Georg Solti: the making of a musical colossus

Hungarian-British conductor Georg Solti is one of the most important figures in 20th-century music. On the centenary of his birth, his widow, Valerie, and some of the musicians he inspired celebrate his genius, his compassion and his legacy

In February 1965 the Hungarian director of the Royal Opera House – emerging as incontestably the greatest conductor of his generation – flew to Tel Aviv to lead a series of performances by the Israel Philharmonic. Georg Solti had for a while been much enamoured by young television reporter Valerie Pitts, who had interviewed him in the Savoy hotel a few months previously, in September 1964, and he had pressed her to join him on the road. Early in March 1965 she duly arrived in the Middle East and Solti was asked by the singer Ken McDonald how long the comely blond visitor was planning to stay. "For the rest of her life," replied the maestro.

Pitts had been working as an interviewer and announcer for the BBC, with her own programme covering cultural events in the week ahead. "I wrote and researched the programme during the previous week, ready for transmission on a Monday evening," recalls Lady Solti today. "At the end of August there was a last-minute change of plan. The clip of the new film I was going to talk about was held up in customs. I was in a total panic. It was Friday afternoon and I had to find an item. So I thought: the Royal Opera House – maybe they've got a ballet or an opera – and Sheila Porter in the Opera House press office said, 'Well, there's always Solti. He's doing a new Ring.' She rang back a few minutes later, saying: 'He'll do it. Make yourself pretty and be there at 11, at the Savoy.' That was all very well but where on a Friday at 5.30 was I going to find a film crew for the next day?

"A minor miracle happened – the BBC could send a crew, providing I could finish in time for them to be at Arsenal football ground for the kick-off. So off I went to interview Solti, without knowing quite what I was going to talk to him about. I knew nothing of the Ring, except that it was very long, in German and by Richard Wagner."

"When I arrived at the Savoy the film crew were becoming agitated as there was no sign of him. The receptionist told me that Dr Solti was in his room. I went up in a lift which was transformed into a red lacquer temple, found the room, knocked on the door and a guttural voice said: 'What do you want?' I said I was from the BBC, and suddenly the door flew open and there he was, wrapped up in steaming towels. 'My dear, I'm so sorry,' he said. 'I forgot. Do you think you could find my socks?'

"So I was looking for his socks under the bed and suddenly the door flew open and there was the head of the opera house press office, saying: 'Valerie, what are you doing there?' – with me, bottom in the air, searching for Solti's socks."

The young reporter admitted to the maestro: "I'm not awfully good on opera. Truthfully, I don't like it much because I saw a frightful production in Frankfurt – Elektra, I think. It was horrid."

There followed a terrible pause, then Solti's brown eyes twinkled. "My dear, what year was that?" he asked. Then he laughed: "Thank you very much. I was conducting."

"And that's how it all began," says Lady Solti. "I was bewitched – captivated – by this man, and logic and pragmatism just flew out of the window. It was a coup de foudre. After months of turmoil I went to Israel. I arrived to a hotel room which he had filled with vases of carnations and antirrhinums. A few days later he dictated my letter of resignation to the BBC!"

We are speaking in Solti's London studio which is rather like a museum, now frequently used by young musicians as a place where they can study and rehearse. The place is vibrant with creativity. On Solti's old desk is a fragment of the living past – a score of Bach's St John Passion, on which Solti was working when he died, covered with his hallmark annotations in lead pencil and red crayon – his two strata of excavation and analysis of the composer's intent.

Next month marks the centenary of the birth of the conductor, musician, visionary, jester, husband and father who bore witness to, and embodies, his time, the core of the 20th century, and whose genius – a word too liberally used nowadays – not only towered over the music-making of his lifetime but radically changed it in ways that are only now becoming clear.

