A favorite story of the late John S. Edwards, onetime general manager of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, concerned the visit of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Chicago in October 1979. The pontiff, a great lover of the fine arts, had expressed his wish to hear the mighty CSO under Sir Georg Solti during his visit, and so a special concert of the Bruckner Fifth Symphony was arranged in Holy Name Cathedral. After the concert, the pope went out onto State Street, where he was greeted by thousands of cheering Chicagoans. “Thank you,” he called, “but I am not the Chicago Symphony. I am only the pope.”
Two years before, Sir Georg had made his infamous declaration that “Chicago should erect a statue to me.” Within a decade, the city came around to his way of thinking and did erect a statue in Lincoln Park. It was the first time the city had ever so honored a living person, but Solti was a special case: he had almost single-handedly rehabilitated Chicago’s image abroad, transforming our city from the home of Al Capone to the home base of “the world’s greatest orchestra.”
Of course the Chicago Symphony had long been a world-class orchestra, particularly from 1953 to 1963, during the tenure of music director Fritz Reiner. But it took Solti to win the orchestra its long-overdue national and international recognition. Under his leadership the CSO set up a regular series of spring concerts in New York’s Carnegie Hall, as well as tours of Europe, the Far East, and last year even Australia. The sold-out houses and sheer adulation that Solti and his orchestra routinely encounter on tour are more typical of rock concerts than performances of “serious” music.
Still, if Solti has done much for Chicago and its orchestra, Chicago and its orchestra have also done much for Solti. Indeed, it is the marriage of Solti and Chicago that makes the magic; the relationship is responsible for 23 of his 27 Grammy Awards.
It was the north-shore Ravinia Festival that invited Solti, then a rather inexperienced conductor, to make his North American debut back in July of 1953. The engagement fell through because of visa complications, but the following summer Solti did conduct the Chicago Symphony at Ravinia, and he immediately “fell in love” with the orchestra.
Chicago also gave Solti his first real opportunity to work consistently with the internationally known opera superstars of the day when he began conducting for the Lyric Opera in 1956. The Lyric’s current general director, Ardis Krainik, was a young company singer at the time and remembers those Solti-led performances as among the finest the company ever offered.
In 1969, when John Edwards, the CSO’s then new general manager, and Louis Sudler, chairman of the Orchestral Association, failed to attract the Berlin Philharmonic’s Herbert von Karajan to the position of CSO music director, they were determined to hire Solti for the job no matter what the terms. Their strategy was simple–develop the best possible product and market it to the world. The tenacious and competitive Hungarian-born Solti was the perfect choice to make their vision a reality, and he took less than two years to do so on a scale more grand than anyone could have imagined.
Other than touring, the major factor in establishing the Solti/Chicago mystique has been the many recordings the team has made, recordings that run the gamut from early works such as Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion and Handel’s Messiah to complete symphonic cycles of Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler; large works of Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Wagner, Bruckner, and Richard Strauss; French music of Debussy and Ravel; and to date two operas: Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman and Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron. Solti recordings have had an enormous impact on the music-loving public, the recording industry, and particularly on young music makers throughout the world.
Sir Georg and his second wife, Valerie, were married in 1967 and have two daughters: Gabrielle, 18, and Claudia, 15. Solti, now 76, has consistently pointed to becoming a father so late in life as his proudest accomplishment, surpassing even his 1971 knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II of England, where the Soltis make their home.
Solti is an intense and driven man who is always on the move. He guards his privacy fiercely and hates interviews, not only because he finds it difficult to sit still but also because he would rather be making music than talking about it. The conversation that follows took place in several installments, the first and longest of which was just over 45 minutes last February in his Orchestra Hall studio. We also spoke last September in his downtown hotel suite, on a quiet Sunday morning before the hectic 1988-89 season began. The one forbidden subject was the CSO’s new music director, but Solti was gracious enough to update me on that situation last Monday, when the announcement of his successor was finally made publicly.
Dennis Polkow: Maestro, the big news this week is the long-expected announcement that Daniel Barenboim will succeed you as music director of the Chicago Symphony, effective during the 1991-92 season. Why was this announcement made as late as it was, when the contract had been signed over a year ago?
Sir Georg Solti: I know that the appointment comes as no surprise to anyone, but remember, we still have two years and nine months left to my music directorship, so I certainly think we have let everyone know in plenty of time. The main reason for announcing this now is to allow for as smooth of a transition as possible. My commitment to the orchestra will go from eight to six weeks for those remaining seasons, and Maestro Barenboim, as music director designate, will be here for the same length of time, which will then double for him after I leave. As music director laureate, I will then come back every season, God willing, for as long as I can, although I don’t know how long my annual stay will be. I also have every intention of continuing to make recordings with the orchestra while I am here.
Daniel Barenboim is an old friend of mine, and we’ve known each other for almost 25 years now, dating back to when we first made music together back in Israel in 1965. I conducted and he played the Mozart B-flat Major Piano Concerto [no. 27, K. 595]. I remember the date because he played it so well! Since then we’ve had a very close friendship and have collaborated often. As you know, he took over the Orchestre de Paris from me when I left there in 1975, and has had a very great success there. He has built a first-class orchestra, which you will hear for yourself next month when they arrive in Chicago on tour.
I am obviously very happy and very pleased with the selection. It could not be a better one. I didn’t want to leave a vacuum behind me and create an empty space, but I know that the future of this orchestra is in the best of hands, and is secure and safe. I believe that it is essential that we make a smooth transition, and we will do that.
DP: How do you feel about leaving, now that your successor has been publicly named?
GS: I’m sure that I don’t need to tell you that this was the most difficult decision of my life. I love this orchestra, and we have worked together for 20 years in the greatest harmony. When I told them officially at rehearsal this morning, I found it very difficult to go on rehearsing, because I was practically in tears.
But still, it is the only right thing to do. You should not stay too long, and you should leave while it is still possible to make a proper transition where the roles are slowly and smoothly interchanging. Therefore, I feel as good as I possibly could about it, given the inevitability of having to leave.
DP: Would you comment on the controversial firing of Maestro Barenboim from the new Bastille Opera in Paris? I know that you and many of your colleagues have signed a petition supporting him.
GS: Do you know how ironic this is? I was just in Paris in July, conducting the Orchestre de Paris, and I told the French press that France had just reached an historic moment where it now has a first-class opera house [under Barenboim], which they’ve never really had before. The saga and drama of political interference goes back to Nietzsche, Wagner, and even further back, as you know, so this is nothing new. But I had honestly thought, or more realistically I had hoped, that finally there was a fresh, new beginning and a new artistic conception in France.
The controversy developed very slowly, but unfortunately it is a political issue; I am quite convinced of that. What happened was very simple: the Socialist government [of President Francois Mitterrand] was against the appointee of the [conservative former prime minister Jacques] Chirac government. It’s as simple as that. It has nothing to do with Mr. Barenboim’s qualifications musically, nothing to do with the money they are paying him, it is all an excuse–a dirty excuse for politics.
It is simply out of the question that an opera house is not led by a musician, but by a tailor [fashion-house chairman Pierre Berge, who fired Barenboim in mid-January], however marvelous of a tailor he may be! Whatever talent Monsieur Berge–or whatever his name is–has as a businessman, he cannot cast Don Giovanni. That is out of the question. He can perhaps design the robe for Don Giovanni, but that’s a far different matter.
I felt so strongly about it that I pulled out from working there, as did many of my colleagues: my friend Pierre Boulez, [Carlo Maria] Giulini, Karajan, really the elite of music. In fact, they called us the “musical mafia,” which I don’t mind because we are a unique mafia working for a noble purpose, artistic integrity.
DP: Why wasn’t Claudio Abbado chosen as the new CSO music director?
GS: He is a highly qualified and excellent colleague of mine, but as my retirement drew nearer, it became more and more clear that he wouldn’t be able to accept because he had just accepted his job at the Vienna State Opera. I was quite certain after some talks with him that he wouldn’t sacrifice Vienna for Chicago.
But it is also not insignificant that the orchestra itself had an absolutely clear preference for Barenboim over Abbado as music director. That is an essential point, because the view of this quality orchestra shouldn’t be overruled.
But I am as keen as anyone else on keeping Maestro Abbado connected to the orchestra, and he will be welcome here as often as he wants to or is able to come. I am also certain that Maestro Barenboim feels the same way.
DP: Is it true that you hated to practice as a child?
GS: What child doesn’t? Every child hates to practice and I was no exception. In fact, I would be very suspicious of any child who claims to love practicing. It is especially difficult if you have a bad teacher, which I did when I started to take piano lessons. I started at five years old, because it was discovered that I had absolute pitch. I had a teacher who would literally hit my fingers when I made a mistake, so you can imagine how much love I developed for music!
