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George Szell: A Life of Music (Music in American Life) Hardcover – June 1, 2011

4.4 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"Reading this book would serve as a manual of music appreciation.  Charry's tribute reflects the scope and brilliance of Szell's career, in the careful detailing of his performances and music critics' opinions of them."--Ohioana Quarterly

"A fine biography of one of the 20th century's greatest classical conductors.  This thorough biography of one of the most important figures on the American classical scene in the post-World War II era is a valuable contribution to the literature on classical music."--Library Journal

"A discerning and highly informed new biography.  Charry makes a convincing case for admiring his subject's skill in musical matters without concealing Szell's many personality flaws."--Forward

"Charry not only gives us invaluable insights into his leadership style and musical tastes ... but details some of the financial and political issues facing the orchestra during that era. . . . Perhaps the book’s greatest value lies in humanizing a man whom many have come to see as a humorless (or perhaps joyless) martinet."SymphonyNow

"Charry’s achievement is unlikely to be surpassed for a long time, if ever, and the reader will come away with a real depth of insight into this towering, complex figure, which can only enhance our appreciation of his extraordinary accomplishment and artistic legacy."--Fanfare

Book Description

A comprehensive biography of one of the twentieth century's greatest conductors


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Product Details

  • Series: Music in American Life
  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press; 1st Edition edition (June 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0252036166
  • ISBN-13: 978-0252036163
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.5 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,317,004 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By R.D. Monsoon VINE VOICE on June 8, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As a big George Szell fan, I was hoping to love this biography, but I was disappointed. I did not feel that the Michael Charry revealed any new insights about what made Szell such a great and noteworthy conductor.

The major problem is that Charry feels the need to account for every moment in Szell's life. As a result, many of the chapters provide superficial overviews of a year in Szell's life, mentioning just the music he conducted, anecdotes about contract negotiations, and discussions with administrators at other orchestras about programming for guest appearances. It feels like it was originally written in bullet form and then converted into complete sentences. Understandably, Charry paces things very quickly to get to Szell's Cleveland tenure as soon as possible, and devotes the majority of the book to that. A lot of this period in Szell's life is already well known -- in fact, a lot of the stories and anecdotes Szell devotees will recognize from CD liner notes (many written by Charry) as well as Szell's hour long interview with John Culshaw for the BBC (which is by far the most insightful Szell document), audio interviews with Paul Myers and WQXR, and the Bell Telephone Hour documentary. What I wanted to know more about was Szell's life before Cleveland, especially when he was a prodigy in pre-war Europe.

Szell continues to fascinate listeners over 40 years after his death because of his unique interpretations and ability to exert total control over how the Cleveland Orchestra sounded -- so I was hoping for more analysis of this. From reading about Szell in the past, I know that he was meticulous at preparing a score he would conduct -- he would play through them on the piano several times -- and that his rehearsals were legendary for their intensity.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This biography of George Szell reflects a great deal of research about Szell's professional life, and Michael Charry deserves a lot of praise for his deep knowledge about the career of this great musician.

The book gives us a blow by blow account of practically all of Szell's concerts given throughout his life. The typical account takes the form, "on such-and-such a date, Szell conducted the following works with the X orchestra." Then will follow a snippet or two from the reviews of the concert.

After a while, this gets quite tedious, and one wonders whether this information might not have been better listed in an appendix. Of course, that would have gutted the book, but it would also have left space for what I was hoping to find, but generally missed: Szell's ideas about the music he performed,his thoughts about conducting, and his philosophy of life. These topics are not completely absent, but they are submerged in a sea of facts that quickly become repetitive, not to say boring.

To the extent that Charry departs from his formula, it is usually to convey gossipy stories about Szell's tendency to be his own worst enemy (or, to be more precise, his own second-worst enemy, since Rudolf Bing claimed to be his worst enemy). Charry never offers a psychological explanation of the demon that haunted Szell and caused him so many times to act immaturely. Nor does Charry delve into a topic that might have been connected to this: Szell's early decision to stop his work as a composer.

Surely the inability to create his own new works must have gnawed at the soul of such a great musical genius. Instead, Charry simply reports without comment that Szell decided his compositions weren't very good.
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Format: Hardcover
Written by Michael Charry, George Szell's longtime assistant, this book chronicles Szell's performing schedules across his career, quoting (mostly positive) press reviews. You learn what Szell did, and what he performed, year by year, with minimal editorial accompaniment. Little of Szell's private life is revealed beyond a routine work and vacation schedule. (Was he that boring?) Szell narrative hardly ever stops for more than a few paragraphs to truly explore important moments in the history that might allow us to better understand who Szell was, and what made him tick. A few tantalizing bits are offered up, but little of Szell's powerful personality or psychology emerge.

Charry begins to make a case that Szell as a man was more than his popular image as the severe music dictator, but misses (or passes up) many opportunities to demonstrate what he experienced personally as Szell's "sorcerer's apprentice". He does not analyze his mentor.

Even Szell's early development---his years as a piano prodigy and composer, and his established conducting career prior to his Cleveland tenure---are not really put under a microscope.

There is sadly little of what many readers would want and expect the most from what should be an examination of "a life of music": music. It does not probe Szell's approach and style, the reasoning behind the musical and career choices he made, and the disciplines that he strenuously (pedantically) championed. Szell professed to be the ultimate steward of other composers' scores, but he took aggressive liberties, which Szell fans instantly recognize as Szell trademarks. Charry doesn't touch matters such as that.
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