Life and career
Szell was born in Budapest but grew up in Vienna. His family was of Jewish origin but converted to Catholicism and so as a young boy he was brought up as a Catholic and taken regularly to Mass
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 musical collaborators. In addition to the piano, Szell studied composition with Eusebius Mandyczewski (a personal friend of Brahms), and with Max Reger for a brief period. Although his work as a composer is virtually unknown today, when he was fourteen Szell signed a ten-year exclusive publishing contract with Universal Edition in Vienna. In addition to writing original pieces, he arranged Bedřich Smetana's String Quartet No. 1, From My Life, for orchestra.
At the age of 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.
George Szell and composer Jaroslav Křička
during the staging of Křička's opera The Gentleman in White
, April 1932.
Szell quickly realized that he was never going to make a career out of being a composer or pianist, and that he much preferred the artistic control he could achieve as a conductor. He made an unplanned public conducting debut when he was seventeen, while vacationing with his family at a summer resort. The Vienna Symphony's conductor had injured his arm, and Szell was asked to substitute. Szell quickly turned to conducting full-time. Though he abandoned 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.
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 the teenager conducted Strauss's 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. The composer had arranged for Szell to rehearse the orchestra for him, but having overslept, showed up an hour late to the recording session. Since the recording session was already paid for, and only Szell was there, Szell conducted the first half of the recording (since no more than four minutes of music could fit onto one side of a 78, the music was broken up into four sections). 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 record the last two parts, leaving the Szell-conducted half as part of the full world premiere recording of Don Juan.
Szell credited Strauss as being a major influence on his conducting style. Much of his baton technique, the Cleveland Orchestra's lean, transparent sound, and Szell's willingness to be an orchestra builder all 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.
In the fifteen years during and after World War I Szell worked with opera houses and orchestras in Europe: in Berlin, Strasbourg — where he succeeded Otto Klemperer at the Municipal Theatre — Prague, Darmstadt, and Düsseldorf, before becoming principal conductor, in 1924, of the Berlin Staatsoper, which had replaced the Royal Opera. In 1923 he conducted the premiere of Hans Gál's opera Die heilige Ente in Düsseldorf. 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. He was conductor of the Scottish Orchestra (which later became the Royal Scottish National Orchestra) in Glasgow for three seasons, 1936-39.
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. From 1940 to 1945 he taught composition, orchestration, and music theory at the Mannes College of Music in Manhattan; his composition students at Mannes included George Rochberg and Ursula Mamlok. After a year devoted primarily to 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
Szell at University of Michigan, c. 1956
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.
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. According to music critic Ted Libbey, "Szell's formidable musicianship and paternal authority commanded equal measures of respect from the Cleveland players, who under his baton achieved what was probably the highest executant standard of any orchestra in the world."
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, had taken 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. Among the awards he received in his lifetime was that of an honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire (C.B.E.) in 1963. He was also a Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur.
From 1964 to 1965, James Levine served as an apprentice to Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra, and then served as its assistant conductor until 1970.