Besides that, I was a passionate football player–what you call soccer in this country–and all of my comrades would go out to play football in the little forest near our home, and I would have to stay in and practice the piano. After a year of this, my mother–who was really my mentor in music–said, “Just forget it, that’s enough for you.”
And I did. So, having started piano lessons at five, I gave it all up by six. A rather short career, I’m afraid.
DP: Obviously you came back to it–what brought you back?
GS: Shortly after I gave up the piano, we started to have singing in school. Our whole class would sing songs, and there was a boy in my class who would accompany us on the piano. He did very badly, and I knew I could do much better. That was an essential turning point for me because ambition became my motivation. So I ran back home to my mother and said, “I want to start back at the piano.”
Ever since, music making has been my only ambition, and it has been a constant fight but a constant joy. Yes, there is the Churchill side of it, the “tears and blood” so to speak, but also the great joy.
DP: How important to the process were your years of study at the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest?
GS: It is no coincidence that so many first-class Hungarian musicians came out of that school. Talent and education are the vital components to making great musicians, and the Liszt Academy supplied an excellent education to very talented students. It was a marvelous school, and all of the teachers were wonderful. I was unbelievably lucky to have been born in Budapest, because I really believe that we had the most beautiful and the best music school in the world.
I went there when I was only 12, and the competition was tremendous. You really had to practice there; I had been very lazy up to that point, but with professors like Bartok, Kodaly, Leo Weiner, and Dohnanyi, you really had to work.
DP: What kind of artistic influence did Bartok end up having on you, particularly as a pianist?
GS: Not much, really. When I was a pupil, I was a very Romantic piano player–with lots of pedal and a big sound. He was just the opposite–he was a Scarlatti piano player who played very cleanly, very clearly, using little pedal.
Compositionwise, I did try to sound like Bartok, and Kodaly as well. My student compositions were mere imitations of them.
In terms of musical judgment, not much, because he didn’t care much for Wagner, Strauss, or Bruckner. Nor Brahms. I don’t know if he knew much Mahler, but that would probably have spoken to him. He loved Bach, Scarlatti, Mozart, Liszt, Mussorgsky, Debussy, and Ravel.
DP: Who did influence your piano playing the most as a student?
GS: There was a wonderfully marvelous chamber music professor, Leo Weiner. He was actually my greatest overall musical influence. Weiner had a fantastic ability to analyze your playing. He never taught piano, only chamber music, sometimes with piano, sometimes without. We played and analyzed string quartets, wind pieces, anything. He had a chamber orchestra with no conductor that rehearsed pieces to death; you might spend half a year on a Mozart symphony. In the end, after all of that care, the piece would sound wonderful. Many famous Hungarian musicians were in that little orchestra. I learned a great deal from him about conducting, which is what I wanted to do at that point, much more than playing the piano. He knew that, and he allowed me to be present at all of his rehearsals, even when I wasn’t playing. He was a close friend of Fritz Reiner, by the way.
DP: Did you ever have contact with Reiner?
GS: Only once, here in Orchestra Hall, Chicago. I was conducting at Lyric during the 50s and came to a [Chicago Symphony] concert and said hello to him. He was very charming, very nice. That was all. He then died in 1963.
DP: How did the orchestra sound to you back then?
GS: I really can’t remember. That was some 30 years ago.
DP: But you had conducted the orchestra yourself by then.
GS: At Ravinia, yes. About 1955 or so. I had an idea what the orchestra could do by then, but still it’s a different sonority outside than inside. The Ravinia shell back then was not very good, although I know that the shell they have today is much improved. At that point, the sound just fluttered away.
DP: What kind of teachers were Bartok, Kodaly, and Dohnanyi?
GS: Bartok’s teaching was somewhat irregular because he had outside performances of his own compositions as well as his concertizing as a pianist, which was his primary form of income. He also never taught composition, only piano. As a composer, he was very neglected during my youth. In fact, he was played more in Germany back then than in Hungary. Kodaly also had an independent life as a composer in addition to his teaching.
The thing I remember most about Bartok is that he had these marvelously piercing eyes–unforgettable, big eyes, which looked at you in a most piercing and intense manner. He always spoke very slowly and softly.
All three teachers taught in such a way that if you weren’t very talented, you didn’t get much out of their teaching. You had to be talented enough to see and hear what they meant, for example, when they played the piano for you. They never criticized you in an analytical sense, they would just sit down at the piano and play through the same piece that you were working on. If you were clever enough to hear and apply the differences between their playing and your playing, then you learned. There was sometimes a little illumination, but not much.
Leo Weiner’s teaching was exactly the opposite. He would let you play a few bars, and then he would stop and correct you. You would play those first few bars over and over until you got them right, then he would let you move on. The two approaches complemented each other wonderfully.
I remember that I had worked up a very famous early piano piece of Bartok’s, Allegro barbaro. I very proudly wanted to play it for him, but he wanted no part of it. Obviously he thought, and quite rightly looking back on it, that it was no good for this young boy to ruin his music.
He was so exacting about performing his own music. I’ll never forget when they presented his Bluebeard’s Castle at the Budapest Opera. He came to the rehearsals with this huge metronome, making sure that everyone was following his exact metronome markings. He was very exacting about tempo, as he was about every aspect of his music. The precision of his writing is legendary. In fact, have you ever seen his handwriting?
DP: Yes, in a facsimile of a score or two.
GS: It is clear, neat, and extraordinarily beautiful. That’s very interesting because in actual fact, all the major composers, with very few exceptions, had beautiful handwriting for musical scores. Bach, Mozart, Strauss, Brahms–beautiful writing, all of them. Bartok, too.
DG: You came across that handwriting a few years back when you and the orchestra were preparing the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, the piece that also opened the current season. Tell that story, if you will.
GS: It must have been eight or nine years ago, when we were getting ready to record the piece. Of course, I had done that piece many times, but knowing how precise his metronome markings were, I decided that I would leave a record that would be exactly the way he wanted the piece to be heard–every little detail.
This meant that the second movement had to be taken at a marking of a quarter note equals 74, which is exceedingly slow. But I didn’t care, that’s what he wanted, so that’s how we were going to do it.
I began the rehearsal, and my musicians looked at me a little funny. I know my musicians, and I know their faces when they don’t like something. I said to them, “Look, I’m sorry; I know it’s very slow, but that’s what Bartok wrote, so that’s how I want to do it. It is 74.” At that point, Gordon Peters, my splendid percussion player, said, “But Maestro, in my part it’s marked 94.” “What? Bring it here.” He did, and it did say 94, which of course totally changes the character of the piece. I thought, “This cannot be.” I had seen the score many times over the years, and it was always the same.
We were all getting a bit excited that we might be on to something, and my assistant Charles Kaye contacted the Library of Congress, where the autograph score was. Sure enough, in the score itself it said 94. Apparently the flag of his 9 had been mistaken by the copyist as a 7, and for nearly 40 years that movement had been performed at the wrong tempo. By sheer chance, we happened to discover it was wrong. For a long time the publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, refused to change it, but I think now that they have.
DP: You have often mentioned the enormous influence that Toscanini had on you, both professionally and personally.
GS: Well, personally–although he never knew it, he saved my life. The fact that I went to Switzerland to ask him to help get me to America saved my life, because I ended up stuck in Switzerland during the entire war. So, personally, I am obviously more than grateful to him.
Musically, I was very much under his influence, and I am eternally grateful to him for one thing: his sense of taking music so seriously. He had such an iron will to study, to work, and to achieve something. That was new for me–I had never met anyone who had had that absolute determination to make the best music that he possibly could. That was a lesson for a lifetime. That was wonderful–an entirely new way of life was introduced to me through that man.
When people tell you today that they remember that Toscanini did such and such, and this and that, it’s all nonsense. I don’t even remember what he did. People forget, and now that he has been cast as a golden image, that distorts what real memories are there.
But what I do remember is the principle–the seriousness of the approach, the life-and-death determination to arrive at the best result that one can; that I remember, and that I will never forget.
DP: Beyond the principle, has your sound as a conductor been influenced by him?
GS: I don’t think so, because I have forgotten his sound. Toscanini has been dead now for over 30 years, and the last time I actually heard him conduct was in 1939, which is almost 50 years ago. That’s why I say, whoever tells you that they remember Toscanini’s sound is cheating.
DP: You are often accused of conducting a more limited repertoire than many of your colleagues.
GS: Remember, symphonic repertoire is endless. It would take not one human life but five human lifetimes to learn all of the pieces, and even that wouldn’t be enough time. We go from Monteverdi to Cage, thousands and thousands of pieces. I always say that one of my nightmares is that I will die having done only half of all of the Haydn symphonies. Bach cantatas are wonderful pieces that, for the most part, I will never even hear, let alone conduct. But what can you do? The repertoire is endless. My limitation of learning is about four new pieces a year. I can’t go any faster than that. That’s all I can do.
DP: And yet you repeat repertoire that you have already done with great regularity.
