Solti’s Parsifal

Below is Stephen Follows’ entry for Solti in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Solti, Sir Georg (1912–1997), conductor, was born György Stern in Vérmezö utca, in the Buda district of Budapest, on 21 October 1912, the younger of the two children of Moricz (later Móric) Stern, a businessman originally from Balatonfökajár in southern Hungary, and his wife, Teréz, née Rosenbaum, from Ada in the Bácska region of what later became Croatia. Like many families with German surnames in the post-war Magyar republic, the Sterns felt it advisable to replace theirs with something more patriotically Hungarian. Rather than opting for a simple translation, however, as most did, Moricz Stern was more idiosyncratic: leaving his and his wife’s surnames unchanged, he renamed György and his sister Lillyafter the small Hungarian town of Solt, a place with which they had no connection and which he apparently chose at random.

Early career in Hungary, Switzerland, and Germany

The children both showed considerable musical talent, Lilly as a singer, and György as a pianist. In this capacity he was enrolled at ten at the Ernö Fodor School in Budapest, and two years later moved to the city’s more prestigious Franz Liszt Academy, where his teachers included Béla Bartók for piano, Leó Weiner for chamber music, and Ernö Dohnányi for composition (after he had been turned down by the more sought-after Zoltán Kodály). Conducting, however, was taught by a lesser figure, Ernö Unger, who, Solti remembered, ‘instructed his pupils to use rigid little wrist motions. I attended the class for only two years, but I needed five years of practical conducting experience before I managed to unlearn what he had taught me’ (Solti, 19). (The contrast in his style after he had ‘unlearnt’ these lessons was considerable: ‘His motions are jittery; his whole body is in motion; his shoulders as well as his hands are responding to the rhythm; his beat is a series of jabs, and he looks as though he is shadow-boxing’ according to Harold C. Schonberg, New York Times, 28 Nov 1976.)

As many conductors found, repetiteuring—coaching opera singers from the piano—proved for Solti a much more valuable learning experience. He took up the first of several positions at the Budapest State Opera House in 1931, and moved on to assist Josef Krips in Karlsruhe a year later. Krips insisted, however, that the Jewish Solti should return home at the end of 1932, when it became clear that Hitler would win the following year’s election. Budapest soon became a centre for Jewish and otherwise anti-Nazi musicians, and Solti found himself working with, and learning from, many major figures, including Otto Klemperer, Fritz Busch, and Erich Kleiber. He also worked for Arturo Toscanini, playing the celeste in Die Zauberflöte at the 1936 Salzburg Festival.

Whether the result of circumstance or design, this was an unusually long apprenticeship, and it seemed initially that the career for which it was preparing would not materialize: Solti’s first—and, for many years, only—complete opera performance, Le nozze di Figaro in Budapest in March 1938, was interrupted by reports that German troops had crossed the Austrian border in preparation for the Anschluss. He was once more in serious danger, and at his family’s behest he soon left the country, initially for London, to conduct for the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. He went on to Switzerland, in the hope that Toscanini, who was conducting in Lucerne, would be able to find him a position in America. When the great man was unable to help, Solti was saved by a chance meeting with the Swiss tenor Max Hirzel, who, needing to be coached in the role of Wagner’s Tristan, offered him a room in his house in Zürich, and, more importantly, his protection.

Solti remained in Switzerland until the end of the Second World War. This period was not entirely grim—he met Hedwig (Hedi) Oeschli (daughter of a teacher of chemistry at Zürich University), whom he married in 1946, and also won the piano division of the Swiss Music Competition in 1942—but he was deeply frustrated by the lack of opportunities to conduct. Things improved with the return of peace: Edward Kilényi, a fellow Hungarian then working for the US army in Munich, offered Solti a job at the opera house there, providing an open jeep which carried him through a freezing night from the Swiss border into the ruined city. Initially finding himself surplus to requirements, he moved on to Stuttgart to conduct Fidelio. The performance was attended by the US music officer for Munich, John Evarts, who recommended his superiors to engage Solti with immediate effect, reporting that ‘the improvement in the playing of the orchestra was little short of miraculous’ (Solti, 66).