Fittingly, the 100 years that have passed since his birth will be celebrated in the city he made his musical home, Chicago, with a concert by the World Orchestra for Peace – which Solti founded in Geneva in 1995 for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. The concert will be on his birthday, 21 October, at Symphony Centre in Chicago. (Another concert will have taken place in New York at Carnegie Hall on 19 October). The World Orchestra for Peace is made up of the finest musicians on the planet, who volunteer to convene from time to time to deliver the message embodied by the orchestra's name. Solti did this: resurrecting a very 19th century, romantic and didactic purpose for music into the ravaged 20th century – and now the orchestra performs in his name, beyond his lifetime, into the ominous 21st. The concert will be conducted by Valery Gergiev, and feature musicians who were part of Solti's mission to encourage newcomers and to hand on to future generations what he had learned from his own masters. Two great stars, Angela Gheorghiu and René Pape, both of whom began the formative part of their careers with Solti, will be joined by as yet unknown young singers from the Georg Solti Accademia, a masterclass in bel canto singing which is held annually in Solti's Italian home of Castiglione della Pescaia.

But Solti did so much more: he made music of magic and quality, entwining power and clarity, that no other interpreter of his time – not even Karajan, Jansons, Ancerl, Böhm or Bernstein, in what is rightly considered music's golden age – could match. In the studio, Solti revolutionised the science and art of recorded music so as to democratise it at the highest – still unsurpassed – level of atmosphere and sound quality. And in concert, Solti is the only name one can speak in the same breath as those that dominated the generation that preceded him – astride both the second world war and the iron curtain – Evgeny Mravinsky in Leningrad and Wilhelm Furtwängler in Berlin. Solti was the true heir to their legacy on record, and their way of electrifying live performance through blending restless and rigorous perfectionism with explosive spontaneity.

Georg Solti was born György Stern, the son of Teréz Rosenbaum and Móricz Stern. At the end of the first world war Hungarians with Germanic surnames were encouraged to adopt Hungarian names. His parents kept the family's original surname but his father decided the children's names should be changed to help their careers. He chose Solti at random – the name of a small Hungarian town. Thus Georg kept the same initials, GS. In his autobiography, Solti describes his father as a businessman who "trusted everyone and was often cheated". Young Solti was admitted to the Academy of Music in Budapest, where he studied piano and composition, and thereafter became a repetiteur at the state opera.

But as a Jew, Solti and many others employees of the opera house were dismissed once anti-Jewish laws came into force. As is still the case today, it is difficult for young conductors to find work so Solti went to Karlsruhe in Germany, where he was hired by the great Josef Krips, who was duly denounced for hiring an Ostjude – a Jew from the east. In 1937, while attending rehearsals at the Salzburg festival, he was asked to replace one of Toscanini's assistants, who could not play because of illness. In 1938 the officials of the Hungarian Opera, having heard that Solti had worked with Toscanini, invited him to conduct a performance of The Marriage of Figaro with the Budapest Opera. The date was 11 March 1938. It was a great day for Solti and his family. Halfway through the performance the news broke of German troops marching into Vienna. The show ended and he never conducted an opera there again.

The Hungarian composer Antal Doráti heard of his young friend's dilemma and invited him to join him for two weeks in London, conducting for Colonel de Basil's Ballets Russes. From there Solti made his way home where, in August 1939, "at the age of 26," he wrote, "I said goodbye to my mother and sister." At Budapest station he was seen off to Switzerland by his father on the very day that war was declared. "I was never to see him again," Solti would write.

There are remarkable pictures of Solti during his wartime years as a refugee in Zurich. In those days people made photographs of themselves into picture postcards, and Solti sent home cards of himself posing in Alpine dress outside his mountain chalet. He described himself as "desperately lonely and depressed" as he waited for war to end, though he occasionally conducted the Zurich orchestra in the Kleine (junior) Tonhalle.

After the defeat of Nazi Germany, Solti was invited to – of all places – Munich. His decision to establish himself as a Jew among the ravages of the Reich was astonishingly foresighted; he was among the few to understand postwar Germany and Europe right at their inception, compelled by Winston Churchill's speech in Zurich inviting Germany and France to build a "new Europe" on the ashes of war. He also confessed: "Like Faust, I would have been prepared to make a pact with the devil and go to hell with him in order to conduct." Directorship of the Bavarian State Opera in 1946 was his first and crucial post. "It was a heroic time, both for Germany and for myself," he wrote. Lady Solti reflects: "People asked: 'But how could you, as a Jew, go to Germany?' I think Gyuri [short for György] felt: look, we're all young people in our 30s, and it's our mission to create a Europe in which that cannot happen again. What were [we] to do with Germany? Put a barbed wire fence around it? But he didn't go there as a missionary – he went because he was offered a job. It was also fortuitous – Germany was de-Nazifying, and it must have been an amazing time."