GS: That is because I firmly believe that the high standard that I have achieved with the Chicago Symphony must be shown by our regular performances of the great masterpieces. I will believe this until my dying breath. It is no good that the Louisville Symphony plays the Beethoven Ninth. We, the Chicago Symphony, have to play it to create a standard. Don’t forget that every year there is a new generation coming along who have never heard Beethoven before in their lives. It’s no good if they’re judging Beethoven based on hearing second-rate performances.
The so-called critic, who year after year comes to our concerts and hears Brahms symphonies over and over, will naturally become bored. But not the public, because the same public doesn’t come to every concert. And not the young people, who never heard the works before. Therefore a mixed diet is the only possible way for a symphony orchestra like ours to exist.
And with that attitude comes the charge that you are the curator of a museum of the past.
Yes, fine, so what? What a wonderful museum! That is absolutely right–we should have a museum.
DP: You mentioned that you can only learn four new pieces a year. What is your process for learning a new score?
GS: That is a very long question, but I will try to explain. This is not a recipe–every conductor has his own method, and each approach is valid as long as it works. I have developed mine over the years, and it works for me.
I never use any instruments. I have only the score itself before me, and I start like a child, going through every single note of every bar, always reading, not faking. One can fake and develop only the line of the piece. You end up not knowing the development of a score, only the development of its line. Then you just mark that there are four bars in four-four, five bars in five-three, and so on, and then you learn whatever is in the melody. You can do that, but I can’t work this way. I have to know everything in the score. I firmly believe that only through the micro comes the macro.
Depending on what sort of composition I am reading through, I try to do about 10 to 15 pages per day. Most of the time this is done during a so-called holiday. I cannot learn scores well during the winter season, only during the summer. I know that if I have to learn 20 pages a day I’ll get discouraged, so I can only discipline myself to learn about 10 pages minimum, perhaps up to 15. Then the next day, I’ll do the next 10 pages. And then very, very slowly, I’ll make my way through a symphony which may be 150 pages.
After that, I go back for a second reading, this time trying to make some sort of musical sense out of the piece. I don’t apply my imagination yet, I’m just trying to give the piece some sort of rhythmic and dynamic shape. It’s a process very much like a Polaroid picture; when you pull it out of the camera, there is nothing at first, but very slowly an image forms. Finally, after about ten minutes, you have a picture. The only difference is that my “ten minutes” may be a month.
By my third reading, I try to get a feel for tempi, or the proper speed. Then I try to make phrases, and try to imagine something in my mind. You go on, but you have to watch–this is a very dangerous procedure because you can go too slow, and then forget the overall structure of the piece, which must always be kept in mind. I may even read from the end or the middle and go backwards. It’s very similar to architectural work.
After roughly three times through, then I will usually listen to a recording of the piece. I don’t do this initially because I don’t want my imagination disturbed by anything. I make sure it is someone’s record who I know is good–one of my colleagues whom I know I can trust. Then I listen to the record and compare it with what I heard in my mind. Was what I heard right, or was it wrong? Did I make any mistakes?
Then I forget the recording and go back and slowly develop the piece in my imagination. That is the process. Then you come to an orchestra and try to put life into what you have heard in your imagination.
Of course, there are other ways to do it, much quicker ways. You can fake. There’s a wonderful story about Hans Richter, a famous Hungarian conductor. One of his players said to him, “Maestro, I conducted, and it was easy.” “My dear boy,” he whispered, “don’t tell anybody.”
DP: Are conductors made, or born?
GS: They are born, in the sense that leadership is something that you cannot teach; you either have this or you don’t. It’s very easy to judge any young person who wants to be a conductor in ten minutes. It’s not a question of how well they are doing, but do they have that specific talent of leadership?
If not, they will never make it. No matter how musically talented he may be otherwise, without that, forget it.
I’ll never forget a prime example of this in Dohnanyi. Of course, he was one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century–no one ever played Beethoven sonatas as well as he did. But when he tried to conduct Beethoven symphonies, he was a helpless little man. He was the same musician as before, only now he didn’t know what to do with a single phrase.
A first-class conductor is a combination of intelligence, psychology, and intuition, or knowing how to ride the possibilities of the moment and being able to feel the hearts and minds of your players.
Remember, music is a totally abstract art. If you paint a picture, you have a picture. If you write a book, you have a book. The conductor is one who can take his abstract image and put it above other people’s. There is an old story about Toscanini, that he stopped a rehearsal one day and said, “I hate you. Each of you. I hate you because you destroy all of my dreams.” How much of your musical dream can you bring to reality? First you have to have dreams, but also, how much can you make out of your dreams? How much of your dreams can you put across to others? That is putting it in brutal terms, but what Toscanini meant, I do understand. I know that feeling: it’s not hatred, it’s desperation–desperation at the fact that the sound I am getting in reality’ is so far away from the sound I can hear in my imagination.
But I must tell you that the only limit to what the Chicago Symphony can do is your imagination. Without even a murmur, they will do anything. They will do whatever you wish, as long as you wish something. It’s when you don’t ask them to do something that they become restless, because then they know that you don’t care.
DP: How easy is it to make it as a conductor today?
GS: There are about 240 million Americans. Out of that number, would you say that perhaps 5 million want to be president of the United States?
DP: Probably at least.
GS: If that is so, then 100 million of them want to be conductors! Practically every day of my life at least one young person comes to me and says, “Maestro, I want to be a conductor. What do I do?” Strangely enough, it has a lot to do with the growth of recording. There is more music available to the public on records now than there has ever been before.
The real answer is a very difficult one. You must have talent and determination, or endurance. The really first-class conductors have these qualities. You must be able to suffer through all of the obstacles and work very hard. You have to pursue conducting as your single ambition, and know that somebody, somewhere, someday, will give you a chance. And when you get that damn chance, you must be ready. Go and do it. Go and pester people; I did the same. And get whatever experience you can get, however you can get it. I am quite certain that true talent does not go unnoticed. I don’t believe this for a minute.
DP: Your life is a living testament to that fact.
GS: Absolutely. I’ve worked very hard for everything I’ve accomplished. Many other people did it much easier than I did, but I don’t mind that. In fact, it’s probably better that way. Only through the hard way will you truly grow. If it’s too easy, you don’t develop. I’m very grateful for the hard road of my so-called career.
DP: What is it that made you want to become a conductor?
GS: My birth! I was a very small boy when I made the decision, a child prodigy playing public concerts. At the Liszt Academy, there was a hall where they would play orchestra concerts. I will remember the concert as long as I live: the program was the Beethoven Fifth Symphony, conducted by a very famous German conductor, Erich Kleiber. I sat there absolutely mesmerized. That concert made my life. I went home and I said to my mother, “I want to be a conductor.” And she said, “Yes, yes, of course, all right,” and patted me on the head. But I meant it, and from that point on, that was my only ambition in life. Between that concert and the time I really became a conductor, there were enormous and amazing detours.
DP: On March 11, 1938, at the age of 25, you made your long-overdue debut as a conductor at the Budapest Opera House.
GS: I remember that date well. It was an unwritten law that anyone who was Jewish could not conduct in the state opera house. I had been a member of the opera for eight years as a repetiteur [one who coaches singers], so I had waited a long, long time for that conducting debut. I was so talented, however, that the point came when they simply couldn’t keep me down any longer.
The opera was Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. When I finished the piece, we had planned a celebration with my parents and my friends, but there was no celebration. On that night, Hitler marched into Austria; it was the night of the Anschluss. The people just went home, because no one knew what would happen. Would Hitler stop in Vienna, would he go on to Budapest, to Bucharest, where would he go?
I got a ten-day visa to Switzerland the following summer, and my father took me to the train station, and wept as I boarded. I was annoyed and said, “Why are you crying? I’ll be back soon.” “Yes, yes,” he said.
I left Hungary with a little suitcase full of some pajamas, a toothbrush, some shirts, and a dark suit. The reason I left was to go to Lucerne for the festival where Toscanini conducted. I wanted to talk to him and ask him if he would help me get to America. I had planned to then return home to Hungary and prepare to come to America.
It was a week before I saw Toscanini–he was a sort of God to me, and you don’t ask personal favors from God. But I finally worked up the courage to speak with him, and he was very nice and very sweet and said, “All right, when you get to America, come to New York and see me and I will see what I can do for you.” I thought this was wonderful. Of course, neither he nor I knew that to come to America you need a visa. At that point the Hungarian quota had been filled for 50 years, or so they said.
The clouds kept gathering in Europe, and in late August I got a cable from my mother, saying, “Please don’t come home.” It was very heroic of a mother to put the safety of her son above her desire to be with him. A few days later, war broke out.