Solti was, by his own admission, ‘incredibly lucky’ (Solti, 69): at no other time would a conductor with so little practical experience have been considered for a post as prestigious as music director of the Bayerische Staatsoper: the leading German conductors of the time—Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan, Hans Knappertsbusch, and Clemens Krauss—were forbidden, under the conditions of de-Nazification, from working there, while many of the main non-German candidates, including Solti’s compatriots George Szell, Fritz Reiner, and Eugene Ormandy, had emigrated to the USA. The job was fortunate in other ways: in a company forced to rebuild virtually from scratch, Solti was able both to learn a wide repertory at enormous speed—notably many scores by the city’s most famous son, Richard Strauss, at whose funeral in 1949 he conducted the trio from Der Rosenkavalier—and also to mould a musical and dramatic ensemble precisely as he wished. While at Munich, Solti made his first recordings for Moritz Rosengarten’s Decca company, initially as a pianist, accompanying the violinist Georg Kuhlenkampff, and then conducting the Zürich Tonhalle Orchestra in Beethoven overtures.

Despite much critical and popular success, Solti’s position in Munich as a non-German (and effectively an American appointee) was never secure and was becoming untenable when in 1951 he was offered the equivalent position at the Frankfurt Opera. The city’s new opera house had opened only the year before, and, as he had in Munich, Solti built a new company of young singers to match it, with such a high proportion of Americans that they were soon nicknamed the ‘Amerikanische Oper am Main’. Solti spent nine years in Frankfurt, and, although it was a happy and fruitful period for him, he was not universally popular. In particular, he was frequently accused of neglecting the company for engagements with houses and orchestras elsewhere, and he did indeed consolidate his symphonic career with regular appearances in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Vienna. He also made two very successful visits to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (conducting Der Rosenkavalier and Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

Covent Garden

Following Rafael Kubelík’s resignation, Solti was offered the directorship of the Covent Garden Opera Company in 1961. His tenure began controversially: coming from the well-organized houses of middle Europe and expecting their most prestigious British counterpart to be run in a similar way, he was surprised to find ‘cramped rehearsal space, crowded rehearsal schedules, a phlegmatic chorus master and the absence of what he regarded as basic professional standards’. Moreover, as far as he was concerned, ‘[m]any of the conductors were inadequate and he was not going to waste his time performing operas in English when there were not enough first-class native singers to cover all the roles’ (Lebrecht, 228–9). He demanded change: if he was going to turn this ‘beautifully kept semi-amateur’ theatre into ‘the best opera house in the world’ (Robinson, 38), as he announced to his somewhat incredulous first press conference, the fundamental structures of the organization would have to be radically overhauled.

First and foremost, the company’s habit of presenting a few popular pieces many times a year, with a new cast change almost every night, would have to stop. It would be replaced with a version of the stagione system with which Solti was used to working in Europe: no more than three or four works would be in the repertory at any one time, and each production would be given with a settled and thoroughly rehearsed cast for a maximum of six or seven performances. To the board’s slightly shocked insistence that no more than four new productions would be possible in any one year, Solti responded by programming ten in his first season. To effect this new scheme, a proper system of planning was needed: singers were being booked only a few months ahead instead of the years that were necessary to ensure that the best were available. Solti therefore engaged his London agent, Joan Ingpen, who, unlike the Covent Garden management, shared his preference for first-rate European singers, and who introduced five-year casting plans.

Although these systems became standard in British houses, reaction to such radical change was, to put it politely, mixed, and Solti’s fierce, if not arrogant, manner did not help matters, particularly when he was seen to berate members of staff, such as the technical director, who thought they did not come under his jurisdiction. Like Kubelík, who had been virtually hounded from the place, he came under attack. He was assailed both by the press—the satirical magazine Private Eye, who popularized (though the tenor John Lanigan coined) his nickname ‘The Screaming Skull‘ (Lebrecht, 229), as well as (possibly antisemitic) music critics—and by his own chorus and orchestra, who, to his great disgust, ‘called me a Prussian—me, a Hungarian Jew’ (ibid., 231). Matters came to a head after a deeply flawed production in 1962 of Verdi’s La forza del destino, marred by serious disagreements between conductor and the producer, Sam Wanamaker. Rotten vegetables were thrown at Solti both inside and outside the theatre and, most unsettling of all, his car was vandalized. That he did not straightaway resign and return to the continent was the result of considerable diplomacy and coaxing by his chief supporter at the house, the general administrator, Sir David Webster. Instead, after presenting a lengthy list of demands—for a bigger and better trained orchestra, a new chorus master, the removal of the hard-pressed technical director—Solti not only honoured his initial three-year contract, but remained as music director for a further seven years.