Solti moved on to Frankfurt, then London – succeeding Rafael Kubelík as director of Covent Garden in 1961, and by the mid-60s bringing the house to a zenith. Solti wrote later: "I have a British wife and two British daughters, and British I shall remain"; but also: "I am a committed European," He was never really settled; his orchestral career was centred on the Vienna Philharmonic and Chicago, and he wrote later: "My term as musical director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was the happiest time in my professional life." This was a Hungarian who as a refugee made Switzerland his home, then came to raise a family in London, had a house in Italy and an orchestra in America – a man without race or nation. Lady Solti says: "He hated the term 'cosmopolitan'. Let's say he was a man who had lost his family and his country, so that home was wherever his own family was, and wherever he was making music. He was a person of the world; with a deep sense of the world, and a belief in the new Europe, right from its very beginning."

It is hard to express what it is that elevates a great artist over a very good one, and impossible to account for the creative sorcery which enables someone like Solti to tower even above the greats, to achieve what he could with an orchestra, on record and in performance. There are certain composers on whose work Solti has stamped his mark with a distinction that has never been equalled, nor probably ever will be, so that his conduit of their intentions has become integral to the experience of listening to them: Wagner, Strauss and Mozart arguably – Mahler unquestionably. I remember sitting enthralled – even in adolescence, knowing little of the context – ear-to-the-speaker with my new edition of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony, bought with pocket money. And in concert: Solti's shattering Mahler Ninth at the Royal Festival Hall with the Chicago orchestra in 1981 left anyone who heard it dazed with wonderment. It is due almost entirely to Solti that Mahler's music moved from relative obscurity in the early 1960s to the sell-out position it now occupies in the performing repertoire.

Lady Solti is captivating on her husband's discovery of Mahler: "I think he recognised the sounds in Mahler as those of where he came from. He knew some of those sounds intuitively, the cowbells, they called to his intuition, and were familiar to him. He would say: this music is wonderful but we never hear it."

Just as Solti had understood the new Germany while most (in his and every field) were still mired in wartime thinking, he also understood the need to perform and record Wagner. Richard Wagner was seen after the war as the composer whose antisemitism and interpretation of Teutonic myth was adulated, some would say kidnapped, by the Nazis. Yet it was his music Solti now performed to a standard no one but perhaps Fürtwangler had achieved. (But then Fürtwangler was – albeit as a man of genius fraught with political dichotomies – conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic under the Third Reich.)

"Maybe," says Lady Solti, "he knew the full background and chose not to take any heed. Or maybe he just wiped all that from his mind when it came to Wagner. I honestly don't know. But I do know that people just did not talk about the horrors at that time. They were not looking back because they were looking forward with their duty to make a new and better world."

She continues talking about her husband "wanting to live every moment". This was, she says, "part, I am sure, of the survival thing he always had, like every Jewish-central-European of his age. He was Jewish with all that means in terms of the history of his generation – with an understanding of people and of survival that Anglo-Saxons have never really had to learn. I think the survival thing is crucial.

"He had a sense of the beauty in all things, something I would call spiritual rather than religious. He told me his father would pray when eating the first fruit of the season. I remember so clearly the special moment for Solti when he ate the first apricot, cherry or peach in Italy. He loved animals and birds and used to ask, 'How can humans kill animals and birds for food?' He loved listening to the birds singing in the trees, and he would whistle to them and they in turn would answer him, because of course he had perfect pitch. He loved the sea – looking at it and swimming in it – but disliked sailing on it."