I knew no one in Switzerland except for a tenor, Max Hirsh. He was from Zurich, and he had sung at the Budapest Opera a few times that year. So I called him and he said, “Solti, what are you doing here?” Very naively I said, “I want to go to America.” “How long will it take?” he asked. “I don’t know, maybe two or three weeks.” “Why don’t you come to my house? I’m working on [Wagner’s] Tristan und Isolde. Come, and you can coach me.” So I left Lucerne and went to Zurich.
Those few weeks became one and a half years. I couldn’t get a visa, and I was trapped. So I began to play the piano, and became quite well known as a pianist in Switzerland.
DP: Indeed, you even won the 1942 Geneva Piano Competition.
GS: True, but during all those Swiss years in exile, I never gave up the absolutely clear feeling that, when this war was over, if I was still alive I would conduct.
DP: How did you end up in Munich, of all places, when the war had ended?
GS: I didn’t care where I went, as long as I could satisfy my urge to conduct. I had written to a friend of mine, a former classmate, who happened to be the music officer with the American occupying army in Munich. He told me to come to Munich, as they wanted to start up opera performances again. I was elated.
DP: You ended up conducting opera for six years in Munich, for nine years in Frankfurt, and for ten years at Covent Garden in England. Why did you concentrate on opera for so many years, and then, all of a sudden, change over to symphonic conducting for the latter part of your career?
GS: Opera is where music began for me. My sister was a soprano, and I would coach her as a small boy. Becoming an opera conductor was my first ambition when I was an 18-year-old coach at the Budapest Opera.
But there is also a much more practical reason. It is obviously much more difficult to conduct opera than symphonic music. If you start with opera, which is the more difficult, then it is much easier to come into symphonic repertoire later on. If you don’t start as an operatic conductor you’ll never learn opera, because it’s nearly impossible to go from symphonic to operatic conducting. There are certain musical secrets that you pick up from operatic conducting that you’ll never learn as a symphonic conductor.
By working with singers and having to teach them, you’ll learn much about the human voice, which is the essential basis of all music making. Singing is the most natural form of music. A conductor who doesn’t sing never makes natural music, whether he’s conducting operatic or symphonic repertoire. All major conductors have come out of the opera house. If you don’t, you will be in for a difficult time. You’re not making natural music if it’s not connected to the human voice.
The reason that I changed over from operatic to symphonic conducting in 1969 was that I knew that if I didn’t make the change then, I would never make the change at all. That was the reason that I accepted the position of music director of the Chicago Symphony–to make that change. I was in my mid-50s at that point, and I was much too adventurous of a musician to have only been doing one thing–which had been, true enough, primarily opera up to that point. I knew I could always go back to opera, but I wanted to spend a few years as a symphonic conductor.
DP: Do you now have a preference for one over the other?
GS: I love them both. The early part of my career was mostly opera, and the latter part has been mostly symphonic; that is a good balance. I still love opera, even with all of its problems and complications.
DP: Could we talk a bit about your Lyric Opera years?
GS: You know, that was a very long time ago. I can’t even remember the exact dates I was there–’55, ’56, or ’57, somewhere in there, I think.
DP: You first came to Lyric in 1956 [as a guest conductor].
GS: My, as long ago as that. I conducted quite a lot of things there. The first year I was there I conducted [Wagner’s] Die Walkure with a young soprano, Birgit Nilsson, who was just beginning back then, then [Richard Strauss’s] Elektra with Inge Borkh, and something with [Giulietta] Simionato, but what was it? [Verdi’s] La forza del destino with [Renata] Tebaldi and Richard Tucker and [Ettore] Pastianini, who died very soon after that. My, that was a rather historic cast! Then I conducted The Marriage of Figaro [during the second season], and it all stopped.
DP: What happened?
GS: Well, you know, Miss [Carol] Fox [Lyric general director at that time] could do nothing without the approval of Miss [Claudia] Cassidy [Tribune music critic at that time]. If Miss Cassidy liked someone, Miss Fox would engage them. If Miss Cassidy didn’t like someone, they weren’t reengaged. She was an absolute puppet of her hand.
Until then, I was very much in Miss Cassidy’s favor, but she didn’t like the Figaro I did, and she wrote a classic sentence about me, which comes vividly to my memory: “During the act two ensemble he smiled, when he should have cut his throat instead.” That was printed in the Chicago Tribune, if you can believe it, and that finished me at Lyric, and I’ve never been back there since. Luckily this kind of nonsense could never happen today, but this was a different era.
Some years later, Dr. Eric Oldberg, president of the Orchestral Association, and general manager Seymour Raven came to see me after I conducted in Dallas and asked me if I would take over as music director of the Chicago Symphony. I told them, “Only if Miss Cassidy won’t be there anymore. Otherwise, I’m not coming.” They said, “No, no, she’s retiring anyway, so don’t worry.” But they were asking me to conduct for something like 14 to 16 weeks, and I was already at Covent Garden, so I couldn’t have really worked it in anyway, which was quite fortunate–it would have been too early for me to come to Chicago.
Everything is fated, and I have such a wonderful guardian angel. I had been asked to be Lyric’s music director by Miss Fox immediately after my first successful season there, and I seriously flirted with the idea. How lucky I was! I came to Chicago at the right moment and at the right time. And to think that indirectly I have Miss Cassidy to thank for that!
DP: I understand that you were originally set to make your North American debut conducting the Chicago Symphony at Ravinia in 1953, but there was a visa delay, and your debut took place in San Francisco that fall.
GS: That is a very strange story that comes vividly to my memory. When I came to Munich in 1946, there was a society called the German-Russian Musical Friendship Society. They sent monthly circulars to anyone involved in musical life, and I used to get these circulars, which were immediately deposited into the wastebasket–you know, junk mail. But they had a list of people to whom they had sent the circulars, and the list was found by the CIA.
I applied for my first American visa–not counting my failed prewar attempts–which was, you are correct, to fulfill my 1953 contract with Ravinia and the Chicago Symphony. I was in Frankfurt by that time, and I went to the American consulate and was waiting a very long time for a response. Finally, a very young vice-consul asked me to come and see him, and he said, “Sorry, we cannot give you an American visa. I really shouldn’t tell you the reason, but it is because you are listed as a member of the German-Russian Musical Friendship Society.”
I went back to Munich, where I had been six years earlier, which was the date of this list and I immediately went to see the interior minister, whom I knew very well. We knew that the CIA had the original list, but the German police would have kept a copy, so he asked the police for a copy of the document. They showed me the copy of the list, which said in German, “This is a list of people who should be approached for membership in the society.” The problem was that the CIA didn’t understand German! So I took the copy back to the American consulate and finally got my first visa, but it was unfortunately too late for Ravinia.
I had to prove my innocence, which was the opposite of the American system, where you are innocent until you are proven guilty. Here I was, guilty until proven innocent–which, luckily, I was able to prove. I was extremely fortunate that the German police had a photocopy of that document, or I might not have made it over here.
DP: When you first came to Chicago, you didn’t use a score in performance.
GS: First, you have to differentiate between operatic and symphonic repertoire. I’ve never conducted an opera by heart because I knew that even if I knew something by heart, the score gives the singers a great feeling of security. If singers look down into the orchestra pit and see a conductor without a score, they’ll panic. They want to think that at least he knows it. Imagine the psychology of singers coming onto a stage where each of them has memorized, facing a conductor who has also memorized! This is a terrible hardship for singers. I never did it because I don’t believe this is a safe thing to do. Technically things can go wrong–a singer may get lost, scenery may fall down; everything goes wrong in opera!
When I started to conduct symphonic repertoire I did everything by heart, except very contemporary pieces. I didn’t eliminate the score on contemporary pieces because I don’t believe that it’s music if you just count but you don’t really see any musical detail. There are some sections of modern pieces that go by so fast that you can’t look at everything, so naturally then you count, with or without the score. But all of the Classical and Romantic repertoire I conducted by heart.
When I first arrived in Chicago and began to produce a new program every week, I got more and more nervous. Suddenly, at the end of my first season, I thought, “This is ridiculous. I’m getting so nervous about memorizing all of those scores. It doesn’t make any sense.” From that moment on, I began conducting with a score.
I really feel that the entire issue is a non-essential question. I am not saying that you shouldn’t learn a score; of course you must. But even if you have memorized a score it makes sense to have it there, to use or not use, at your own discretion. Once I actually had the damn thing in front of me and could turn when I wanted to, then I was totally free.
DP: When you get to the point where you are comfortable with a score, what kinds of things run through your mind while you are actually in performance?
GS: The sound itself is not the foremost thing in my mind, because that I have already worked through in the rehearsal process.
Principally I am thinking of architecture. When I start the first movement of the Beethoven Ninth, for example, I know where the coda is, and I know to which point I am going and how to finish my execution: development, repeats, coda. I know exactly what tempo I want to be at when that coda comes. So foremost, architecture.
