Cleveland Orchestra - Robert Shaw in an interview with Howard Dyck, CBC, 1992

Q:  Were these [new members of the Cleveland Orchestra] Americans?

RS:  Yes.  I can’t remember – I can’t think of a single person that he imported while I was there from a foreign country. So, they were young artists, and many of them found their way to the Cleveland Orchestra through such things as Rudolf Serkin’s Marlboro [Festival], because he was building that thing, that institution for young, gifted talent, mostly strings in the beginning, strings and keyboard artists.  But certainly woodwinds and horns began to creep into that personnel, and so this was a collection of wonderful young artists.

Szell was vigorous enough and insistent enough and knew enough literature – I don’t think there’s ever been a conductor in American history who knew the vast literature that Szell knew and had his rich background. I would think that Hindemith might rival him, but Hindemith’s not really a “professional” conductor. Szell, I’m sure, could sit down at the keyboard and play, oh, certainly any of the Brahms or Beethoven symphonies from memory at the keyboard without a bit of music, and I’ve seen him do things like that.  But he could also do that with Strauss tone poems and probably all the Mozart piano concerti.

But it became, what I started to say was, it became a chamber music society of a hundred musicians, and his gesture was extraordinarily economical and extraordinarily precise. But it was his education and rehearsal which built that orchestra not, obviously, his pantomime during performance. He just knew more than anybody. 

Occasionally his orchestra was criticized as being over-precise and it may have been. On one wonderful instance, I came back from – I had been asked to do a Missa Solemnis by [Fritz] Reiner, who was then experiencing some health problems, with the Chicago Symphony. And he asked me what was the difference between the two orchestras, and it seemed to me, I said, “Mr. Szell, it seems to me, at the present time, the Chicago Symphony is a little rounder and doesn’t have quite the severe edge as that of our orchestra,” and he took that as a singular insult, and wouldn’t speak to me for 6-8 weeks.

And there were obviously times when the Cleveland Orchestra felt they were over-disciplined. But, boy, within ten days of his death, “Won’t somebody bring him back?” Won’t somebody please bring that intelligence back? Because there was never any doubt in anybody’s mind that he was much harder on himself than he was on any member of the orchestra. And there was never any doubt as to whose concept had most information and most experience of tradition. These people, who were names to those of us who were younger – some of whom - his life had overlapped with some of them, and he knew them personally.

It was quite different from Toscanini’s relationship, I felt, with his orchestra, or his relationship with those of us who worked with him. Somehow Szell built his performances from minuscule balances inside texture and then assembled the thrust of the piece by assembling inch after inch after inch of perfection. And Toscanini sort of looked over there and said “We’re going to be there in about 15 minutes.  Now hold on, because that’s where we’re going.”

And so a lot of detail, I think, though it was a meticulously disciplined performance with the NBC Symphony, and in a dry acoustic where you could hear little flaws and so on. But occasionally detail got lost in the desire to get there. In the later years, I think, for instance, I can remember, the final performances of the Ninth Symphony with Toscanini where the recitative of celli and bass at the beginning of the last movement simply were not clean. But Toscanini would go ahead because he was conducting not what was on stage but what he was hearing in his mind, and this was, of course, enormously, overwhelmingly communicative. And so obviously nobody was trying to make it difficult for him. They wanted to do it, but sometimes it didn’t happen. But sometimes also then I felt he didn’t hear that it didn’t happen. But his vision was so great that it was almost - the rainbow was more important than the stones in the path getting there.

Q:  It seems to me, if I’m correct in this, Toscanini’s orchestra, the NBC Orchestra, consisted to a large extent of adopted Americans, people who had come because of the war, and the whole Nazi era, I think. Is that correct?

RS:  I’ve never heard that said but it sounds to me true somehow. That is to say, the principal players of the strings – I’m sure that wasn’t true of Miller, for instance, who was the principal cellist and such a world class musician. But it was certainly true in the violin sections and possibly, there were a few American players in the violas.  And I think though that the woodwinds were not yet in the American tradition that Szell helped to establish with Johnny Mack and his predecessors, Mark Lifschey principally among them - the rounder American tone without quite the pinched vibrato quality of what we think of European woodwinds.

Q:  Back to Szell. How did he actually go about rehearsing the orchestra?

RS:  He began from - the chief difference that made so much difference in my life was that was the first place I saw materials prepared as meticulously as he prepared them. That is to say he not only - his reworking of the Schumann symphonies – everybody who engaged the Schumann symphonies knows this happened – he almost rewrote them and re-orchestrated them. But all of his parts, even his Mozart parts, of which he wouldn’t change a note, were so thoroughly edited with little guidelines of little inner crescendi and diminuendi or little commas or articulations. He used to say to the orchestra, “Gentlemen don’t play dots.”  He said, “if you play dots, the next note’s going to be late. Make a little lift instead of playing the dot.” They were so meticulously edited that if the orchestra was in a position to play without a conductor – I mean, if they had that discipline built into them, you really didn’t need other than a start and a stop because each part was so beautifully executed.

This is not news to you but Beethoven will write a forte up and down the page, and you may have a hundred instruments playing forte at the same time. And any man who’s responsible for the balance knows that if everybody plays forte, you’ll only hear the first trumpet.  And so what one has to do is go through every measure and write the balances that Beethoven didn’t have time to write which were certainly in his ear to a certain extent. But Beethoven should have been writing his 11th symphony, or his 12th symphony or something. And he shouldn’t be obliged to do this shoe-building, shoemaking stuff, or this little carpentry.  That’s our responsibility.