He took pleasure even in the little things, and would be "ridiculously happy winning at games – ping-pong, tennis, cards or bridge, particularly if he bid a grand slam and made it. He loved trains and railway stations, and introduced me to the glories of station buffets, particularly the one in Lausanne in Switzerland and the Gare de Lyon in Paris. He had such an enthusiasm about everything he did and wanted to share everything – food, music, nature, jokes, literature. It was the same with music – the joy of working with an orchestra he loved, the joy of being with his musician friends, and the pleasure of working with the musicians around him and sharing the music.

"He was a working musician," Lady Solti continues, "fundamentally a working musician. Although he became a star he was also an artisan, working with and for the music. He used to say: 'No matter what statements I make, no matter who I know and what receptions I go to, I am first and foremost a musician – that is what I am: a musician at the service of the composer whose music I am playing.'"

Solti was known by everyone he met or worked with for a blend of striving and of perfectionism – for pursuing the unattainable, never satisfied with what he had achieved, however magnificent it was hailed as being. "He once said," says Lady Solti: "'If ever I tell you that was a good performance, you know I am not well.'". In his autobiography Solti describes how he learned from Fürtwangler – of whom he speaks as something like the teacher he never had – "that all serious artists are often dissatisfied with their work".

There was another riptide cutting beneath this dissatisfaction, this striving: "Gyuri used to say that the musician is the servant of the composer, and no one could ever be certain exactly what the composer's intention was, they could only try their best. Perhaps that was a reason he was never satisfied." Although he loved accolades, he always said that nothing in his entire career had made him happier than when he was playing the piano for a rehearsal in Salzburg in 1937, and felt a presence behind him. It was Toscanini, and Toscanini simply said: "Bene."

"Gyuri always said that no accolade in his entire life matched that single word from Toscanini."

In 1969 Solti became music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was in the windy city that Solti became so rooted in local lore that his image was used on posters to advertise both the orchestra and the Bears football team, under the slogan: "We both know a good score".

"If he had a musical home," says Lady Solti, "it must surely be Chicago." And yet, for a family with two daughters, "this was a compromise. I'm an only child, and he had no family – so here were these two desperate creatures, with two lovely little girls – but no family structure apart from my parents. We thought, in our innocence, we could do it all. For him, it was the music and the joie de vivre, and for me – well, I just hit the ground running – and I still am in a way. Initially, the girls went to school in London and Chicago but it didn't really work. So from that point onwards the schedule in Chicago was planned years ahead to incorporate school holidays, and we'd go to faraway places and the girls would travel with us. But in summer we would all go to Italy where the maestro had his studio in the garden and divided his time between studying and spending time with the children.

"People would ask: 'Where do you live? Where's home?' – and it was difficult to say. It would have been nice to have a little cottage with roses round the door but that didn't come into it really." Lady Solti throws back her head, laughing. "We were Gypsies, nomads – we always thought it would be fantastic to have some kind of amphibious, aeronautical caravan and trailer that could fly and sail to wherever we wanted. That would have been my dream."

For the last twenty years of his life, Solti engaged one man to be something like a master of ceremonies, an executive director who made sure that the conditions were right for the music-making, keeper of the gates marked budget and logistics.

Charles Kaye, now director of the World Orchestra for Peace, remembers being told: "I'm looking for someone who can look after all this" and thinking: "What can I bring to this? I'd worked with Lucia Popp, Nicolai Gedda, Askenazy – but Solti was God in this world."

Kaye gives a description of Solti at work: "He would look at a work he had performed a hundred times before, but was still excited to see a new, unmarked score. And he's start to mark it; first in pencil, then in red" – and Kaye produces, across the table of a friend's kitchen in Hampstead, a score by Brahms, thick with annotations and notes; a soft, probably 2B pencil, then the red crayon.

"What he did better than anyone else in the world was study the music, and turn his ideas into action. You could watch him working it out, having a hundred ideas a minute for a recording or a performance, the cast or conditions he wanted. My job was to enable him to work in the best conditions possible – what would Solti need in order to make this performance or recording the best possible – and send the shopping list ahead. Occasionally I'd have to say something like 'We'll never get that past Decca', but there was no saying no, unless there was a very good reason."

