what he was aiming for, and avoided over-rehearsing parts that were in good shape.[14] His left hand, which he used to shape each sound, was often called the most graceful in music.[15]

As a result of Szell's exactitude and very thorough rehearsals, some musicians and critics[who?] have censured Szell's music-making as lacking emotion. In response to such criticism, Szell expressed this credo: "The borderline is very thin between clarity and coolness, self-discipline and severity. There exist different nuances of warmth — from the chaste warmth of Mozart to the sensuous warmth of Tchaikovsky, from the noble passion of Fidelio to the lascivious passion of Salome. I cannot pour chocolate sauce over asparagus."[8]

He has been described as a "literalist", playing only what is in the score. However, Szell was quite prepared to play music in unconventional ways if he thought the music needed these; and, like most other conductors before and since, he made many small modifications to orchestrations and even notes in the works of Beethoven, Schubert and others.[13]


Szell primarily conducted works from the core Austro-German classical and romantic repertoire, from Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, through Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms, and on to Bruckner, Mahler and Strauss. He said once that as he got older he consciously narrowed his repertoire, feeling it was "actually my task to do those works which I thought I'm best qualified to do, and for which a certain tradition is disappearing with the disappearance of the great conductors who were my contemporaries and my idols and my unpaid teachers."[16] He did however program contemporary music; he gave numerous world premieres in Cleveland, and he was particularly associated with such composers as Dutilleux, Walton, Prokofiev, Hindemith and Bartók. Szell also helped initiate the Cleveland Orchestra's long association with composer-conductor and avant-garde icon Pierre Boulez.[11] At the same time, Szell championed the music of Haydn and Mozart in a period when those composers were little represented in concert programs.

Other orchestras

After World War II Szell became closely associated with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, where he was a frequent guest conductor and made a number of recordings. He also regularly appeared with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, and at the Salzburg Festival. From 1942 to 1955, he was an annual guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic and served as Musical Advisor and senior guest conductor of that orchestra in the last year of his life.

Personal life

Szell married twice. The first, in 1920 to Olga Band, ended in divorce in 1926. His second marriage, in 1938 to Helene Schultz Teltsch, originally from Prague, was much happier, and lasted until his death.[2][17] When not making music, he was a gourmet cook and an automobile enthusiast. He regularly refused the services of the orchestra's chauffeur and drove his own Cadillac to rehearsal until almost the end of his life. He died in Cleveland, Ohio in 1970.


Most of Szell's recordings were made with the Cleveland Orchestra for Epic/Columbia Masterworks/CBS Masterworks (now Sony Classical). He also made recordings with the New York Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra. Few of his mono recordings have been reissued. Many live stereo recordings of repertoire Szell never conducted in the studio exist, both with the Cleveland Orchestra and other orchestras.

Below is a selection of Szell's more notable recordings (all with the Cleveland Orchestra, and issued by Sony, unless otherwise noted).

Ludwig van Beethoven:

Johannes Brahms:

Anton Bruckner:

Antonín Dvořák:

Joseph Haydn:

  • Symphonies Nos. 92-99 (1957-69)

Zoltán Kodály:

Gustav Mahler:

Felix Mendelssohn:

  • Symphony No. 4 (1962)
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream, Overture and Incidental Music (1967)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart:

Modest Mussorgsky:

Sergei Prokofiev:

Franz Schubert:

Robert Schumann:

  • The 4 Symphonies (1958-60)

Jean Sibelius:

  • Symphony No.2; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
    (1964, Philips)
  • Symphony No.2 (1970) – This was Szell's last recording

Bedřich Smetana:

Richard Strauss:

Igor Stravinsky:

Pyotr Tchaikovsky:

Richard Wagner:

  • Overtures, Preludes & Extracts from The Ring (1962-68)

William Walton:


  1. Sources differ on Szell's birthname or "real" name. Slonimsky 2001, for example, begins its entry, "Szell, George (actually, György)...". This form would seem consistent with Szell's Hungarian origins. However, both Charry 2001 and Rosenberg 2000 fail to cite the name "György" at all, mentioning instead the more Germanic "Georg," which would seem appropriate in Szell's childhood home of Vienna. Rosenberg goes so far as to say, "[h]e was born Georg Szell on June 7, 1897, in Budapest..." (p. 237, emphasis added). Sources agree, however, that in later life (at least after coming to America) Szell went by the Anglicised "George," and that is the name credited on his extant recordings.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Henahan, Donal (31 July 1970). "George Szell, Conductor, Is Dead". The New York Times: pp. 1.. Retrieved 2007-07-15. 
  3. Brown, Richard; Brown, Gene (1978). The Arts. New York: Arno Press. ISBN 0405111533. 
  4. Oestreich, James R. (26 January 1997). "Out From Under the Shadow". The New York Times. 
  5. Rosenberg, Donald (2000). The Cleveland Orchestra Story: "Second to None". Cleveland: Gray & Company. pp. 238. ISBN 1886228248. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Template:Cite interview
  7. Mermelstein, David (1997): "George Szell and Richard Strauss." (Liner notes). Sony Music Entertainment Inc. Template:ASIN
  8. 8.0 8.1 Rosenberg, Donald (2000). The Cleveland Orchestra Story: "Second to None". Cleveland: Gray & Company, p. 238. ISBN 1886228248
  9. Bernheimer, M. (May 2002). "Proper Conduct". 
  10. "Gary Graffman, CIM Commencement Address". May 21, 2007. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 McLanathan, R.B.K., Braun, G., and Brown, G. (1978). The Arts. Ayer Publishing. ISBN 0405111533.,M1. 
  12. Adelstein, B.. "Conductors". 
  13. 13.0 13.1 Schiff, D. (July 18, 1999). "Rehearing Szell: Intensity Without Ponderousness". New York Times. 
  14. "Video of Szell rehearsing the 2nd movement of Beethoven Fifth Symphony". 
  15. "The Glorious Instrument". Time. 22 Fbreuary 1963.,9171,828034-4,00.html. Retrieved 2008-06-07. 
  16. Kozinn, Allan (19 October 1997). "Filling Out the Picture of an Autocratic Maestro". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-07-15. 
  17. Charry, Michael (2005). "George Szell: Biography and Chronology". SonyClassical. Retrieved 2007-07-15. 

Further reading

  • Charry, Michael; Sadie, Stanley ed. (2001). "George Szell". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed. London: MacMillan. vol. 24; pp. 880–881. ISBN 0333608003. 
  • Schonberg, Harold (1967). The Great Conductors. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 337–340; Index. ISBN 0671207350. 
  • Slonimsky, Nicolas; Kuhn, Laura Diane (2001). Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. New York: G. Schirmer. vol. 6; pp. 3559–3560. ISBN 0028655257. 
  • Rosenberg, Donald (2000). The Cleveland Orchestra Story: Second to None. Cleveland, Ohio: Grey & Company Publishers. ISBN 1-886228-24-8. 

External links

Template:Cleveland Orchestra conductors Template:RSNO principal conductors Template:NYPhil music directorsca:George Szellla:Georgius Szellja:ジョージ・セル pt:George Szell ru:Селл, Джордж simple:George Szell fi:George Szell sv:George Szell zh:乔治·塞尔

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