His radical instincts undimmed, Solti introduced to London audiences operas by Gluck, Britten, and Strauss and, in December 1965, Schoenberg’s Moses und Äron, a difficult work both intellectually and musically, whose fearsome reputation had put paid to Solti’s attempts to stage it in his previous houses. The Covent Garden production was not only a major vindication of the work, but also one of the Royal Opera’s greatest post-war successes. This was in part a tribute to Solti’s passionate advocacy of a score which even he found hard to assimilate. Then again, the succès de scandale of Peter Hall’s production undoubtedly helped, complete with dozens of naked ‘virgins’ disporting themselves around the golden calf. Solti, in the pit, complained that from his vantage point he was the one person in the house who could never see them.

In 1964 Solti separated from Hedi, citing differences in their attitudes to his social life, and moved into the Savoy Hotel. Soon afterwards a young television presenter, (Anne) Valerie Sargant (b. 1936/7), daughter of William Pitts, chartered secretary, came to the hotel to interview him for the BBC. The meeting sparked a ‘passionate love affair’ (Solti, 142) with a woman twenty-five years his junior, who was herself married. After a ‘ruthless’ pursuit across more than one country he persuaded her to divorce, and they married on 11 November 1967. The marriage lasted until his death and produced two daughters, Gabrielle and Claudia. It also persuaded him to settle permanently in Hampstead and, in 1972, to take up British citizenship, allowing him to use the honorary knighthood (KBE) bestowed on him in 1971 (he had already been made an honorary CBE in 1968), although he was not pleased when the Home Office insisted on re-spelling his name ‘Georg’, as though he really were a ‘Prussian’. He got his own back, subtly, by ensuring that it was always pronounced as the English ‘George’, which in many accents returned it to its Hungarian original.

As well as Schoenberg and Strauss, Solti conducted a new Ring cycle for Covent Garden, the first for more than a decade. The production, directed by Hans Hotter, who sang Wotan, and featuring a new generation of British singers, all of them Solti protégés, opened in 1964, and was revived, unusually, in five of the next six seasons. That the company should allow it so many performances in such a short period was due in no small part to Solti’s own increasing fame as a Wagner conductor; this in turn reflected the success of his pioneering recording of the four operas made for Decca in collaboration with the visionary producer John Culshaw. A combination of economics, logistics, and received industry wisdom had made previous attempts to record the work impossible, and it would have seemed achievement enough, so soon after the war, simply to have committed all fifteen hours of the work to disc. But Culshaw, whose initiative it had been, saw, as others had not, that the recent innovations of long-playing records and stereo sound provided an unprecedented opportunity to present these colossal, intensely theatrical works in a purely aural form without any loss of vividness. He created what he termed a ‘Sonicstage’, which allowed his characters to move freely across the stereo image, as if behind a visible proscenium; and he hunted throughout Vienna (where the recordings were made) and beyond for properties and sound effects—Hagen’s steerhorns, Mime’s anvils, even the collapsing Valhalla itself—which would bring the potentially complicated and esoteric story most directly into the average home.

Culshaw required a conductor who could match his zeal for narrative, and Solti’stechnique, which promoted the moment over the grand design and urgency over patience, although musically controversial, proved ideally suited. His experience in the leading houses of Germany and England was invaluable in creating a cast which blended the finest exponents of the major roles—Hotter as Wotan, Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde, Wolfgang Windgassen as Siegfried—with experienced character actors, such as the Rheingold Mime, Paul Kuen, and rising stars imaginatively cast, including Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Gunther and Joan Sutherland as the Woodbird. Perhaps most importantly, Solti was also acutely aware of how the recording process should be managed—as one of his producers, Michael Woolcock, recalled:

One of the revolutionary things about his Ring cycle was the amazing planning and attention to detail, meticulous within each session and addressing each section of the work, listing objectives and what needed to be achieved in relation to the whole work.

The first part of the Ring to be issued, Das Rheingold, sold ‘like a fireball’ (Solti, 113) when it was issued in 1959, and over the next seven years its three successors blazed the same unparalleled trail. While it is perhaps too simplistic to state, with one modern critic, that Solti ‘was a much finer conductor when singers were involved than when they weren’t’ (Hayes), it was his operatic recordings, particularly those of Strauss, which showed him at his most sympathetic, tempering the unforgiving energy and drive often found in his symphonic work with an instinctive accompanist’s lyricism and grace.


