Szell Was Musical Turning Point For City

Plain Dealer article written by Bob Rich and published on May 5, 1996



Plain Dealer, The (Cleveland, OH) – Sunday, May 5, 1996
Author: BOB RICH

Vienna-born Erich Leinsdorf was 31 when he replaced the dynamic Artur Rodzinski as musical director of the Cleveland Orchestra in 1943. He had been the boy wonder of the New York Metropolitan Opera when he caught the eye of Adella Prentiss Hughes, at 73 still a dominant force in Cleveland music.

The Cleveland Press stated that his appointment was a gamble “on talent, intelligence and youth rather than an established symphonic experience. …”

And Rodzinski was a tough act to follow. He had a loyal following and a national reputation. Board members who found Leinsdorf aloof or just plain brash were able to put off worrying about him when he was drafted into the Army in January 1944. By the time Leinsdorf was discharged and returned to Severance in the autumn of ’45, his musical world had turned upside down. Orchestral standards had dropped because of the effects of the draft, and this was blamed on the conductor – not the war.

There had been a great parade of guest conductors in Cleveland during those war years, but the turning point was Nov. 2, 1944, when a conductor named George Szell walked on stage and electrified the audience with a performance the likes of which no Clevelander had ever heard before.

In December, a second series of concerts of Beethoven, French and Russian music, followed by Brahms and Bartok, swept the audience, musicians and critics completely away.

One critic said, “This was surely not the same orchestra we have been listening to all season.” The Cleveland Press said, “Cleveland probably can have Mr. Szell, but on his terms and his terms only – absolute power!” Exactly. And when George Szell was made orchestra director in 1946, Cleveland’s whole musical world was changed forever.

Actually, the Szell legend had been forming earlier. He was born in Budapest in 1897 of Czech background, was a child prodigy who appeared in a public concert at the age of 11, and at 16 led the Vienna Philharmonic when the regular conductor fell ill. Szell was a conductor of a type that no longer exists: Philadelphia’s Ormandy, Boston’s Koussevitsky, NBC’s Arturo Toscanini – men with a commitment to their orchestras.

Szell was a pefectionist, a taskmaster who some feared, dictatorial, as demanding in rehearsal as on the concert stage – but just as demanding of himself. Legend has it that he transformed the orchestra with one rehearsal, saying. “There are no bad orchestras, only bad conductors.” True or not, he definitely did say, “where others stop playing, we begin to rehearse.”

Somebody once said that “the Cleveland Orchestra plays six concerts a week and admits the public to the final two.”

His repertoire emphasized the classic and romantic periods, but he did the “modern classics” also, and was hardly the Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann captive that legend would have him.

It was once said he was his own worst enemy – until the Metropolitan Opera’s Rudolf Bing retorted, “Not as long as I’m alive!”

He would tell the musicians what color socks to wear, how to have their glasses adjusted, how to take a nap. He once fired a musician for driving too good a car and not spending enough on his violin. He ordered the stationery, approved record jackets, and checked the box-office receipts every morning, arriving ahead of the orchestra. He would rehearse the national anthem, “Happy Birthday,” a comedy routine with Jack Benny – all with equal intensity.

Szell lived to see the realization of his dream of a summer home for his orchestra when Blossom Music Center opened in 1968, built on 500 acres in the Cuyahoga River Valley halfway between Cleveland and Akron. He died July 30, 1970, when the orchestra under Pierre Boulez was playing a concert there, leaving a city stunned.

Harold Schonberg of the New York Times said, “The world of music will miss the authoritarian, profound George Szell, he of the perfect ear and flawless technique, the master of rhythm, balances, and textures, the creator of structure in sound. …” Time magazine said, “He demonstrated an unswerving aural vision of how music should sound … and the almost psychic power of leadership to make it sound that way. …”

Szell would say with pride of his Cleveland Orchestra, “That is how we make music in Cleveland!” To cities all over the world, Cleveland was known because of how the “Szell orchestra” made music.


Teaching Cleveland Digital is a repository of writing, pictures and videos to support the teaching of Cleveland, Northeast Ohio and Ohio @

Teaching Cleveland Digital