Secondly is balancing. That is critical during a performance. Most of the time a glance tells a player or a section to either tone down or play more loudly–they are very quick. Most of the time the audience won’t even see me doing this. This orchestra is always watching you–it is the great characteristic of this orchestra. That is absolutely unique. All eyes are looking at you. That is incredible–this is quite marvelous and a unique phenomenon. I work with all of the major orchestras of the world, particularly our two major competitors: Berlin and Vienna. Those are both wonderful orchestras, no question. But nowhere in the world will you see an orchestra who looks at you the way the Chicago Symphony does. The more complex a piece gets, the more that excitement is building, the more you see that all eyes are on you. That is quite amazing.
I will never forget our opening concert in Salzburg on our first European tour. It was right before the Berlin Philharmonic was to play there, and two days earlier Herbert von Karajan had played there with the Vienna Philharmonic, so we had terrifically hot competition. Everybody in my orchestra also knew that they were now in my old stomping ground. I’ll never forget their faces and their determination–theirs, mind you, not mine–to show them what beautiful orchestral playing is all about, and by God, they did!
DP: I understand that, within the space of a few weeks, you recently conducted those three great orchestras of the world–the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic, and then the Chicago Symphony.
GS: I feel like Mr. Biondi, the swimmer who won three Olympic gold medals. It’s a very special thing. To be precise, it was done within the space of seven weeks–the Vienna Philharmonic in August at Salzburg, the Berlin Philharmonic in September, and then the Chicago Symphony. All three programs spotlighted two composers, Beethoven and Bartok, although the pieces were different. I had a marvelous time, and it’s very interesting to see how much one can form an orchestra.
DP: I would be fascinated to know the differences that you noticed between the three orchestras.
GS: The main thing it confirmed for me is that the difference is what it has always been, the difference between good and bad orchestras. The three of them represent the culmination of the orchestral playing tradition at the end of the 20th century. They are the three greatest orchestras in the world today, and it is absolutely a question of taste which one you prefer; everyone agrees that they are all wonderful. Having said that, there actually are some interesting differences.
The Vienna string section is unique. They have a mellowness of sound that is incomparable, but the Berlin strings have greater homogeneity. The Vienna strings can play anything between piano and poco forte absolutely incomparably. Anything which is louder or softer than that, the Berlin string sound is the more wonderful.
Without doubt the best brass section of the three is here in Chicago, although you’d be amazed at how well the Berlin brass section played [Beethoven’s] Eroica. Truly amazing. But even so, in general our brass section is the best in the world today.
We have a marvelous woodwind section, better than the Vienna winds I would think, but Berlin has the edge there. But the great thing that I can report is that there are still so many absolutely first-class orchestras left in the world today–that pleased me more than anything. There are still places where the highest of standards are being maintained.
DP: Even with all of the young players that have come into these orchestras?
GS: Yes, in Vienna the orchestra is tremendously young now. In fact, I didn’t know two-thirds of them. That’s marvelous that there are such wonderful young players coming along.
DP: Of course, the Chicago Symphony is also a much younger orchestra than the one you took over 20 years ago.
GS: I am very optimistic about the future of my young orchestra. You know an amazing thing? The last time we played the Bruckner Seventh, I stopped for a moment at the first rehearsal and said to them, “Do you remember that in December of 1965 I came here for the first time and we rehearsed the Bruckner Seventh? How many of you played that with me?” You wouldn’t have believed it: it was less than 40 percent. Roughly 60 percent of the orchestra personnel had changed. If we go back to when I first conducted the orchestra at Ravinia, then it would even be a higher percentage. That was really amazing to fully realize how many new players I had named over the years. I took over a fully Reiner orchestra, but I will be leaving an entirely Solti orchestra.
DP: With all of that turnover, how are you maintaining the orchestral excellence that is such a Chicago tradition?
GS: Most of our major players, the first-chair players, are still the same people. That alone would guarantee the quality, because they are such serious and well-respected musicians. Therefore the youngsters, who come into the orchestra and see that this old fellow comes in and is practicing before every rehearsal–they follow that example.
There have been very few examples of bad behavior in that direction. Ninety-eight percent of the new players behave beautifully and take their jobs as seriously as their predecessors did, and are as proud as they were. I have nothing but the highest praise for them.
The old members are a shining example of working, concentrating, and practicing, and so the mixture of old and young is marvelous, and it is working very well. You can hear how well it works. That’s the proof of the pudding, in the listening. All those cultural pessimists who are burying the modern symphony orchestra can now eat their words.
DP: What qualities do you look for in auditioning new players for the orchestra?
GS: The first quality is how well they play their instrument–that makes the foremost impression. If you cannot play the instrument well–with personality, as it were–you will never make it. Musicianship and talent cannot be taught.
Knowing the bits would be nice, but if a person plays well technically and is talented, they can learn the repertoire. As you know, my initial auditioning process is always done behind a screen, so that one can be fairly judged on their sound and nothing more.
When I first came to Frankfurt, I engaged a concertmaster who was 19 years old, who had never been in an orchestra before. And that was an opera orchestra, which is particularly difficult. He didn’t know the bits very well, but he had great talent. After about a year of working very hard he became quite brilliant, and thus I was very much proved right on taking a chance where talent is concerned.
DP: I know you are aware of the fact that many of your players are involved in free-lance work for commercial jingles, and some play pop music and jazz. Does any of this make them better musicians for your orchestra?
GS: I wouldn’t want to say that, but the more versatile you are musically and the more you are reading and playing music–it is a good thing. Some of our players are quite wonderful jazz musicians, and some are as good at playing jazz as they are at playing orchestral music. I think that is wonderful. This is a very special talent. I can’t play jazz at all.
I don’t really mind if my players are playing elsewhere, it’s just a question of what they are playing. If they’re playing chamber music, I not only don’t mind but I am very much for it. It is a marvelous experience and helps them in listening to one another, which is very important.
If they are playing radio and television commercials for money, all right, but personally I could make better use of my time. Of course, this is an individual thing.
I revolt only when one of my musicians arrives at a rehearsal very tired because he took up his time playing something else. That is the point where I draw the line. As long as their outside work doesn’t interfere with the orchestra, then I don’t mind. I don’t necessarily adore everything that they’re doing, but I understand that human beings need money, despite their excellent salaries from the orchestra.
My people, I must say in all honesty, are wonderfully conscientious musicians. They are all hardworking. Even if someone comes into the orchestra who isn’t used to the hard work, it’s so infectious to see how the elder members are constantly preparing, they quickly pick up on this.
This is the only major orchestra playing today that you can come and rehearse a piece with them and not have them take the attitude, “Oh God, we know that already; we’ve played that so often.” That is a wonderful thing.
DP: You and the orchestra are giving the world premiere of a Schmidt-endowed trombone concerto by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. Do you always work directly with a composer when you’re doing a new piece?
GS: Usually I go about as far as I can with the score alone, and then I’ll go to the composer. But you know something very strange? Composers don’t usually know their own music very well. It’s very clear why they don’t: they’re usually writing in haste. They’ve never performed the kind of microscopic procedure that I go through on their own music. They are writing quickly, letting their imagination run. When he–or she, in this case–is finished, it’s on to the next piece. So, very often when I ask a composer a question, he doesn’t know the answer. This is understandable because the creation of music is an entirely different process from its interpretation. The creation usually happens in a fever, and then is gone. My interpretation happens very slowly, and therefore I know the piece better than the composer does.
DP: What do you think of the music that has emerged from the post-Cage era? Is there more of that music that you’d like to conduct?
GS: Look, I’ve never conducted anything even by Cage, so this is difficult to answer. I do already know a little Stockhausen, a little Boulez. I will know much more Boulez when he completes his commissioned piece for our centennial celebration. I am also quite pleased with the music of our composer-in-residence, John Corigliano, whom I firmly believe is one of the most talented composers of our day.
But my general feeling about it is this: when I was a young man, it was Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Bartok who were revolutionary, and we young people championed for these scores against all of the older people who said, “This is all rubbish.”
I attended the first performance of the Bartok Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion back when I was a young man working at the Budapest Opera. Bartok and his wife played it, and I turned the pages for Mrs. Bartok. This is one of the most wonderful pieces in the entire 20th-century repertoire, but based on its initial reception you would never have believed it. It wasn’t loud booing–that would have been much kinder. Instead, it was like ice. I knew that we had heard an historic performance of one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century. But you would never have known it from that cruel reception. I must tell you that I will be ashamed at this until the end of my life.
The point is this–I have been a revolutionary once, so there’s no need for me to become a revolutionary again. I am an old man now. I have basically stopped at Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Bartok. With some exceptions, that is it for me.
I am not saying that today’s composers–and whatever their names are that don’t even exist yet–are no good. Young people should press on and do what I did when I was 25. They should work on those scores and champion their cause as much as they can. I did it myself, and they should, too. But one revolution was enough for me. I am too old for that now.
DP: How do you rate Bartok today? He seems to be emerging more and more as the great genius of the 20th century.
