George Szell, Antal Doráti KBE, Eugene Ormandy, Zoltán Rozsnyai, Sir Georg Solti
Anybody might rightfully ask: how could a country of about 10 million produce this much talent to export? It has never been established what the ratio between conductors and population could or should be. How many world-class musicians can a country support? You decide.
GEORGE SZELL (Széll György), was born in Budapest on June 7, 1897 but grew up in Vienna. His family was of Jewish origin but converted to Catholicism. George was brought up a Catholic and taken regularly to Mass. At age 11, he began touring Europe and debuted in London as a pianist and composer. Newspapers declared him “the next Mozart”.
But he preferred the artistic control he could achieve as a conductor. While vacationing with his family at a summer resort, he made an unplanned public conducting debut at age 17, when the Vienna Symphony’s conductor had injured his arm, and Széll was asked to substitute. He quickly became a full-time conductor. At 18, he won an appointment with Berlin’s Royal Court Opera (now Staatsoper). There, Richard Strauss, completely impressed by a teenager performing his music so perfectly, befriended him. His later repertoire came mostly from Austro-German classical and romantic composers like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, through Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms to Bruckner, Mahler and Strauss.
He married twice. The first union ended in divorce after six years, the second lasted from 1938 to his death. In his free time, he was a gourmet cook and an automobile enthusiast.
In the post-war years, the Cleveland Orchestra was well respected but undersized. In 1946, Szell was asked to become its Music Director. He took and held the post with utmost perfection for 24 years, until his death, and his name remains synonymous with it.
Szell is widely considered one of the 20th century’s greatest conductors.
He died of bone cancer at age 73 on July 30, 1970.
EUGENE ORMANDY, son of Blau Benjámin, Jewish dentist and amateur violinist, and Rozália, was born on November 18, 1899 in Budapest, as Blau Jenő. He began studying violin at the Royal National Hungarian Academy of Music at age five, gave his first concert at age seven and, studying with Hubay Jenő, graduated at 14 with a master’s degree. In 1920, he obtained a university degree in philosophy.
In 1921, he moved to the U.S. and changed his name to Ormandy. He was first engaged as a violinist in the 77-player ensemble at the Capitol Theatre in New York City. They accompanied silent movies. In five days, he became concertmaster, and soon one of the conductors of the group. In the 1920s, he made several recordings as a violinist. In 1931, he was asked to stand in for his idol Arturo Toscanini, who was too ill to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra. This led to his first major appointment as a conductor, in Minneapolis.
There he served until 1936, when he started with the Philadelphia Orchestra as Associate Conductor under Leopold Stokowski. After two years, he became its Music Director, conducting from 100 to 180 concerts each year. He was a quick learner of scores, often conducting from memory and without a baton. After his legendary 44 years in Philadelphia he retired in 1980, when he was made Conductor Laureate.
Ormandy died of pneumonia at his home in Philadelphia, on March 12, 1985 but innumerable recordings, some of which are still considered the best version of certain works, have immortalized his life and career.
ANTAL DORATI, KBE was born on April 9, 1906 in Budapest. He was the son of two professional musicians: Doráti Sándor, violinist with the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra and Kunwald Margit, piano teacher.
He was a child prodigy: at an early age he learned to play the cello. At 12, he started composition lessons with Weiner Leó, later Kodály; composed three youthful operas before entering the Academy of Music at age 14. In 1924, he was repetiteur at the Budapest Royal Opera House and soon even conducted there.
In 1928, Dorati went to the Dresden Opera, then to Muenster, until 1933. In the 1930s he joined the conducting staff of the Ballet Russe in Monte Carlo and was also guest conducting in Europe and America. In 1941, he was named Music Director of the American Ballet Theater where he demonstrated his ability to build an orchestra. He also revitalized the Dallas Symphony Orchestra during his 1945-49 tenure. During that time, he became an American citizen.
Dorati spent a significant period (1949-1960) at the helm of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, followed by 4 years with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, then the Stockholm Philharmonic from 1966-1970. Then he returned to the U.S. to be with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC, and during 1970-1977 he rescued them from bankruptcy. After four years with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Queen Elizabeth II made him honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1983. This entitled him to use the post-nominal letters KBE, but by convention, honorary knights do not generally use the “Sir” unless they subsequently acquire UK citizenship. His wife, Ilse von Alpenheim was an Austrian pianist.
He made nearly 600 recordings, including all 106 Haydn symphonies, with the Philharmonia Hungarica.
Dorati died on November 13, 1988 in Gerzensee, Switzerland.
SIR GEORG SOLTI was born on October 21,1912 in Budapest, as Stern György, one of five children of Stern Móricz and Rosenbaum Teréz. To improve his career opportunities, the father changed the family name to the Hungarian-sounding Solti.
Although György had a sense for music, he was no child prodigy and preferred playing soccer to the piano lessons his mother insisted on. It was her relentless prodding that kept the child in the world of music. He had to attend concerts where he had the privilege of hearing Vladimir Horowitz as well as Rachmaninov at the piano. By his own admission, at age 12 he fell asleep during a performance of Wagner’s Meistersinger. The first symphonic work that caught his attention at age 14 was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony conducted by Erich Kleiber. The monumentality of the performance mesmerized him to the point of deciding that instead of becoming a pianist, he wanted to be a conductor.
