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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: #1,174,821 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: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Charry's book is an important contribution, because it's the only biography (as far as I know) of George Szell, one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century. It's a good book, well written and loaded with factual information about Szell's life as a musician. But it could have been a great book by telling us more about Szell, the man. He was, after all, a controversial figure, a musical genius capable of occasional juvenile behavior.

Charry was one of Szell's closest associates for nine years and knew many other musical greats of that era. He could have told us more about Szell's opinions of contemporary conductors, whose performances often contrasted with his own. And it would have been interesting to know how those conductors and other artists of that time viewed Szell. Charry also might have offered more insight into Szell's likes and dislikes among the great classical composers.(We can discern some of that from the book's detailed listings of programs for all of Szell's performances.) And it would have been interesting to know how today's great conductors and artists view Szell's legacy to classical music. Which of his performances might be considered by musicians and critics as the ones never likely to be surpassed? Did his transformation of the Cleveland Orchestra into one of the world's best influence an overall improvement in American orchestras that has occurred since his time? Charry had a unique opportunity to answer questions like those, and unfortunately most of the people who might have provided some of those answers are now gone. Despite this missed opportunity, Charry's book is a must for lovers of classical music, and especially for admirers of George Szell.
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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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