GS: Yes, and I am obviously very happy about that. Of course, this is largely a matter of individual taste. He is certainly one of the three greatest composers of the century–Stravinsky and Schoenberg being the other two. For me, Bartok is the greatest of the three, but that is not a value against the others. I also love Schoenberg and I love Stravinsky–I love all of them because musically I grew up with all of them. But of course, someone could come along within the next 11 years to join that ranking.
Bartok was actually a very sad man. Here was a man who quietly came into this world and quietly disappeared from it, leaving behind very few personal memories, very few letters, only these marvelous pieces of music. He was sort of a meteor who passed this way. I very often feel the same way about Mozart. We don’t really know much about Mozart as a person. Mozart makes you believe in God–much more than going to church–because it cannot be by chance that such a phenomenon arrives into this world and then passes after 36 years, leaving behind such an unbounded number of unparalleled masterpieces. Mozart and Bartok were both people who passed through our world, leaving it so much more enriched than before they came, yet they asked very little of it. The only consolation is that generations to come for thousands and thousands of years will still be enjoying these pieces.
That is Bartok for me. He approached composition without any compromises, and approached politics in the same way. His hatred of fascism and the Nazis was so great that he left his family, his friends, his professorship, his manuscripts, all of his studies of Hungarian folklore–thousands and thousands of folk songs–even his language; he left it all behind to sail to this country in 1939.
He barely knew anyone here, and was not that well known in this country, and always had financial trouble here until his death in 1945. Of course, he could not be buried in his homeland, and in fact that only became possible recently.
His example will always be a shining one for musicians and nonmusicians alike. If I was pope, I would canonize him, but I am a Jew and he was a Protestant. What I can and am doing now is to try and make his pieces sound the best that I can, which hopefully pays back a little of the gratitude which I owe him.
DP: I understand that you recently accompanied Bartok’s remains back to your native Hungary.
GS: Indirectly, yes. The remains of Bartok came by boat from New York to Southampton, England, and then came by train to the Austrian-Hungarian border, and then were brought by car procession to the Academy of Science in Budapest, of which Bartok was a member, where he lay in state for 24 hours. After that 24 hours, he was buried again in a cemetery of his homeland, which was his wish.
I was part of the official reception party meeting his coffin in Budapest, and it was an official act of gratitude on my part. Like every official act, it was restrained and calm. At the end of the ceremony I felt the need for a more private gesture, and so my wife and I each left a rose on his coffin.
The BBC is doing a film called Bartok: The American Years and asked me if I would conduct a portion of the Concerto for Orchestra with the Hungarian Radio Orchestra for that film. So after the ceremony, I went back to my old school, the Liszt Academy, where I played piano again publicly, which I hadn’t done there in 50 years or more. Then I worked with the radio orchestra.
DP: Do they play well?
GS: They do. The next morning I had a competition for four brass players–although it became only three, because I couldn’t find a good enough trombone player there. But I did end up with a trumpet, horn, and tuba player. The prize was that they would come here to Chicago and study with my first-chair players. We also bought them new instruments, and they came here for four weeks over the summer. I was very pleased to do this, because I was doing something good that would help pay back a little of the gratitude that I owe to the school.
That was really my whole trip to Budapest; I was only there for 36 hours.
DP: I know it must be painful for you to return there, especially since Hungary is still not free after all these years. It must be very odd to be back there.
GS: It is very strange, and very, very emotional. So emotional, in fact, that I find I can’t cope with the emotions anymore. It’s a trip that I wouldn’t want to repeat very often. But I will go back from time to time, and do some concerts with one of the two Hungarian orchestras.
DP: How well do they play?
GS: Very decently. Of course, they have some technique problems in their brass sections, but not in the string sections because there is an old string tradition there. Good string instruments are missing there, but then good instruments in general aren’t really available there. That is an area where one can and should help, and I will try to do what I can.
The reason I had selected brass players for the competition is that when I was there in September of ’87, I conducted the Hungarian State Orchestra, which is a concert orchestra. They played very well, but I felt that their brass playing needed help, and so out of this concert came the idea. Next year I will try to do woodwinds and trombone again and bring them to Chicago, and it may become a more or less regular thing.
DP: Probably the thing that is most well known about you is the fact that you have won more Grammys than anyone. What were your earliest recordings, and how did they come about?
GS: Other than my playing the glockenspiel for a Toscanini-conducted performance of The Magic Flute in Salzburg in the late 30s, my first real recordings were done in Switzerland after the war.
I often accompanied Max Lichtegg during those years, a Swiss tenor who was very friendly with Decca’s European recording manager, Mr. [Maurice] Rosengarten, who later became a rather legendary figure. I accompanied Lichtegg for a recording of three Schubert songs, and he had told Rosengarten about me. His response was, “I hear your young friend wants to be a conductor. I’ll see him.”
When I went to see Rosengarten, he told me that they were going to record some violin sonatas with the great German violinist Georg Kulenkampff, and were looking for a partner. I was still playing the piano because there was nothing else at that point, and I would have done anything. That was really the beginning. I kept pestering him and said, “If I do that, will you let me record as a conductor?” He agreed.
So my first record as a conductor became [Beethoven’s] Egmont Overture with the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra. It doesnt exist anymore, but I still have a copy. That was my very first orchestral recording.
DP: Did you have a sense at that point of the importance of recording?
GS: No, not yet. I was only more interested in operatic conducting than symphonic conducting at that point, but I did a certain amount of symphony conducting in Munich.
The next record that I made was in London, the Haydn Drumroll Symphony [no. 103] with the London Philharmonic, and it was that record which suddenly established me. From that came an album of Suppe overtures with the London Philharmonic (I also did a later one in Vienna), out of which came my first operatic venture, the third act and Todesverkundigung scene from Die Walkure in Vienna with Kirsten Flagstad, Set Svanholm, and Otto Edelmann, with the Vienna Philharmonic. That was actually my first encounter with that orchestra. Wait, that is not correct; I had already conducted [Mozart’s] Idomeneo in Salzburg. That Walkure recording had tremendous consequences, because out of that came the Ring.
DP: How has the procedure of recording changed for you over the years?
GS: A great deal. First of all, technically. When I started, we recorded for four minutes, and then we stopped. The long-play record changed all that, which actually came along about 1949, rather early in my recording career. Then came stereo.
DP: Has your basic approach to recording remained the some, even with all of the technical advances over the years?
GS: Yes, for two basic reasons. The first is because I was always aware of the fact that I was making something that would last beyond a performance; therefore I was aiming for something particularly good. So, take it with desperate seriousness; it is not “just a record.” I’ve never taken any record lightly.
When I was a young conductor I was obsessed with technical precision, so I wouldn’t leave a mistake on a record that everyone would hear again and again. In my later years I have taken the view that I don’t mind a mistake or two on a recording if the musical performance is particularly good.
I’ve said many times that recordings are enormously useful for future generations. I would be tremendously grateful to know what Mahler, Nikisch, or Richard Strauss sounded like as conductors. That is an enormous advantage for future generations. We are leaving behind documents of what conductors, opera singers, and symphony orchestras sounded like in the late 20th century.
The second but equally important reason is that I have two major talents: one, I have an absolutely clear sense of proportions or balances, both inner and outer architecture; two, I have an inborn critical sense, in fact an infallible critical sense. I cannot always live up to that critical sense, but at least it is there. That is enormously important, because at a recording session you have only one time to hear a playback, and then you have to make up your mind on the spot, immediately: what was right, what was wrong, why was it right, why is it wrong. Of course, I have developed a certain technique by now, having made over 250 recordings.
Did you know that a member of my orchestra counted up how many recordings I’ve made with the Chicago Symphony–do you know how many there are? What would you think?
DP: Probably somewhere between 50 and 75.
GS: Would you ever believe it is up to 94? Those are recordings that are finished and released, including our new [Bach] Saint Matthew Passion, Beethoven [Symphonies] Four and Five, a Tchaikovsky Fifth, and a Bruckner Seventh due out this month. Now we have to aim for 100 before I disappear from this earth. With three years left to my music directorship, I will make it.
DP: How is the repertoire that you record selected?
GS: Do you want the polite or the impolite answer? Recording companies never risk anything, and that is more true now than ever before. You probably know that the recording industry suffered a very serious falling off, which only recently has found hope in the arrival of the compact disc. It is now on its way up again, which hopefully will continue. Therefore the spread outside of von Karajan and Solti will be better again, but there was a point when it was really as bad as that. Even we were only recording practically once a year, and it was usually unadventuresome repertoire.
In terms of repertoire, that is a decision of the recording company who must sell it, although there is give and take. Look at my 25th Grammy: I suffered for it a great deal! You know that when my company comes out with a Solti 1812 Overture, that is part of the price for my having recorded [Schoenberg’s] Moses und Aron.
DP: How important is the role of the producer in your recording process?