It is incontestable that Solti both revolutionised recorded music and set a standard of sound that has never been attained since. His Wagner Ring cycle from the 1960s was recently crowned by BBC Music Magazine as the greatest recording feat of all time. Solti assembled around him a group of producers and engineers who became known as "the Decca boys" under John Culshaw at a time when the British label was at its zenith. "At the time," says Lady Solti, "when television was new, and later with the advent of colour television and the development of video, there was also an excitement around what could be done for the gramophone after the advent of the long-playing record." A democratic urge was at work in Solti's enterprise – that the mass dissemination of music in the home should be of the highest quality.

And there was also science. John Pellowe joined the Decca boys as a young engineer from north London who "didn't make it to university" but was blessed with synesthesia – seeing music as a series of colours. Not a great musician, but instinctive about music at a time when Britain led the world in acoustics and gramophone equipment – Wharfedale, Kef and Quad. "The idea that we could make recorded music with breadth and width like that," says Pellowe, "enabled a whole new generation, a new era, in music. And Solti had a real passion for the studio – he fuelled the central tenets of what the philosophy of recording became. It was something primaeval – he knew what he wanted. Solti was fascinated by acoustics, by an acoustic space. He understood that the acoustic space can be just as important as the notes on the score or quality of the musicians."

Pellowe adds something the truth of which matters less than the fact that he feels it: "Valerie may disagree with this but I think he saw his recording career as more important than his concert conducting career. A studio is a studio, and Solti understood what that meant."

Pellowe would record with Solti in Kingsway Hall in Holborn, "a scruffy old place he loved to work in", and the Sofiensaal in Vienna, "an old swimming pool boarded over to make a dusty old ballroom, with a lovely acoustic, though a little small for Wagner". With his team, Solti established a system of recording with what Pellowe calls "the Decca tree" of three omni-directional microphones 10ft 6in above ground to capture the sweep of the sound as it flew over the conductor's head, then more directional mics to spotlight the woodwind and the back of the orchestra. "We used fewer mics than our competitors but I think to greater effect," he says.

Recordings were made, Pellowe recalls, in "long sessions, whole movements – not little slices like some conductors. Solti would play it back, listen while marking up his score, and go back to do some sections again."

But there was a human element to this: "Solti would talk directly to me, unlike most others. It was not the common situation, where you have the conductor talking to the producers who then relay the information. Solti consulted everybody; it was a team effort, and Solti was part of that team. And when it was done, he'd throw parties for all of us. No one was taken for granted. That's what made it special, and that's how he was the greatest influence on all our lives, certainly mine."

Pellowe went on to devise the revolutionary "constellation system", the creation of an electronic "stage shell" around an orchestra playing in a vast or outdoor arena but hearing itself as though in a perfect acoustic setting. He concludes: "Whatever I do is the legacy of working with Solti."

With its origins in an orchestra assembled at Buckingham Palace for Solti's 80th birthday in 1992, and a project at Carnegie Hall bringing together musicians from the conservatoires of America, the World Orchestra for Peace staged its first concert in 1995 in Geneva to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. But the timing could not have been more horribly ironic: Solti conducted a fine performance for the UN members and secretary-general Boutros-Boutros Ghali. Just a few days later, only an hour's flight from Geneva, UN soldiers delivered the people of their own UN-declared "safe area" of Srebrenica to execution squads under the command of General Ratko Mladic, currently on trial for genocide, and looked on as 8,000 men and boys were taken to be summarily massacred by Bosnian Serbs.

The international peace orchestra fared better than the organisation it celebrated. It was, says Lady Solti, "a notion that some thought untenable at first until Solti turned round during the first rehearsal and said: 'It works!' From that moment it became a gathering of the best and most committed orchestral players in the world."

It performed – among many other extraordinary concerts – Mahler's 5th Symphony under Gergiev at Krakow to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. And next month the orchestra marks Solti's birth in 1912. The concert takes place in Chicago rather than Solti's birthplace of Budapest but includes Concerto for Orchestra by Béla Bartók, the composer next to whose grave Solti is himself buried.

Clarinettist Larry Combs and horn player Gail Williams are husband and wife, and play for both the Chicago Symphony and World Orchestra for Peace. "It's such a thrill to play with the best of the best from all over the world," says Combs. "I sit next to a man called Viktor Kulik in the clarinet section – I speak no Russian, he speaks no English, with only the music to communicate – so that we understand each other perfectly!"

