O Lucky Man! 
The memorable memoirs of conductor Georg Solti
By Tanya Stanciu

From Gadfly February 1998


When Georg Solti died last September at 84, the general public, in mourning for Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, barely noticed the sudden passing of one of music's eminent elder statesmen. In his earnest and humble Memoirs, finished just before his death and published last year by Knopf, the conductor looks back on his long and varied musical career—a journey which took him from close encounters with the German Nazis to directing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and building its international reputation.

Inundated as we are today with pop and rock music whose roots lie deep in rebellion against the establishment, it's hard for us to imagine that revolutionaries in classical music ever caused much of a stir. But Wagner, Richard Strauss, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartók, among others, upset music's accepted order and shocked audiences with compositions many considered harsh, immoral and violent.

Stravinsky in particular rocked the musical world. The first performance of his ballet, The Rite of Spring, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris in 1913 caused a near revolution. Such a riot ensued in the theater that it was impossible to hear the music over the shouts of the audience. Late nineteenth and early twentieth century music also presents potentially difficult politics. How, for example, does one handle a great piece of music written by a Nazi sympathizer?

All this is to say that classical musicians have some tough issues to confront, not to mention some technically terrifying music. Throughout his long career, Solti wrestled with these questions as he presented opera after opera and symphony after symphony to a public whose perceptions, too, were changing. His memoirs attest to his insistence on focusing always on the music and not allowing himself to be distracted by the politics that constantly threatened to mar it—whether the internal politics of the orchestra (the competition and friction among musicians, committees and administrators) or the external politics of the world around him. This was not always an easy feat.

Solti may have been one of the luckiest people alive simply for surviving his twenties. Born in Hungary in 1912 to a Jewish family, it was his mother who first noticed the boy's unusual musical talent. He studied piano at the prestigious Liszt Academy where Bela Bartók and Ernst Dohnányi were teachers. After graduating, he became an opera coach. Although he had ambitions to conduct, he knew that as a Jew he would never receive an orchestral post in Hungary.

While friends encouraged him to travel to the United States, Solti remained in Hungary until it was too dangerous for him to remain. In 1939, a companion urged him to flee to Switzerland. Believing he was leaving only for a ten-day trip, he said good-bye to his father at the train station, never to see him again. War broke out a few weeks later.

Solti stayed in Zurich during World War II, and though he couldn't leave the country, he describes himself as largely unaware of the massacres taking place just over the border. Afterward, the Allied military government hired him to direct the esteemed Bavarian State Opera in Germany. He had to be picked up at the border and escorted to the job interview in an Army jeep, and the orchestra rehearsed in a bombed-out theater. Nevertheless, the post proved to be a golden opportunity, and it firmly established Solti's international career. From there he moved on to the Frankfurt Opera and the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in Great Britain before taking the helm of the Chicago Symphony where he stayed for 22 years.

During his long career, Solti made over 250 recordings, many of which are considered the best of their kind—he's esteemed for his 1960s recording of Wagner's entire Ring Cycle, for example. He also personally met some of this century's musical heavyweights. While he was a young visitor to the 1936 Salzburg Festival, he stepped in for an opera coach who was out with the flu, and was aghast to find himself in a rehearsal led by Italian maestro Arturo Toscanini. Solti recalls, "After an hour or so, he called a break, turned to me, and said softly, 'Bene.' I do not think that any compliment I have ever received has given me as much joy as that one word from Toscanini."

Solti met Richard Strauss in 1949 when the elderly composer invited him to his home. Solti writes: "His worktable was in front of the window and it was very hard to imagine that these tranquil, orderly, bourgeois surroundings had been the birthplace of two of his most violent operas, Salome and Elektra. I stood there completely tongue-tied, clutching my scores."

Readers might be surprised to learn that the legendary Stravinsky lived in Los Angeles for several years near the end of his life (in fact, many L.A. residents at the time were unaware of Stravinsky's presence among them). A friend of Solti's arranged a meeting at Stravinsky's home. Solti recollects: "I shall never forget his desk, which was in impeccable order... pencil sharpener, erasers—everything as precisely deployed as a military battalion on parade. It perfectly matched the manuscripts of his compositions, which were also exceptionally neat and clear." Solti continues: "I know that comparing Stravinsky to Picasso, his contemporary, has become commonplace, but I feel I must do it too. With respect to their stylistic versatility, their creative longevity, the amazing force and individuality of their artistic personalities... they are in a class by themselves."

Throughout his memoirs, Solti relates comic anecdotes (the opera singers who couldn't remember their lines, the diva who fainted on stage during her character's fainting scene), offers sound musical advice and frequently pokes fun at himself.

"I have had an enormously lucky life," Solti writes near the end of his book. Yet it largely his intelligence, wit, humility—and clearly a lot of hard work—that placed him among the best musical interpreters of the twentieth century. Even late in his life he refused to slow down. One of his last recording projects was the music for the film Anna Karenina, and, at 84, he had a full performance schedule in store.

Solti claims that there are probably more serious musicians today and that technical proficiency among young musicians has likely never been greater. Still, his death marks the end of a musical era. His long life spanned nearly the entire twentieth century, and his passing reminds us of the cataclysmic changes that took place during this century—not only in music or the musicians and audiences he touched—but also in Western culture.