GS: When I started, I was a totally inexperienced recording artist, and my first major producer was John Culshaw. He had much experience, so he was very helpful and I trusted his judgment. Now the producer is there more to watch and be careful about what I am doing, but basically I now determine everything that happens, although I have to defer to the engineer about what is technically possible.
But you must realize that I am always working with the same people, so there is very little change that occurs. Jimmy Lock, my absolutely first-class engineer, has been working with me over 20 years now, and he comes in for practically everything I do here. We know each other, and he knows what I want. He’ll always tell me if something is not working soundwise–what is wrong, and why it is wrong. That’s the importance of working with the same team.
I am now working in Chicago with a talented young producer named Michael Haas most of the time. In Vienna, I am working with Christopher Rayburn, a very talented young man whom I knew as an assistant to Culshaw, and also for Ray Minshull, who also produced a lot of my recordings. It’s very important for a producer to have a good critical sense, but not to have too much critical sense, because that’s depressing. A good producer is very much like a good doctor: he should make you better rather than scare you to death.
DP: Are your recordings truly representative of Solti?
GS: If you make allowances for my recordings, that some were made as a young man, some as a middle-aged man, and some near the end of my career, then I can look back with a great deal of pride. I record as I work, and it is not easy. I am terribly self-critical, which for a recording artist is the most essential talent. You must know how to get it better.
DP: I know you have had the desire to record Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion for many years, and now, at long last, that recording has been made and has been released in this country. What was your first encounter with that work?
GS: Easter of 1947 was the first time I conducted the piece. There was a Munich tradition of playing the Saint Matthew Passion every Easter, and I came into this tradition. That was a marvelous experience for me. At that point it existed in a cut version, which I did for three years, much to my shame. Then I read Bruno Walter’s memoirs, where he said that I committed only one sin during my Munich time: that I cut the Saint Matthew Passion. I immediately changed that.
I did it many times in Germany–first in Munich, then in Frankfurt, then there was a long break of some 15 to 20 years before I did it again in Chicago. Here I did it a few times, and each time I wanted to record it. There were always reasons the recording company had: it was an expensive proposition, we can’t get our money back. But it finally came to a point where I said, “Look, I don’t care. I made enough money for you, now you must do something for me.” I am very pleased that I took that attitude, because I think it is one of the best records that I ever made: marvelous solo singing, marvelous choral singing, great orchestra playing–it is really something exquisitely good.
DP: I understand that you had a couple of lunches with Christopher Hogwood concerning early-music performance options when you were getting ready to record Handel’s Messiah a few years back.
GS: Well, a couple of meetings, yes. The main thing I wanted to discuss with him was the history of the size of the forces that Handel used when he performed the piece. I had looked at two different versions and was trying to decide which one to use. He told me to “do what you want, because that’s what Handel always did.” And that’s what I did, but the size of the forces that I used were very much reduced.
DP: You like a very large number of forces, and a very large sound for Handel?
GS: No, I like it small–we only used 80 singers.
DP: That’s still far more than Handel would typically have used.
GS: No, it’s less than what Handel had! At one point, he used over 100 singers and used a big orchestra. My orchestra had only ten first violins in it. We tried to use roughly the same proportion of singers to orchestra members that Handel had.
DP: What about your forces for the Saint Matthew Passion?
GS: It was roughly the same, a very small but lovely orchestra. I had a double orchestra of 6 violins each, 12 in total.
The problem with doing Bach and Handel–or Haydn and Mozart, for that matter–is that out of a 110-member orchestra, you arrive on the podium with 24 players for the entire evening, and the rest go wandering along Michigan Avenue! That is not right. You have to apply all the musicians to what you’re performing.
All right, you can do Bach with 100 string players, but I don’t believe that is right. One shouldn’t do that; one should use a small orchestra. Programs that mix this kind of music with works involving a large orchestra are the best solution. And of course we usually have two split orchestra weeks now, which are actually vacation weeks for the orchestra members, which leaves us with a chamber orchestra each of those weeks, A few times a year you can do this, but you can’t do this all the time, because then you’re reducing a symphony orchestra to a chamber orchestra.
DP: What is your rationale for tempos within these earlier works? Do you follow your instinct, the latest scholarship–how do you approach it?
GS: Well, in Bach, there are very few tempo markings. But don’t forget, I have lived in Bach since I was seven years old, starting with The Well-Tempered Clavier. All my life I have loved and lived with Bach. For me, Bach is very natural–it is home territory.
I have listened to how other people have done it since, and I have changed my approach somewhat over the years. If I were to record some other Bach, I’m sure I would change my approach again. But that’s what one has to do. One never stops growing.
DP: But your tempos for Bach and Handel are often much slower than scholarship is now telling us that they should be.
GS: The Bach and Handel tempos were astonishingly fast because they had to cope with the materials of the day. My own tempos have probably slowed down over the years, but not so much in the dramatic choruses, some of which might even be a bit faster. I did Messiah recently again in London–not a recording, just a performance–and I actually did it faster than when I recorded it.
There are never consistent tempos–they don’t exist for me. There is no tempo that you start out with for a given piece that you stay with until the end of your life. Some of my tempos have become faster, some slower, but by and large my tempos have usually slowed down.
DP: Have you had a chance to hear any of the period-instrument recordings or performances of Beethoven?
GS: Yes, but I’m not interested in that. I definitely decline the validity of that whole idea, and I don’t want to listen to them. One does a great disfavor to this great genius by taking that approach. I don’t believe that one should go back and play these old instruments for a very simple reason: if Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Handel, and Bach could hear our wonderfully tuned modern instruments, they would undoubtedly prefer them to instruments which cannot be tuned, even by the best performers in the world. They used them, but that was because there was nothing else available.
Look, you wouldn’t take a horse-drawn coach to New York, would you? You wouldn’t travel on horseback, even if it were only to Milwaukee! You’d at least take a train, if not fly. You cannot turn the clock back.
What one can and should do, particularly in performing early Beethoven symphonies, is restore his sense of balancing. That is, don’t use enormous numbers of strings, and then you don’t have to double the woodwinds. You can also aim for a relatively speedier, quicker approach.
DP: What about Beethoven metronome markings?
GS: I simply do not believe them for a moment because Beethoven used the earliest metronome, which was inaccurate. He wrote something down very quickly, but one shouldn’t follow them–his tempo markings, yes; but not his metronome markings. When I hear someone say, “I follow Beethoven’s exact metronome markings,” this is nonsense. I do Bartok’s metronome markings because I know through firsthand experience how precise he was.
DP: You’ve now released Beethoven Symphonies Four, Five, and Nine in new digital first-issues for compact disc. Are we to have an entirely new Solti/Beethoven cycle for CD?
GS: I’ve been waiting to see what kind of new statement I could make with the symphonies. I don’t like to commit myself, especially publicly. I’ve done one complete cycle with the Chicago Symphony already, and there are so many other major works that one could and should do, so we will see. If the project continues to be successful . . . and by that I mean musically successful, not successful sales-figures-wise, because it is obviously not difficult to sell Beethoven symphonies with the Chicago Symphony and myself–but that’s not really the point. The point is that if I have a new statement to make with each of the symphonies, then I would love to go on.
DP: Some of your colleagues seem to have a new statement to make about every three years.
GS: Please allow me “no comment” on that.
DP: Erich Leinsdorf recently made the comment that the future of Wagner is in serious trouble because there are so few people anymore who can sing the roles well. Have you also found that to be the case?
GS: Erich is absolutely right about that, but against that is that there have never been too many really great Wagner singers–there’s always been only a handful. Now it is less than a handful, maybe three fingers. But this could be a temporary situation. if not, this would be very sad.
DP: Does the pace of concert life have something to do with this?
GS: People are singing too much, too often, and there are too many flying hours. In the past, if a singer came from Europe to the Metropolitan or to Chicago, they took a ship, and it took them a week or two. It was a relaxation, and you couldn’t sing. When you went back to Europe, it was the same. Nowadays people are flicking over continents as if they were bicycling from one corner to another.
Success is hard for a singer, because there are more opportunities now than there have ever been for a singer. The same is true for conductors and concert soloists. The chances are much greater now than they were, except, sadly, in two areas of our musical heritage: the lieder and the string quartet–chamber music is having less and less public. This is very sad. There are also very few singers today who could fill a house for a lieder recital.
DP: Some of your colleagues have suggested that in part your return to the piano was prompted by the fact that there were no challenges left for you in conducting.
GS: Oh no, that came about by pure chance. I had always loved to play the piano, but for 25 years I hadn’t touched it at all. It happened that there was a charity concert in London, and a singer friend of mine asked me if I would accompany some Schubert songs. I enjoyed that experience very much, and out of that came another charity concert, and suddenly I decided I wanted to do some chamber music again, and it just kept snowballing.