Upon graduating from the Academy of Music, he started working without pay at the Budapest Opera. In 1936, he visited the Salzburg Festival where the following year, he managed to get employed as repetiteur, again without pay. At the time of a performance of the Magic Flute, both Toscanini and his assistant Erich Leinsdorf became ill with influenza and, being familiar with the score, Solti jumped in to conduct. A few months later Toscanini visited Budapest with the Vienna Philharmonic. He met and remembered his young substitute, making György famous overnight.
Being Jewish, however, hindered Solti’s early career. Antisemitic laws made it progressively more difficult to get ahead at home. During the Nazi and war years he found refuge in Switzerland, as did many other artists in his predicament. There he met and married his first wife, Hedi Oechsli. The post-war years proved hard as well. Although he was invited and worked in Munich, then in Frankfurt, he endured difficulties professionally and personally for not being German.
Solti first appeared in the United States in 1953, in San Francisco, followed by Chicago and Los Angeles; then in New York in 1957, with mixed success. In 1961, he became Music Director of the Royal Opera in London. Soon he divorced the henpecking Hedi and in 1967 married the young journalist Valerie Pitts, with whom he had two daughters. In 1972, Queen Elizabeth II knighted him in recognition for his ten years at the helm of the Royal Opera.
His 22 years as Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which he re-vitalized, reorganized and saved from bankruptcy, meant the fulfillment of his professional life. During his lifetime he garnered innumerable awards. Despite his main language being English, he never lost his “goulash” accent.
Sir Georg never actually retired. He died unexpectedly at Antibes, on September 5, 1997, of a heart attack. According to his wishes, he was interred at the Farkasrét cemetery in Budapest, next to Bartók. His tombstone declares: “Hazatért” (He came home).
ZOLTÁN ROZSNYAI was born in Budapest, on January 29, 1926. At age 10, he was already a concert pianist and was one of the youngest ever accepted by the Franz Liszt Academy of Music. Prior to the Academy, however, at the St. Imre Cistercian gimnázium he was classmate of one of my cousins who invited me to Rozsnyai’s conducting diploma concert in 1949. I don’t remember the program, yet vividly recall the impression it gave me. Although most of the pieces were familiar, never before was I so carried away by music. Zoltán made me realize what enormous difference the work of a conductor can make.
I lost track of him while he was appointed Music Director of the Debrecen Opera and other orchestras in the country. In 1954, however, he became permanent conductor of the Hungarian National Philharmonia Concert Association. In 1956, he was awarded second prize at the International Conductor’s Competition in Rome, resulting in an immediate invitation there as a guest conductor.
After the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, like hundreds of thousands, Zoltán left Budapest for Vienna. There he ran into fellow-refugee musicians in the street. Seeing all the exceptionally talented Hungarian musicians, he started to organize an orchestra from nothing. He invited them and they followed the agile, smart, good-looking conductor. With his tireless effort, Philharmonia Hungarica, the “Orchestra of Freedom” was born and became one of the most outstanding concert orchestras in Europe. Everyone loved them. Yehudi Menuhin played Bartók’s Violin Concerto No.2 with them in Vienna. When he learned that they had no harp, he wrote a check for them to buy one.
Under the auspices of the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, Rozsnyai brought the orchestra to the United States in 1959. They earned high critical acclaim everywhere. On October 23, 1959, the third anniversary of the Revolution, the successful orchestra gave a most memorable concert at Carnegie Hall. Their virtuoso, magnetic performance rendered the Star-Spangled Banner a rousing, unforgettable experience. The audience sang along the Hungarian Himnusz (National Anthem) and even some musicians became teary-eyed.
Communist Hungary never mentioned the Philharmonia Hungarica. The successful expatriate orchestra strongly bound to the spirit of 1956 was kept in secrecy. Their first concert in Budapest was not until 1990.
In 1961, Rozsnyai and his wife, architect Elizabeth (Mimi) Póczy became American citizens. They had one daughter. In 1962, he became Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, followed by appointments to Cleveland and Utica, being Music Director with both.
In 1967, Zoltán was chosen over 130 candidates for the position on Music Director of the San Diego Symphony. During his years with them, they made several recordings under different famous labels. His infamous philandering, however, led to his divorce and subsequent marriages, producing three more daughters and a son. On the occasion of the World’s Fair in 1982, he built up the Knoxville Symphony, and in 1987 he founded the International Orchestra of San Diego. Into this orchestra Rozsnyai gathered a select group of young musicians who had performed with symphonic orchestras and musical ensembles all over the world. Being close to Mexico, the orchestra performed on both sides of the border to unusual acclaim.
He worked with the International Orchestra until September 10, 1990, when he died too soon, at age 64 from a heart attack in San Diego.
There must be something in the Hungarian air to have produced this spectacular array of 20th century world-class conductors. Although these are gone, Hungarian musical talent is alive and well, as the next generation is on its way to fame. We wish all the best to every budding musical talent of the 21st century.. For you can never have TOO MUCH TALENT!
Olga Vállay Szokolay is an architect and Professor Emerita of Norwalk Community College, CT after three decades of teaching. She is a member of the Editorial Board of Magyar News Online.