In 1969, two years before he finally left Covent Garden, Solti took up the music directorship of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, succeeding Jean Martinon. On the surface, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra seemed in very good shape: its nucleus remained the brilliant group of musicians assembled by Fritz Reiner in the early 1960s, and its subscription series still attracted large audiences. But morale had fallen under Martinon’s leadership, and playing standards with it, while the orchestra’s books showed a potentially disastrous debt of $5 million. Solti, a music director much more in the strict, inspirational Reiner mould, swiftly tackled the problems among the players, although he found them magnified by festering personal disputes. To cancel the debt, he saw that the orchestra required a much more international profile. He achieved this partly by engaging them for his Decca recordings, but also, more radically, by leading a series of ambitious foreign tours. The first of these took place in 1971, covering ten European countries, and including the sessions in Vienna’s Musikverein for Solti’scelebrated recording of Mahler’s eighth symphony. At the end of a highly successful tour, the orchestra was welcomed home with a ticker-tape parade: the city recognized that the orchestra’s burgeoning international reputation was single-handedly erasing the city’s enduring image as a home for gangsters and, as at the democratic convention three years before, riots. As the city benefited, so did the players. Salaries greatly increased and recording fees (from work with others as well as Solti) grew with them, while lost broadcasting rights were restored and prominent sponsors attracted, notably Standard Oil of Indiana, which offered $500,000.

As early as 1973, Time magazine declared the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to be the top American orchestra ‘sine qua non’ and put a portrait of Solti on its cover, over the caption ‘The Fastest Baton in the West’; while in 1977, to celebrate his importance to the entire city’s economy, his picture was printed on the cover of the Chicago directory of the Illinois Bell Telephone Company. Solti’s twenty-two years with the orchestra—his longest period in charge anywhere and ‘the happiest time in my professional life’ (Solti, 164)—as well as improving its fortunes and vastly increasing its discography, greatly expanded its repertory. He led its first Mahler and Bruckner cycles, encouraged major commissions including Tippett’s fourth symphony and Lutosławski’s third, and matched his commitment to Bartók, performing virtually his entire orchestral output, with a new-found interest in the American repertory of Charles Ives, Elliott Carter, and George Rochberg.

Although Solti was a hero in Chicago, his interpretative style remained controversial: some commentators celebrated his ‘great sense of musical geography’ and his rhythmic precision and drive:

His whole sound world has a rhythmic basis and component to it and the energy that comes from that is the real cornerstone of his sound. He likes the edge, the steeliness and brassiness and general sense of tension and energy in everything that that gives him.

Others, notably in London, complained that this sound world produced shallow, if not vulgar, performances, even of works such as Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, to which it might have seemed suited:

Once again going for the dramatic effect and once again ignoring moments of lyricism and bulldozing his way through the score, he seemed concerned only to generate thrills, and instead produced a brash and nasty rush across the surface of the music which was anything but thrilling.

Solti himself, strangely perhaps for such an ambitious man, considered his art in much simpler, more practical terms: ‘I think I can make any orchestra, good or bad, perform to the best of its abilities. This is probably my greatest talent’ (Solti, 215).

Final years

In his later years, and especially after his retirement from Chicago in 1991, Solti seems to have relaxed, both personally and interpretatively. His later recordings, particularly the 1990 Zauberflöte, ‘exquisite and quite “unSoltian”’ in its ‘immense humanity’ (Jolly, 1), and the celebrated Traviata of 1994, possessed a lightness of touch, even a good humour, arguably absent before. His final recording, made in Budapest in June 1997, coupled in an unplanned symmetry works by Bartók and Weiner (who had taught him), with music by Kodály (who perhaps should have done). Three months later, while on holiday in Antibes, Solti suffered two heart attacks, and he died in hospital there on 5 September 1997. His ashes were buried in plot 470 of the Farkaskreti cemetery in Budapest, next to the grave of Bartók. He was survived by his wife, Valerie, and their two daughters. Among numerous honours he received were honorary doctorates from several universities in Britain and America (including Leeds, Oxford, London, Yale, and Harvard), an honorary fellowship of the Royal College of Music, and the gold medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society (1989); for his recordings he received the Grand Prix Mondiale du Disque fourteen times, and thirty-one Grammy awards (including a special trustees’ award for his recording of the Ring cycle).