Unfortunately it had to stop last summer because I had to go to Bologna University for a very major honor–they were celebrating their 900-year anniversary, and they gave me an honorary doctorate. For that I had to conduct two Verdi Requiem performances there. Thus my famous June practicing time was gone. Remember, I am only a summer piano player, but I intend to pick it up again next summer.
DP: You also recorded some double piano music last year with Murray Perahia, one of your first piano recordings in almost 40 years.
GS: That was such a pleasure. We recorded the Brahms Haydn variations, and we decided to couple it with a miraculous piece of Bartok’s, the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. And amazingly enough, my return to the piano was even nominated for a Grammy.
DP: The same piece during which you turned pages for Mrs. Bartok back in Budapest.
GS: Exactly the same piece. When I first had the idea to record it a couple of years ago, I suggested it to Murray and he said, “I’ve never played it, but I would love to; let’s do it.” The piece is marvelously wonderful but is very seldom played, even today, because it is so fiendishly difficult.
So we fixed a concert date and programmed it with the Mozart double concerto and the Brahms Haydn variations. I knew it would be difficult to work up, but I really didn’t know how difficult it would be. It was May of 1987, and I thought that three weeks would be plenty of rehearsal time. I must say that when I started to work on the piece, I almost gave up and said, “I just cannot play this piece. It is simply too difficult technically, rhythmically, keeping the two pianos together, everything.” And I also had this genuinely suicidal idea that I would conduct the piece from the piano, not realizing that this was practically impossible. It ended up being a kind of nodding and eyebrow style of conducting because there is literally no time to use your hands, which are always in motion.
When we were to start the first rehearsal together, I was very worried. I hated to admit that I was defeated before we even started, but that is how it seemed. So Murray telephoned and said, “I don’t feel well today, can we start tomorrow?” I said, “Murray, I am very much for it.” Much later we both admitted that there was nothing really wrong, it’s just that we didn’t dare start!
The next morning he came to my home, and we started–very, very slowly. Only gradually did we begin to increase the speed. We worked together for days and days, hour after hour. By the time the percussion joined us it was much easier, and it all started to fit together.
But we enjoyed playing the piece tremendously. We’ve played it in Europe now a few times–in Switzerland, France, London, practicing the piece industriously. It was a great joy.
Of course, I should have figured how difficult the piece would be to play, because during that premiere performance even turning the pages was difficult! There is an early record of Bartok and his wife playing the piece, and it is most interesting because all the fast movements are slower than usual, so obviously there were problems for Mrs. Bartok. He was always a wonderful pianist.
DP: At the conclusion of your music directorship here in 1991, will you do more piano performing?
GS: No, only during the summer. During the winter I want to stay with conducting, but I want to definitely do more opera after that. That has been very irregular during my Chicago years–perhaps every other year I would do an opera. I will do at least one opera a year, and perhaps even two a year. We will see.
DP: Would you rule out the possibility of coming back to Lyric?
GS: Yes, because the reason I am leaving is that I don’t want to spend so much time away from my family. As you know, I live in London, so the operas I will be doing will be in Europe so I can go home on the weekends. I would love to do something at Lyric again because that is really where I started, and Ardis Krainik is a good friend of mine, but when I come back to Chicago, it will be to conduct the symphony!
DP: What are your impressions of the various audiences here in Chicago?
GS: Let’s be very frank about this: you have brought up my favorite subject! First of all, let’s be positive–things are definitely improving. There is no doubt in my mind that over the last 20 years we have made very great progress on audience behavior. I don’t mean by that how much audiences applaud, because Chicago audiences have always been very generous about applause.
The problem is the tranquility of the public during a performance. Much of this blame is my own, because I simply don’t spend enough time on audience education. One could talk to them, because I’m sure that they simply don’t realize what they are doing. If an audience would come to a rehearsal of mine and see how much I bother my players to achieve a pianissimo passage, how much care and time we spend, and then when we get to that spot in a performance, it’s COUGH-COUGH–and it is completely gone. This is a depressing element. How does one deal with this? I cannot talk before every concert.
DP: Maybe you can’t, but someone from management certainly could, and in fact someone does if the concert is being recorded or televised.
GS: That is true, and of course we do print something in the program about this. But there are some nights and some afternoons that I just want to cry, the noise is so bad. But I don’t want to sound like I’m only complaining–things are definitely better than they were, but they could also be much, much better.
DP: People won’t cough or sneeze, even if they are sick, if they are really listening and involved in a concert.
GS: You are absolutely correct. If you are bored, you’re coughing. I know that even from my own experience. A few years ago I had an absolutely terrible cough that I simply could not lose. It was so bad I thought I’d have to cancel some performances. The amazing thing is that once I got to the concert and became involved in my work, I forgot about the cough completely.
DP: Can we talk a bit about Chicago–what do you think of the city itself?
GS: Well, that’s a little premature. You should ask me that in a few years, after I have departed from Chicago, and you can do an article about “Solti on Chicago, minus the Symphony.”
What I can say, even now, is that I love the architecture. I think Chicago is the best modern architectural city in the world. Everything is so well placed, and they’ve been so clever to make sure that when one building goes up, that it doesn’t ruin another one. The danger in other cities is that they build some huge thing that overshadows four or five other things in the city. Here that is not the case.
I love all of the architectural landmarks here, like the Standard Oil Building, which is still one of my favorite buildings in the world. A wonderful building like that will probably last forever.
Of course, that architectural tradition goes back a long way here; just look at Sullivan’s marvelous orchestral concert hall, the Auditorium. And of course, Frank Lloyd Wright did so much here, so there is really a long tradition of great architecture in Chicago. That is probably the most wonderful thing about Chicago, the look of the city itself, which as you can see is quite visible in the gorgeous view from my hotel window–it is my midwest Riviera. But unfortunately, I have such little time to appreciate it.
DP: There is the perception, which I’m sure you’re aware of, that because you spend so little time here–eight weeks during the present 1988-89 season–that Solti doesn’t really like Chicago very much.
GS: My dear friend, it is nothing like that at all. As you know, the reason I am here so little is because of my family. It is unacceptable to me to have my children grow up without their father. What you call “little” time is still too much for my children. That is the sole and unique reason.
Now, you can equally well ask, and I will answer before you do ask: why don’t you live here in Chicago with your children? Because I don’t believe that any education that America could produce would be as good as what they are getting in England. I have simply tried to combine the best possible education that my children can have with the best possible orchestra that I can have. That’s the reason for the compromise, nothing more. My priorities are family first, music making second, and I try to balance these two factors.
When my daughters were little, they always came with me to Chicago, and things were much easier and I could stay for a longer time. But now they are going to school in Europe, and they cannot come with me during the time I live here.
I must add one other thing to this issue. My younger daughter said to her mother just yesterday, “You know, Mom, the few weeks we all had together this fall were so special, and now with everyone gone, the time is really not very nice anymore.” She was referring to the fact that I had left to come here, And then my elder daughter left for Oxford. Because it’s getting so rare that we are all together as a family anymore, she thought the little time we did have was wonderful, and that should answer your question more than anything else I could say.
DP: Your relaxed family life is actually the perfect complement to your hectic musical life?
GS: Absolutely. That is why I regard my six- to eight-week summer break as an absolute necessity. As you know, I have a house in Italy, and I retire to it to play with my children and spend time with my wife. I don’t work at all during that time, and lead a perfectly normal and private life. It usually takes three to four weeks before music goes out of my head completely, where I’m not literally eating and drinking music. And then it is gone, and you have to slowly bring it back, which is very painful. It feels awkward at first, you feel like, “Oh, I will never go back again. I’ve lost the touch.” That is exactly how it should be. It’s like starting over every year, which is wonderful.
DP: Time has been very kind to you.
GS: It’s true. I feel exactly the same as I did 30 years ago, and the amazing thing is that I can accomplish all of the same things not only musically but physically as well. I’m still a strong swimmer, a keen bicycler, and a dangerous tennis player. I am tremendously fortunate, thank God, that my health has not deteriorated over the years.
DP: What is the legacy that you hope to leave for Chicago?
GS: During my 20 seasons here I tried to put the Chicago Symphony on the map of the world’s greatest orchestras. I put my life’s blood into this achievement, often at great personal and family sacrifice. I inherited a fully Reiner orchestra but will be leaving a fully Solti orchestra. I am enormously proud of the fact that I am now the second-longest music director of the Chicago Symphony, but I hope that what will be remembered is not how long I served but how well.
The orchestra and I have never stopped challenging each other, which is a beautiful thing. Chicago, keep your goodwill for your orchestra, and help and support it however and whenever you can. Music, after all, is one of the precious few things left in life that has remained undisturbed by pollution, atomic warfare, and all of the horrors of the 20th century. This orchestra is a wonderful, blossoming flower gracing your beautiful city, a beautiful rose that God has given to us all. There is really nothing in this life or in this world that is better than the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert M. Lightfoot III, Christina Burton.