And so Szell, too, he used all of his own material, for instance. He never used - so far as I can remember - he almost never used anything that was in the Cleveland library, and the Cleveland Orchestra had been going for 60 or 70 years.  I suppose he had his own parts, and they were beautifully manicured, and hours and hours of librarians’ markings were in them. They were open to us who wanted to study them, the assistant and associate conductors. And so this library is still a most, most extraordinary document.  And it exists.

So back to your first question, how did he rehearse?  He began with his parts. Six months had gone into the preparation of this piece already. He began rehearsing new works, which were commissioned or which the orchestra hadn’t played before, by bringing them out six weeks in advance and reading through them. And he’d learn as much as the men would, too. Sometimes he would just stand up there and beat, and with absolutely expressionless demeanor, so that the orchestra had a chance to familiarize.  He was routine and self-critical and regimented to an extreme that tyrannized some people. The orchestra used to call his “La Mer,” “Das Meer!” But again, once he’s gone, “Somebody bring him back.”

He also never – this is a little characteristic certainly of Toscanini, too – but he never thought of himself as more important than the composer, or more important than the music. Those of us who discussed him as a figure central to the development of music in the United States used to simply call him “the conscience of orchestral performance,” as in a sense Koussevitzky was not. And Stokowski was not.

And other people were demonstrating particular flairs. Stokowski could change the sound of an orchestra in thirty seconds by a gesture. There wasn’t an instrumentalist I ever met who didn’t love to play with Stokowski, once or twice, just because he could do things that are just incredible. They said, “You can’t believe what happens when he makes that smooth gesture – my tone changes!” 

But Szell was the conscience of the composer.

Q:  In a sense, maybe, one of the pioneers, of the authentic performance.

RS:  Right, and that’s what occasioned his love for Toscanini. Toscanini, for instance – I guess the first orchestra Szell conducted in the United States was at Toscanini’s invitation, the NBC Symphony, and as I told you before, Mr. Szell and I met under those circumstances, in rehearsal. Because Toscanini had done, or at least he was given the credit in press, and public recognition, for having sort of instituted this “cleaning up” process. Where the performers before, or perhaps conductors, I don’t know that this is true, but one could speak of Nikisch’s Beethoven and Weingärtner’s Beethoven, and we didn’t speak of Toscanini’s Beethoven. We spoke of Beethoven’s Beethoven when Toscanini was doing it. Now undoubtedly it was somewhat Toscanini’s but it wasn’t full of nuances which were quite personal. For instance in the Ninth Symphony, I can remember the Koussevitzky beginning of the chorale theme in the Ninth Symphony was really almost inaudible. It was so quiet that it was no longer possible to mark enough piano marks to get that kind of a sound!  And Beethoven had marked p or occasionally pp. But it was never seven pianos!

And this was characteristic because Koussevitzky was looking for different things. He was looking for a smoothness and a sensuousness in sound which had nothing to do really, I felt, in those days with Stokowski’s sensuousness. Koussevitzky went after the sensuousness of the instrument and Koussevitsky [sic - Stokowski] went after sort of the psychological effect of sensuousness – I don’t know whether that says anything or not.

Q:  Now, while you were in Cleveland, as associate conductor of the orchestra there, you also were a minister of music at a Unitarian church for a number of years.

RS:  That is correct. A wonderful pastor by the name of Robert Killam, who was a specialist in Shakespearean literature, and used to take a good many of his sermon topics out of Shakespearean plays, out of the moral and ethical situations in Shakespearean plays, I got going to church to hear. I met him once after the service, and I said, because we were joking, “It’s too bad your music isn’t as good as your sermons.” And he said, “Would you like to fix it?” 

I had thought then, and I still think, had right from youth been interested, as I told you, one of the reasons I started the Collegiate Chorale was that I had hoped we would be able to effect a new liturgy for contemporary church and contemporary society. And so I said we might need a few thousand dollars’ worth of instruments because he didn’t have any.  He didn’t have an organ. I said “What would be great would be to have a string quartet in residence, and an organ, and a harpsichord and a piano.  And I can bring some voices in that will do the job.” 

And so we did. He pulled together $25,000 in a couple weeks.  And within a very few weeks because the wonderful Holtkamp Organ Company in Cleveland, they installed a 7-rank Holtkamp organ. And we got a second-hand Hamburg Steinway. And we got a Dowd harpsichord. And Lynn Harrell became our cellist, and the present principal violist of the Boston Symphony was our violist, and Philip Negley, who is a remarkable fiddler and had a wonderful career in musical education and also at the Marlboro Festival, became our principal violinist. And we had one of the world’s great quartets within a few weeks.

And so we were able to do just wonderful, wonderful music, which I think matched the mountains of his preaching, and they were great mountains.  He was a significant man. 

I occupied the pulpit occasionally, and usually with – because my field of interest in college had been English literature - mostly historical American poetry. My love at the time was Emily Dickinson, who I think is a very great and significant American poet. So my contributions from the pulpit from month to month were about what he called “prophets of the American spirit.” So I occupied that pulpit from time to time. And wrote a few pieces for the National Universalist Unitarian Society on church music and what I felt was appropriate to a service on this scale.