Combs recalls: "When we started, no one thought an orchestra of people who did not know each other could work at this level of quality – but it does, equally well with Gergiev as it did with Solti."

His wife, Gail Williams, says of Solti: "It's one thing to be a talented musician, as many are today, but they don't have a plan, like Mr Solti did. He had this bigger picture beyond the symphony or the opera itself. I was young when I joined, and he infused me with the greater colours of sound and his rhythmical integrity – he was like a metronome. He said what he thought and wanted, and made us think about that bigger musical plan. And his expectations were high: he had not only learned the piece before we first sat down to work but lived with it – and he demanded of us to have done the same."

During the months leading up to his sudden death in 1997, BBC's Omnibus programme made a serendipitously important film with and about Solti. It is charged with poignant exuberance rather than sadness; it bursts with Solti's wise effervescence, even in old age, perhaps especially in old age, as he returns to face the country he had left. Solti reflects and talks his way through a visit of homage to his grandparents' grave, a performance of music by children from his home village in the presence of its young mayor; he walks the corridors – and revisits students in the practice room – of his alma mater, the Liszt Academy. And he sits, at the programme's end, on a bench looking over Lake Balaton where he swam as a child.

He died a few weeks later. He is buried in Hungary, and the inscription on his grave is one word: "Hazat" ("has come home").


Ed Vulliamy

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Antonio Pappano: 'I didn't know what I was. Now I'm discovering my Italian roots.'
Conductor Antonio Pappano talks about the musical soul of Italy – and why he no longer wishes he was called Tony Smith. By Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad

13, Mar, 2011 @12:04 AM

Article image
Mariss Jansons: 'The notes are just signs. You have to go behind them'
The conductor talks to Fiona Maddocks about his Latvian roots, his heart attack on the podium, and why he’s never satisfied with his performances

Fiona Maddocks

05, May, 2012 @11:05 PM

Article image
Simon Rattle: Abreu deserves the Nobel peace prize
The renowned conductor says José Antonio Abreu should be honoured internationally for his achievement in devising El Sistema, the music education project, writes Ed Vulliamy

Ed Vulliamy

02, Oct, 2010 @11:06 PM

Article image
Fiona Maddocks: best classical music of 2016
Gražinytė-Tyla was the name of the year, Chineke! took off, Levit and Trifonov blazed a trail and ENO delivered opera of the highest standards

Fiona Maddocks

04, Dec, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
Fiona Maddocks’s best classical music of 2019
From Martinů to Mazzoli it was a vintage year for opera great and small, and inspired programming everywhere

Fiona Maddocks

29, Dec, 2019 @12:00 PM

Article image
Vittorio Grigolo: 'Opera is just like boxing or Formula 1. It's dangerous"

Last year, Vittorio Grigolo gave the Royal Opera one of the most dazzling debuts it has ever seen but the tenor that Italy calls the 'little Pavarotti' is no stranger to performing under pressure, writes Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad

10, Sep, 2011 @11:04 PM

Article image
Spring arts calendar 2013

The Observer's critics pick the season's highlights, from Bach to Bowie, Cannes to The Kite Runner and Almodóvar to Angel Haze

03, Mar, 2013 @12:04 AM

Article image
23 for 2023: Observer writers’ culture highlights for the year ahead
From Rachmaninov to pop reunions, Beyoncé’s tour to Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, Spielberg to Sam Smith, our critics guide you through the next 12 months

01, Jan, 2023 @10:00 AM

Article image
Fiona Maddocks’s best classical music of 2018
While the threat of Brexit loomed, the Royal Opera and ENO were among those with plenty to sing about

Fiona Maddocks

30, Dec, 2018 @9:00 AM

Article image
Lockdown one year on: soprano Natalya Romaniw on how Covid crushed her Butterfly
The Welsh opera singer was midway through her raved-about role debut as Cio-Cio San at ENO when lockdown struck

Fiona Maddocks

21, Mar, 2021 @10:00 AM